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The pressure on European railways is growing. Governments are seeking to shift more passengers and cargo on to the railways in order to reduce road traffic and meet their emissions reduction targets. However, many countries are already behind their own schedule for implementing a new pan-European digital signaling system. Digitizing rail operations means building a fully connected technology stack that is digitally controllable at every point, from the signals and switches on the line to digital couplings (DAC) on wagons transporting freight. The European Train Control System (ETCS) is a core enabler of this in Europe. It is supposed to replace countries’ legacy control and signaling systems and establish a common European standard. ETCS and automatic train operation (ATO) are the essential pillars of the digitization of the rail sector, and are the main subjects of this analysis.
Our analysis shows that in 2020, only 14 percent of the EU rail network was equipped with ETCS infrastructure, and at the current pace of growth, the proportion will be 25 percent by 2030 and 35 percent by 2040. This implies the urge to finally accept the digitization challenge. This study takes a closer look at three solutions, ranging from the short term to the long term, that can drive forward the necessary transformation of rail technology across Europe.
To decarbonize the transport and logistics sector in Europe by moving more people and goods out of cars, trucks and planes and onto trains, modernizing the rail network is imperative. However, this is a momentous task and the required investments are very high. Success will require the smart combination of different levers: state of the art digital signaling through ECTS and ATO where warranted, which has been our focus in this analysis; but also other necessary investments including greater electrification of rail infrastructure for hydrogen and battery powered trains, the targeted upgrade of areas where bottlenecks occur, and new rail infrastructure to increase capacity. Decisions should not be entirely financial. Instead, they require a careful assessment of cost compared with the benefit for society, including decarbonization, and must take the perspectives and constraints of all relevant stakeholders into account. Our study points out that it is essential to focus on the development of the overall network and of connectivity, particularly of cross-border traffic, and to stay away from isolated prestige projects.
Philipp-Marcel Strobl and Lothar Weichert also contributed to this report.