We cannot accept that EU funds allocated to rail would be diverted to other modes of transport

Interview with Mr. Philippe Citroën, the new Director General of the Union of the European Railway Industries (UNIFE)

European transport is at a crossroads. Old challenges remain current, while new ones emerge. Several efforts are required to finalize the domestic transport market still confronted with significant bottlenecks and other hindrances. The objective of the new White Paper on Transport approved by the European Commission in March 2011 for the transport sector by 2030 is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 20% compared to the 2008 level. The European railway industry has the necessary resources and can face these challenges. We only have to find the means to support railway transport even more. Many European companies are worldwide leaders in infrastructure, logistics, traffic management systems and production of transport equipments – but considering the fact that other worldwide regions launch major and ambitious programmes on transport modernisation and infrastructure investments, it is mandatory that European transports would keep on developing and investing to preserve their competitive position.

Railway PRO: Dear Mr. Citroen, you are just starting your mandate as head of UNIFE. What is UNIFE’s objective during your mandate and what new projects did you have in mind when you become the Union’s Director General?

Philippe Citroën: The European Commission with its recently published White Paper gave the rail sector a clear mandate to shape the future of transportation in Europe. The goals set therein are ambitious:  the majority of medium-distance passenger transport and 50% of freight transport in Europe are to be operated via rail by 2050 – there is a lot of work ahead of us to live up to these challenges. The European rail industry will have to stay ahead of the curve when it comes technical innovation, and keep producing cutting-edge rail vehicles that attract European travelers to take the train.
The UNIFE Presiding Board is setting the political strategy accordingly. UNIFE, as in the past, will play a major role in facilitating rail research and development at EU-level; but there are also serious political challenges ahead of us. For example, we urgently have to come to a Europe-wide solution for rail vehicle authorisation, and to facilitate interoperability with the help of the European Railway Agency (ERA); unlike other transport industries, rail industry and customers still lose a lot of time and money when getting any given rail vehicle authorised across European borders.
Another milestone for completing the Single European Rail Area as envisioned by EU Transport Commissioner Kallas would be to relieve the rail investment blockage in Central and Eastern Europe. UNIFE has taken several initiatives, in collaboration with the European Commission, to facilitate a recovery of rail transport in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, and will continue to do so.
Looking beyond Europe, the global rail market is rapidly advancing with markets emerging in regions such as China, the Middle East, North and Latin America, North Africa or Australia. We have a global market share of more than 50% and are facilitating the build-up of modern rail systems in those regions. UNIFE has to help creating the legal framework in Europe under which our members can continue to play a leading role in global competition.

Railway PRO: In July, many European railway industry players signed the Declaration of Intent on launching the Joint Technological Initiative, similar to the CLEANSKY initiative launched by the air industry. What will be the role of the railway initiative?

Philippe Citroën: The Rail Joint Technological Initiative –called SHIFT²RAIL – is a sector-wide initiative to develop European rail innovation and competitiveness on a large scale and thereby strengthen the European industry in global competition. The CEOs of the largest rail suppliers in Europe committed to this hitherto unprecedented initiative to step up common rail research and develop the rail systems of the future. In particular, the focus will be on improving capacity to absorb a bigger share of traffic, increasing efficiency and sustainability, and developing the most customer-friendly, safe vehicles. We are currently discussing the content of the program with the Commission – which will take the final decision, ERRAC and all other stakeholders across the sector.

Railway PRO: To what extent do you consider achievable the objectives of the White Paper on Transport on reducing polluting emissions by 60% until 2050, given the fact that the EU member states don’t seem to be aware of the importance of railway transport in meeting these goals?

Philippe Citroën: The fact that the European transport sector accounts for about 27% of GHG emissions in Europe, with about three quarters coming from road transport, I am sure has been fully appreciated by all governments across the European continent. The difference is in the means by which individual governments can answer the vast challenge of emission reduction.
We believe that the modal shift targets in the White Paper are particularly important to achieve the emission reductions necessary. Shifting for example 50% of freight traffic over 300 km from road is an important objective. Creating an environment in which rail freight can flourish is therefore a much better so-lution all over Europe.
The question is not whether or not the emission reduction targets are achievable or not – because we simply have to achieve them. In addition to facing the effect of climate change, we face the challenges of urbanisation, urban pollution, congestion, and energy scarcity. We believe that rail transport is the answer to all those challenges and this believe is shared by all governments across Europe.
Railway PRO: How does the railway industry answer the Union’s challenges launched in the White Paper?

