ERRAC celebrates 20 years of steering rail research in Europe

Dec 20, 2021 | ERRAC, Interview

Interview with new Chair Roland Moser

In 2001 ERRAC, the European Rail Research Advisory Council, was founded to help revitalise Europe’s rail sector and make it more competitive by fostering and guiding research and innovation efforts. Since then, ERRAC has welcomed all major rail stakeholders around its table: from manufacturers to operators, from associations, to The European Commission. They come from all forms of rail transport, ranging from conventional, high speed and freight applications to urban and regional rail.

On the occasion of ERRAC’s 20th birthday, we sat down with new Chair Roland Moser, Head of Technology of the Swiss Federal Railway SBB. Looking back, how has the rail sector changed, where are we going, and how is ERRAC keeping the EU Green Deal on track?

Looking back, what do you consider the biggest change in the rail sector over the last two decades?

The railway sector in Europe has changed a lot in the last 20 years. It was then regarded as a sector in decline, but now it is a sector that is growing and recognised as a vital part of the solution to our major strategic problems, notably congestion and climate change.

European people have become strongly aware of environmental issues, and the key role of transport. This has brought railways into clear focus as the most environmentally friendly transport system, being mainly electric and with very low emissions and carbon footprint.

Tripling of the high-speed railway network in Europe has allowed people to choose rail for their long-distance trips. In cities, rail is now often considered the backbone of the public transport system, providing last-mile services.

The continuing work to reform and liberalise the sector has made cross-border services easier to manage, with more technical and systemic interoperability – making more attractive offers to railway customers.

Rail has benefited from the surge in technical capability, the start of the digital age, with many production, operating and commercial functions almost unrecognisable from 20 years ago. This is of course an ongoing process…

Why do you consider ERRAC important to reach Green Deal objectives?

ERRAC’s primary objective is to communicate the railway sector’s common Research & Innovation vision to the European Institutions and other important stakeholders and to help shape a favorable funding landscape for initiatives that drive innovation via calls for projects like e.g. Shift2Rail or Europe’s Rail.

ERRAC was a key contributor to the innovation agenda of the new joint undertaking by laying out the sector’s vision in the Strategic Rail Research and Innovation Agenda “SRIA”.  Green Deal objectives like environmental sustainability and carbon free mobility were addressed in the SRIA and are now an important part of the JU innovation pillar.

As railway is the cleanest mode of transport, ERRAC’s promotion of the modal shift towards rail will support the reduction of emissions. This goes for all forms of rail, also definitely urban rail, as cities account for a significant part of our emissions.

But just promotion is clearly not enough. ERRAC supports the implementation of new light materials, new technical solutions for non-electrified lines and further increase of energy efficiency.

Model shift must be attractive to passengers, so reduction of noise, vibration and carbon emissions will be essential to increase social acceptance in urban environments and beyond.

Also, a smart energy infrastructure has to be developed, with on-board and line-side energy storage and charging technologies, also recovering a big amount of a train’s breaking energy.

Europe’s Rail, the largest EU rail R&I programme, came into force late November. What do you think are the biggest strategic priorities that need to be addressed by this new Undertaking?

This new undertaking with its two pillars, the System and the Innovation Pillar, is the vehicle of choice to deliver key enabling technologies for a bright rail future in Europe. The programme must find way to respond to both rising transport demand and rising pressure from competing transport modes.

There is a clear demand in Europe for more efficient, faster and cleaner transportation, alas the need for speed and flexibility tend to favour car ownership and air travel, especially between European countries.

Demand growth in freight with an increased demand for rapid delivery of higher value and lighter goods will drive the freight industry. Rail has significant advantages to exploit in competing for business, but this will require strategic investments such as the Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC) and rail infrastructure. I am confident that the programme helps the sector to minimise costs per passenger-kilometre or tonne-kilometre moved, maximises revenues from rail systems.

On the regulatory side of things, it would be beneficial if all forms of transport pay not only for the use of infrastructure they need, but also for the adverse impacts they generate.

In short, the programme will enable us to shift a significant number of passengers and goods towards a green and sustainable rail transport.

Can you tell us a bit more about what ERRAC is working on now?

Over the next three years, ERRAC will focus mainly on five topics.

A Manifesto of Future Mobility. This will be a short and catchy document that helps the sector to explain the key messages on mobility. It focuses on four main points, stating that railways are the first choice for mobility as they are Sustainable, Inclusive, Individual and the Backbone of Multimodal Transport.

A gap analysis between the initial Strategic Rails Innovation Agenda “SRIA” and the actual implemented Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking “ER-JU”. What important activities are no longer addressed? How could the rail sector do this work instead?

Help make the TRA Conference in Lisbon 2022 a success for rail by making sure rail gets the attention it deserves. This is done by coordination with other modes of transport, highlighting the importance of rail. By seconding ERRAC and invited persons as chairs, panelists and speakers and by assuring a focus on regional rail lines.

Collaboration with other modes goes beyond conference work, so will ERRAC give a specific focus on collaborating with road transport. Our partner organisations ERTRAC and ALICE could work with ERRAC towards leveraging the possibilities of the digital automatic coupling “DAC” for the whole logistics chain, thereby exploring the concept of pan-European “Single Unit Logistics”.

Last but not least, ERRAC was asked to collaborate with the European Commission to explore what could be a follow-up program to the actual ER-JU. Such a program needs to be put on rail in 2024/2025. ERRAC as a sector voice is the body of choice to formulate the rail sector’s expectations.

Looking forward, what does the future of rail look like?

The future will be much more digital and more automated. Today’s deployment of a European Rail Traffic Management System (TMS) is a basis towards a progressively more automated interconnected railway system.

This new traffic management system combined with Automated Train Operations (ATO) and other new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, digital information sharing and embedded sensors and telematics makes the system smarter and more effective.

Another major game changer will be the application of automation and artificial intelligence to our existing rail networks. Advancing interoperable train control systems will deliver more flexibility in operation and hence better real-time adaptation to demand, increasing capacity with adds to the economic competitiveness.

Also, real-time management of rail operations, in combination with concepts such as automatic coupling and platooning will greatly increase operational flexibility. And remote controlled or even autonomous trains are expected to increase productivity and versatility. I also expect great improvements in lifecycle management.

Digital asset management will be the base for digital end-to-end mobility for passengers and freight, backed up by a powerful and resilient telecom network.

In the future, thanks to digital asset management, maintenance machines will be more and more able to do the maintenance themselves, reducing cost, risk and lead time before the actual repair.

In the not-too-distant future, the customer will experience a whole new and comfortable “door-to-door” experience, be it for passenger or freight transport.