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Digitalisation, urban mobility and the future of European railways

Everything is going digital, why should railways be an exception?

Guest Article Philippe Citroën (UNIFE Director General)

February 2020

Philippe Citroën (UNIFE Director General)
Photo: UNIFE

Everything is going digital, why should railways be an exception? As we face growing climate change and a move towards urbanisation that has the potential to exacerbate it, the digitalization of the rail sector will ensure the transformation of rail transport, the greenest mode of mass transportation, into the backbone of mobility, thus contributing to the ‘Green Deal’ which is part of the mandate of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Presented in December 2019, one of its objectives will be to shift 75 percent of freight traffic from road and aviation to rail and inland waterways by 2050. End customers, passengers and freight alike, will only begin to prefer rail when it is the most accessible and efficient option. This will require the implementation of new adaptable rail solutions and the fast deployment of payment, automation and communication technologies that will allow them to quickly, frequently, affordably and knowledgeably use rail transport as the preferred mode of their daily travel and shipments.

This is critical as transport is the sector that currently emits second most in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, surpassed only by energy production. It is responsible for nearly 24 percent of Europe’s emissions. Transportation is also the only sector that has increased its emissions on the continent over the past 20 years. Road transport is the biggest polluter, with 40 percent of those road emissions being emitted in urban and suburban areas. However, rail does not conform to this trend.

Rail is the only mode of transport that has diminished its emissions while increasing the number of passengers. With its high capacity and limited emissions compared to road transport, rail has the potential to get millions of cars out of the urban and suburban areas in which they create significant traffic congestion that reduces mobility and drastically increases emissions that affect the health of both citizens and our planet. This inherent value makes the rail sector a crucial ally in the effort of President Ursula von der Leyen and her Commission to make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050.


Investment in digital systems

Building extensive digitised rail networks is an executable objective to that end. Using new technologies like automation, big data, artificial intelligence and next-generation telecommunication solutions, we can create an attractive mobility paradigm centred on rail and its widespread infrastructure. Digital solutions will make it possible for users to easily pay for rides, routing and planning trips and find last-mile transit solutions at stops. It will also allow Europe to efficiently plan services that can optimally synchronise urban, suburban and mainline rail to make it more convenient than other more carbon-intensive alternatives like personal vehicles. This will permit increasingly inhabited municipalities to enjoy a renewed city planning in order to benefit from greater economic growth and more social cohesiveness.

To make this vision a reality, the EU will need to craft a truly interoperable Single European Rail Area and properly invest in, and deploy, the digital systems that will enable it. The widely – but not yet universally – deployed ERTMS is one solution that UNIFE has identified as a key enabler to allowing greater and more seamless rail travel across Member States. Its widespread usage will be the foundation for the adoption of upcoming ERTMS game changers like ATO, ETCS Level 3, next-generation telecommunication and satellite positioning systems being developed, or already developed, through Shift2Rail projects. This private-public partnership, led by its Executive Director Carlo Borghini, has made significant strides towards these technologies and should be extended as Shift2Rail II under the EU scientific research initiative ‘Horizon Europe’. Permitting the programme’s continued operation would help fund essential research and innovation that will lead to new technologies that will make rail even more effective during the ongoing ecological transition.

UNIFE looks forward to partnering with the European Commission and the other EU institutions during this new mandate. Our sector has much to bring to the table as the Commission crafts an ambitious ‘European Green Deal’ that will also make an economy that works for people. Our association urges policy makers to work alongside the European rail supply industry to digitise the railways and bring the benefits even more into citizens’ everyday lives.

UNIFE will be present at InnoTrans 2020, please join us to learn more about the digitalization of our sector, the future of urban rail, and much more.