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Brussels, 16 February 2010

Frequently Asked Questions: railway accident in Hal

Following the railway accident on 15 February 2010, several technical questions relating to the safety standards in force in Europe have been put to the Commission. Some information is provided below in response to the most frequently asked questions:

Has the opening-up of the rail sector to competition had a negative impact on safety?

Alongside the opening-up of the rail sector to competition and the separation of infrastructure managers and railway undertakings, a stringent regulatory framework has been introduced to ensure that a high level of rail safety is maintained while recognising the procedures and methods specific to each Member State in this area.

European legislation requires all Member States to establish independent national safety authorities. These authorities must ensure in particular that railway undertakings and infrastructure managers have implemented appropriate safety management systems, a prerequisite for the issue of safety certificates for the provision of services and management of operations on the rail network.

The Agency also produces reports at regular intervals on the safety of the European network and monitors the development of the situation in the different Member States. Indicators demonstrate that the opening-up to of the rail sector to competition has in no way had a negative impact on railway safety.

What are the European standards for automatic speed control systems on trains?

More than twenty different systems are used in Europe today to ensure the safe operation of rail services. This is due to the fact that the railway networks were developed well before European integration began and that railway installations have a lifecycle of several decades.

These systems, developed at national level, comprise components on the track which send information to other components on board trains. For the systems to work, trains and infrastructure must therefore be equipped with a compatible system.

The incompatibility of the different national systems poses a major problem for international trains – the Thalys, for example, has to be equipped with seven different systems.

For this reason, a single system for use at European level has been designed and developed and is currently being installed on major international lines in Europe. The system is known as ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System).

European legislation provides for the gradual installation of the system on international lines connecting the main freight hubs by 2015 or 2020 depending on the category. The main aim of the ERTMS deployment requirements is to enable locomotives to cross borders without having to be fitted with several national systems and to therefore guarantee compatibility which is crucial for safety.

As far as other lines are concerned (i.e. lines other than international main lines), each Member State is responsible for determining the pace of the ERTMS rollout depending on technical and budgetary constraints and safety requirements. No deadline is set under European legislation, as the first priority is the equipment of the international corridors.

Each Member State is also responsible for defining its requirements in terms of the equipment of rolling stock. Naturally, over the very long term, the ERTMS system is intended to equip the whole of the network.

The ERTMS specifications have been available since 2000 and have enabled the construction of lines equipped with ERTMS in Europe which have been operational since 2005.

Could a delay in the European standard have anything to do with the accident?

The causes of the accident are still unknown at present and investigations are under way. Even if it is found that the accident could have been avoided if both trains had been equipped with the Belgian speed control system, known as TBL1+, this has nothing to do with the European standards.

The ERTMS standard has existed since 2000 and the Rome-Naples line has been equipped with the system since 2005. A growing number of trains and lines are now equipped with the system in Europe. However, equipping an entire network such as the Belgian network and its entire locomotive fleet with one system, whether it be a national system such as TBL1+ or the European ERTMS system, is a process which takes time.

We understand that after the 2001 accident in Pécrot the competent authorities decided to install the TBL1+ system on Belgian lines and to equip SNCB's trains with this system progressively. This was a national decision which was not challenged by Europe.

Equipping an entire network and its locomotive fleet with an automatic speed control system – whether it be ERTMS or a national system – is nevertheless a process which takes several years and must be planned meticulously.

Have changes to the European standards resulted in delays in the installation of ERTMS on the track and on board trains?

The ERTMS specifications have been available since 2000. Some improvements have indeed been made to the software in the meantime, but this has not prevented the European standard being successfully implemented for certain projects. Just as a PC user may chose to buy a PC equipped with Windows Vista today or wait for Windows 7 or a later version, each railway undertaking and infrastructure manager must choose the most suitable time for installation. European legislation simply lays down a 'minimum speed'.

Moreover, given that SNCB and Infrabel chose to equip their trains and network with a national system, it is difficult to establish a connection with the development of the standards. The question appears to be related more to the time required to equip the whole of the passenger train fleet.

Was it possible to opt for the European system in 2001?

Yes, this was a possible option. Luxembourg made this choice, for example. However, this does not necessarily mean that all Belgian trains and lines would have been equipped by 2010 since, for ERTMS as for national systems, equipping all locomotives and all lines is a long-term process.

Was Belgium 'in line' with railway signalling legislation?

European legislation requires progressive equipment of the international lines connecting the major freight hubs. The first deadline for Belgium is in 2015 for the equipment of a route from Antwerp to Luxembourg. Initial studies and work are in progress, with the financial support of the European Union, and all signs indicate that Belgium will meet the requirements set out in the European deployment plan.

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