Philippe Citroën:
The European rail industry will answer by producing the most cutting-edge, sustainable, comfortable, safe, interoperable, efficient, and economically viable rail vehicles for the European market. We understand the message of the Commission: innovation, competitiveness, job creation as laid down in the Europe 2020 growth strategy.

Railway PRO: Although in the past decade the railway industry developed competitive products, even superior to those created in other industries, the customers of freight or passenger carriers don’t seem to be attracted by railway transport (recent data show drops in the number of passengers in the past two years). What do you think would be the cause, the economic recession or the weak political support granted to railways?

Philippe Citroën:
Large-scale investments such as rail undertakings will always rely on political support. The study that we produced in 2010, the UNIFE World Rail Market Study, suggests that rail transport enjoys a high level of political support all over the world. We have evidence that the rail market in Europe will continue to grow in the next 10 years – despite all economic difficulties.

Railway PRO: Speaking about the political factor, what are the areas that the political class should insist on in order to ensure a balanced development of this means of transport?

Philippe Citroën:
Installing a proper rail system takes some time and substantial investment. Politicians know the long-term benefits of rail transport, which are environmental sustainability, safety, cleaner urban centres, and last but not least, economic development.

Railway PRO: Some pessimistic voices in the industry area say that the technological evolution is confronted with a slowdown in the development rhythm. Do you believe this vision is also shared by the railway industry sector?

Philippe Citroën:
The complexity, quality and technological advancement of a rail system always depends on the market conditions under which it is put in place – in recent years we have witnessed the emergence of new markets in which rather ‘basic’ rail systems are installed. It led to the rise of a number of new rail supply companies outside Europe, that are now in a position to challenge the champion of the global market, the European rail industry, more and more.
For UNIFE members this means that they have to stay ahead of the curve in rail research and development, and there is strong evidence that they are doing so.

Railway PRO: What do you think about the necessity of high-speed railways seeing as the majority of East and Central European countries are actually confronted with an under-financing situation in the railway transport  which, in the end, will also affect the volume of orders addressed to the profile industry?

Philippe Citroën: We are very happy that countries like Poland are leading the way in implementing important rail projects by launching a high speed rail project amongst many other significant developments. Yet, rail under-investment in Central and Eastern Europe is one of UNIFE’s political priorities for the coming years. Statistics show a very low level of absorption of funds for rail in Central and Eastern Europe.
We cannot accept that EU funds allocated to rail would be diverted to other modes of transport. On the other hand there is evidence that the arguments for rail I outlined above – sustainability, freedom from pollution and congestion, economic development – are increasingly being heard in the transport ministries in Central and Eastern Europe. I am not saying it will be easy, but still we are confident that in the long run, decision-makers in Bulgaria, Romania, and other East European countries will increase investment in rail transport.
We furthermore think that best use needs to be made of European funds. The European Union provides substantial amounts of money in particular for the Central and Eastern European member states that could use the money to radically overhaul their rail systems whilst receiving sufficient funding. It is a unique opportunity but at the moment it is not seized – as surprising as this might seem. Funds are available but not invested. UNIFE supports the idea of setting up dedicated rail investment agencies in those countries where absorption is a problem. Such an agency should be relatively small, efficient and competent.

Railway PRO: One of the European Union’s directions is to set-up a single European railway area. What are the hindrances from the industry point of view for meeting this objective?

Philippe Citroën: One of the biggest challenges for realising this vision is of course the technical harmonisation of rail systems in Europe in order to create interoperability. UNIFE has strongly supported initiatives that can facilitate this, such as making interoperable signalling (ERTMS) mandatory on European rail corridors (TEN-T). There is still a lot of work to be done; especially when it comes to rail vehicle authorisation across European borders, where we are working closely with the European Railway Agency.

Railway PRO: Is the adaptation of the ETCS system to European networks enough to develop this single European railway area?

Philippe Citroën: It is an essential element for achieving it – but ERTMS has benefits even beyond making the different European systems interoperable. It makes rail traffic more efficient, as it allows for more trains to be operated on a given track with higher speed. It also represents another leap in safety, as infallible safety systems are installed that override the human factor.

Railway PRO: What are the strong and weak points of the European railway industry in international competition?

Philippe Citroën: The strong point of the European rail industry is that we are at the forefront of innovation, competitiveness and produce the most energy efficient, reliable and best performing vehicles.

[ by Elena Ilie ]
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