Josef Doppelbauer, European Union Agency for Railways: “Member states must finally think European”

Excerpts from an interview:

As head of the European Railway Agency (ERA), you have made it your task to compile a catalogue of all national rules in the rail sector. How many entries have you compiled?

We launched our initiative in 2016. At that time, we came up with 14,312 national rules. Today, there are still 868. Among them, there are still rules that we do not accept. So we have been able to reduce the number of rules significantly in five years. But that is not very meaningful. Because all it takes is one rule to block everything.

How many rules should the final catalogue contain?

As few as possible. In freight transport, the “Go Everywhere” principle already applies. With our approval, freight wagons can travel through all EU states. This means that there are no national rules for these wagons. In passenger transport, unfortunately, the situation is different. Here, we need to create uniform rules in order to be able to operate night trains flexibly, for example. If people want to travel to the seaside in the summer and to the mountains in the winter, the providers must be able to shift the traffic accordingly. This is easy to do in the air transport sector. If an airline doesn’t do enough business in Europe, it will just use its planes in Asia. But if a Polish railway company has problems with demand, it will hardly be able to use its wagons in another country.

The EU Commission has declared 2021 the “European Year of Rail”. It talks a lot about cross-border rail transport.

The Connecting Europe Express is a good example of what is really going on with rail policy in the EU. The EU is putting it on the rails to mark the “Year of Rail”. It was supposed to advertise cross-border traffic. But it needed 55 different locomotives to travel through 26 countries and across 33 borders.

The EU is therefore a long way from a common rail network.

Three years ago, our agency already proposed that passenger cars could be registered for all EU states under certain conditions. But several Member States blocked the move, in particular Denmark and Germany. There is simply a lack of a European attitude. Each state thinks first of its own situation and problems. The German and Danish authorities had justified safety concerns, but it would have been perfectly possible to remove them.

Unfortunately, the companies do not think European either. The share of international connections in rail traffic in the EU is in the low single-digit percentage range — an insignificant order of magnitude. When I point out this problem here in France, I often hear from the companies: “We have to focus on the other 95% of the business.” 

Another reason for lack of border traffic could be unnecessary language barriers. When a German train driver pulls his train into Warsaw station, he has to speak Polish at the advanced B1 level. A German pilot landing at Warsaw airport, on the other hand, does not have to speak a word of Polish. Why? 

The language problem shows very well why the railway plays only a minor role in international transport. Solving this problem is difficult because there are a lot of emotions associated with language. I also feel this in my work as head of ERA. The agency has to accept applications in 24 languages. We have to write our decisions in the language of the application. The reason for this is that even in the Agency, we have not managed to establish a uniform language regime. We have tried three times, and three times a member state has blocked a solution. You can guess which one.

Why does France refuse to regulate here?

For the French, their language is a national symbol. However, our work is not only about understanding, but also about a lack of ambiguity. Languages are not [easily translated] into one another. Take the English terms “safety” — which refers to freedom from risk — and “security” — which refers to external intervention, for example, by storms. In French, the word “securité” corresponds to the English “safety” and the French word “sûreté” corresponds to the English “security”. In German, however, there is only one word for both: “Sicherheit”. Therefore, we proposed to use the global lingua franca English as the technical reference language in ERA. For all administrative procedures, French could also have been used as the reference language. However, our proposal was rejected.

Sounds like your job has some frustration potential.

If you get frustrated easily, you are not suited for this job.

At the heart of a common European rail network is the uniform train control system ERTMS. This is to be installed in trains and tracks throughout Europe. But here, too, there are problems.

Our goal is that, thanks to ERTMS, a train can travel from A to B through any number of countries and only needs this one train protection system. At the moment, this is hardly possible. A Eurostar train travelling from Great Britain via London, France and Belgium to Amsterdam currently requires nine different train control systems. ERTMS could solve this problem. But there are still communication problems. Different EU countries have tried to transfer their old national systems into their own ERTMS versions. This has resulted in more than 50 ERTMS dialects. We are now all struggling to implement a uniform alignment of the system. 

What can happen if a train misunderstands the dialect of a local ERTMS?

There could be an unforeseen emergency braking. Then a disaster would be imminent.

How can ERA prevent incompatible ERTMS versions from being installed in Europe?

ERA has several roles when it comes to ERTMS. Firstly, we draw up the official specifications. Secondly, we approve the ERTMS equipment of the trains if the conditions are met. In the past, we have also rejected applications if the system contained features that we had not specified. Thirdly, we have to approve the tender if a train path is to be equipped with ERTMS. In this way, we can ensure that only compatible systems are installed.

For 20 years, the equipping of the EU rail network with ERTMS has been pushed forward…

The history of ERTMS goes back even further. I started working with the system in 1992.

That was almost 30 years ago and yet it is likely to be many years before all relevant EU routes are equipped with the system. Why?

The area was fragmented for a long time and now we have been fighting our way through this jungle for years in the hope that we will unify this uncontrolled growth.

The aim is for trains and lines throughout Europe to be converted to ERTMS by 2050. Do you still think this goal is realistic?


For a long time, EU states lacked the political will. Does it exist now?

Member States must understand the importance of cross-border traffic. We must succeed in shifting all road traffic of more than 700 kilometres from road to rail. For this, we need ERTMS. Because that facilitates cross-border traffic. But we also need further supporting measures. The Member States must finally think European instead of only pursuing short-term individual goals.