"Rail is growing but to grow further and more efficiently, we need to foster a more ‘can-do’ attitude..."
Earlier this month, our Editor Luke Upton, swapped the modest surroundings of the SmartRail World office, for the more salubrious setting of London’s House of Lords, to meet Lord Anthony Fitzhardinge Gueterbock, 18th Baron Berkeley – more commonly known as Tony Berkeley, chairman of the Rail Freight Group (RFG), Board Member of the European Rail Freight Association (ERFA), both hereditary and life peer and career-long transport advocate. A civil engineer by training, Lord Berkeley worked across a number of major international projects, before holding senior positions within the construction of the Channel Tunnel for 15 years.
We opened our discussion on the subject of ERTMS, which for those readers outside Europe, stands for European Rail Traffic Management System. Both RFG and ERFA support the deployment of ERTMS which aims to make rail transport both safer and more competitive by improving performance and raising capacity. ERTMS features two basic components: – GSM-R based on the GSM standard, but using different frequencies belonging to the railways, along with certain advanced functions. This refers to the radio system used to exchange information (voice and data) between trackside and on-board. And the ETCS (European Train Control System). A train-based computer, the Eurocab, which compares the speed of the train as transmitted from the track with the maximum permitted speed and slows down the train automatically if the latter is exceeded.
I asked Tony where Europe stands on ERTMS at the moment; “In the United Kingdom, Network Rail will deliver it, and its Chief Executive, Mark Carne has nailed his colours to the mast on this and is aiming to accelerate the implementation to provide the additional capacity that the network needs. But for continental Europe the picture is not as positive with the fear that there may be several national systems that are incompatible with each other, completely undermining the whole purpose of the system!”
I asked Lord Berkeley why there was such an issue in implementing ERTMS when in addition to the safety benefits, the additional capacity can support revenue growth; “Capacity growth is important, but many infrastructure managers do not accept that the additional revenue from more trains is enough to fund the installation of ERTMS equipment in cabs; hence the plan in many member states that operators should fund this themselves, although the main beneficiaries are the Infrastructure Managers. So there is still much to do to get one common signalling system across Europe, but there has been some positive news this week. I’ve just returned from a meeting in Brussels where a specification for ERTMS Level 3, has finally been agreed and that’s an important step.”
On the subject of freight, Lord Berkeley offered an insight into how some of the European countries are currently performing; “The picture is again mixed. France has lost 50 per cent of its SNCF rail freight in the last 10 years. Why? A mixture of poor organisation of maintenance schedules, inflexible working practices and trade union challenges have led to this. And although some independents are picking up the slack, some of this freight has moved onto the roads. In the UK though, rail freight is growing and we will see a doubling, potentially even a tripling of some freight carried within the next decade.”
“There are however, some interesting developments in the freight sector. We’ve seen some eye-catching developments in very long distance freight linking China with Western Europe, and in particular DHL doing some interesting work in this sector. Ultimately this comes down to cost and proving better value than shipping round to the busy ports on the North-West of Europe. Yet, there are other routes that could boost this, for example the Port of Constanța in Romania, on the Black Sea which could offer cheaper and more effective ways for rail freight to reach Western Europe.”
Few discussions on rail in the UK, particularly one taking place in the heart of British government can fail to address HS2, the proposed high-speed line linking London with the Midlands and potentially further north, I asked what the RFG’s view was; “We strongly support the development of HS2 and think it will provide vital additional rail capacity – a major benefit of the project and essential for the continued growth of the rail freight sector particularly with capacity becoming scarce on the West and East Coast Main lines. But there are two important points with HS2; firstly that HS2 should be designed to carry freight in the same way that HS1 was. Initially HS1 (the only existing high speed line in the UK linking London with the Channel Tunnel) wasn’t meant to carry any freight, but now carries significant quantities at night. In addition, in the future there may be high speed freight services which could go at any time if they can keep up with the passenger trains."
(See also: Professor Andrew McNaughton, Technical Director for HS2 OPINION: How the UK rail network can become the transport of choice, rather than a last resort.)
Our time is nearly up, so to finish I ask Lord Berkeley to sum up if he could the state of the rail industry at the moment; “Taking a Europe-wide view, as I do, I think the picture is pretty mixed. Rail is growing but to grow further and more efficiently, we need to foster a more ‘can-do’ attitude, which in many countries is lacking. Greater market liberalisation, transparency and the end to restrictive practices would help with this. There’s also potential with having a greater environmental focus and delivering more attractive options to customers. So I guess it’s a challenge of delivering growth through competition, really, which is a nice challenge to have!”∎