Rail should serve as model for smooth and inclusive transition to digital age

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EESC calls for strong EU budget commitment matched by Member State and private investment

The EESC wants to see the roll-out of the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS) speeded up and proposes a Commission-led initiative to raise the EUR 100 billion investment needed. It is calling on social partners and governments to ensure a smooth and socially just transition by anticipating the impact of automation and digitalisation, including on educational needs. Safety considerations must play a part in all planning and implementation.

Digitalisation has the potential to make railway transport more efficient and convenient for both passengers and freight. There are some obstacles to overcome, however, on the way to a digitalised railway system. In an own-initiative opinion, the Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI) at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) looked at an inclusive sectoral transition to a digitalised rail sector.

Climate change and the population's growing awareness of the need to protect their environment are – fortunately – leading more people to use railways instead of their own cars. However, customer expectations are high and new ideas need to be introduced.

Digitalisation can be a driver for making rail transport more efficient and more convenient. In order to accelerate digitalisation, it is important to also dramatically accelerate the deployment of the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which is the centrepiece of the EU's digital railway strategy, said Alberto Mazzola, rapporteur of the opinion, which was adopted at a recent EESC plenary session.

We propose that the required investment of more than EUR 100 billion be pursued through a Commission-led initiative, with a strong EU budget commitment, backed by concrete support from Member States and private investors.

EU and national funds should also guarantee adequate EU support for all sections of the rail system and for the completion of an effective European rail network. The Connecting Europe Facility needs to be continued and expanded beyond 2020.

Connectivity is key to the full realisation of the European Single Digital Market and digitalisation of railways. Further digitalisation therefore requires good cooperation between players in both railways and telecommunications. Rail could become the backbone for developing the mobility aspect of a European Digital Identity through a regulatory environment that drives competition and innovation, stressed Mr Mazzola. The new 5G network represents a great opportunity for rail transport because it makes possible the Internet of Things and better real-time information.

Transition must be smooth and fair – Education is key

Development of the technical and regulatory framework, in full respect of the social dialogue, should also be top of the agenda. The EESC considers it essential that Europe's social partners – the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF), the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) and the European Rail Infrastructure Managers Association (EIM) – establish a proactive, transparent dialogue in which they decide on joint projects and anticipate and mitigate the impact of automation and digitalisation, thereby ensuring a fair transition, stressed Co-rapporteur and CCMI delegate Guy Greivelding.

The EESC also encourages fruitful dialogue and cooperation between national education sectors and business, in order to prepare a workforce of the future through training and retraining of employees and trainers with digital skills.

Improved full-service mobility solutions will bring Europeans closer together

Mobility plays a special role in European cohabitation. The better connected we are in Europe, the greater the chances of a European identity developing. Rail transport plays a major role in this and should therefore be given priority at EU level.

An important concept is that of Mobility-as-a-service – MaaS, which involves a shift from private transport to mobility solutions as a service by offering travellers concrete solutions for door-to-door mobility. We encourage rail to work with other public transport modes to create a comprehensive and interoperable Mobility-as-a-service – MaaS framework, ensuring affordability of – and accessibility to mobility and public transport for all citizens, said Mr Mazzola.

Some of Europe's railways, working with leading ticket vendors, have already launched a common Full Service Model to create an open, plug-and-play IT framework for the distribution of rail tickets instead of bilateral IT solutions between distributors and rail service providers.

Security must play major role even during the transition period

The digitalisation and robotisation of Europe's transport sector not only provide new business opportunities for European industry and help to make the transport system more efficient, they also expose rail systems to cybersecurity risks.  

Throughout the entire transition phase towards a digitalised railway system, it is important to consider the security aspect and to embrace robust cybersecurity measures, including anticipating possible cyberattacks. The EESC recommends stronger collaboration between the EU Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) and the EU Agency for Railways (ERA) on this front.