European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS): An EU industrial programme to raise railway competitiveness

Briefing 17-12-2019

In recent decades, the European Union has been promoting rail as one of the main pillars of its transport decarbonisation policy. This is likely to be even more the case with the European Green Deal and the ambitious emission reduction targets proposed recently by the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. However, in order to contribute effectively to the decarbonisation of transport, railways must offer a harmonious, efficient, fast and safe service. Whereas over time the EU Member States had each developed their own railway signalling systems, the EU launched an industrial project to develop and deploy a single control, command and signalling system, known as the European rail traffic management system (ERTMS). The aim was to improve rail technical compatibility, efficiency and competitiveness. Since the late 1990s, the EU has been working on a regulatory framework, technical standards and ERTMS deployment plans. Given the scale of investment required, the EU has also allocated funding to the project through the Connecting Europe Facility and the EU structural and investments funds. ERTMS deployment is also supported by the active involvement of EU rail operators, infrastructure managers and the supply industry and the first commercial lines using ERTMS were opened in 2005. Although it offers benefits to both the rail sector and passengers, ERTMS still faces challenges, the greatest being low and patchy development, insufficient funding and coordination between Member States and slow migration from national legacy systems to ERTMS. Recent announcements of ERTMS full-scale deployment plans and commitments in Europe could be read as a sign that ERTMS is increasingly perceived as a top priority.