Ministers, Honourable Member of the European Parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me start by offering condolences to the families of the victims in last week's train crash in Germany, and the injured. Our thoughts are with them today.
Ever since the steam engine heralded the start of modern train travel in Europe in the early 19th century, people have dreamed of creating a unified European railway. As we know, things turned out rather differently.
Rail transport developed mostly within national borders. Each country tended to set up its own system with its own technical and operational standards.
Today, we are still living with the consequences. Two centuries later, Europe has a collection of national railways that differ in track gauge, electrification and signalling. But despite these technical obstacles, I believe that we have never been closer to making that dream a reality.
The idea of finally having a real 'European railway' to join up our continent - east and west, north and south - is still very much alive.
It is, in fact, my own vision for the future of European rail.
Rail plays a major part in our project to complete the trans-European transport network, where the aim is, indeed, to create a true single European rail area. But to achieve the seamless cross-border service we need, those obstacles must first be overcome. And these are primarily issues of national compatibility.
This is where the ERTMS project comes in. This modern high-performance system must be deployed on time if we are to create a unified railway area.
ERTMS sets a single signalling standard across Europe. It enables efficient control of trains. It ensures a high level of safety and optimised use of capacity.
It will allow trains to move across compatible national networks smoothly, with no delays for checks - or locomotive changes - at borders.
At last, this will mean faster and more efficient travel by rail, including cross-border - which needs ERTMS anyway to secure its long-term future. And safer too, because ERTMS will help to avoid many rail accidents. This is all good for citizens and business. I would go even further: ERTMS is essential for boosting Europe’s competitiveness and for the balanced and sustainable development of our wider economy.
But there is still a great deal of work to do, especially given that the deadlines that we have all agreed for ERTMS deployment are approaching fast.
Today, the operational state of the rail network is not very satisfactory. Different signalling systems increase costs and prevent economies of scale. They make international flows difficult and expensive to implement.
If rail is to compete realistically with other transport modes, particularly for freight traffic, then it is urgent to modernise and upgrade.
As you know, I would be keen to see rail - as one of several cleaner travel options - transport some of the freight that is now moved on our congested road network, as a way to help transport reduce its overall carbon emissions.
More than 20 national signalling and speed control systems now operate in Europe. Unfortunately, they are not mutually compatible - take the Thalys Amsterdam-Cologne-Brussels-Paris train link, equipped with eight different signalling and speed control systems and radio communication variants.
For trains to run on other networks not using ERTMS, the locomotives must be changed at the border, often taking at least 30 minutes. Or they must be equipped with different on-board systems compatible with the track systems used by the different networks.
It costs so much more to run trains like this. To add a new signalling system to a train can cost more than the original price of the engine, and there is more risk of breakdown. Either way, it creates distortions in the single market and impedes the free movement of goods.
These technical inefficiencies are a major barrier to the rapidly growing market in rail freight, where the greatest potential comes from cross-border traffic. They are also holding back the development of the wider European transport network.
That is not to mention the heavy losses caused to productivity and competitiveness. After all, rail transport should be more competitive than road over long distances - the bill for fuel and labour costs is lower.
But at the moment, these extra costs and delays make running many cross-border train services uneconomical, particularly for freight. That means more losses for rail as freight operators opt to move cargo by truck - meaning more congestion and emissions.
The expectation is for freight transport to benefit significantly from ERTMS, with substantial increases in cargo volumes, reliability and safety, and shorter journey times. This should make rail a more attractive option, a more competitive alternative to road, air and sea transport. Rolling out the system across the rail network will also create a strong home market and competitive base for European equipment manufacturers.
On deployment, as you know, in 2009 Member States signed up to a European strategy for progressive ERTMS deployment along the main European rail routes. A number of freight axes and rail corridors must be equipped with ERTMS by 2015 and others by 2020.
ERTMS is indeed becoming a reality in many Member States - but not all.
We do hear the concerns voiced on cost and technical feasibility by some Member States, particularly Germany. But Europe needs a single signalling system, for all the reasons I have just outlined. There is also no reason to believe that the system deployment would mean a loss in performance, or safety, as some have argued.
I agree that there are some tricky technical issues. But we think they can be resolved - many have been already. In some cases, the costs of overlaying ERTMS are perhaps being exaggerated - because I believe it is technically and economically possible to equip the key corridors. And over time, a single European standard will bring significant savings for railways in terms of economies of scale.
Deploying ERTMS does require money and time spent by Member States. We understand the political and economic sensitivity of this. So we are prepared to look at these issues and to show some flexibility to national requirements.
In return, there has to be more progress in ERTMS deployment -the clock is ticking. It is also unacceptable for individual countries to hold up the system's wider deployment.
Take the Rotterdam-Genoa corridor, a top priority for the entire project.
With ERTMS introduced throughout, we estimate that the volume of goods transported could be doubled by 2020 - the equivalent of one more heavy goods vehicle passing every 37 seconds. International rail traffic is already important on this route and is expected to increase significantly.
The four countries involved - Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands - have committed to equip the full corridor by 2015. But a lack of investment and progress on the part of one country has the effect of reducing the value of ERTMS deployment in neighbouring countries. This is the problem we see today. Although so-called STM has been suggested as a solution, the assessments made of it show that it is not.
Baseline 3 is now a stable standard - it will be formally adopted this year - and will be an attractive and cost-effective way of deploying ERTMS on railways with modern interlockings where replacement is not justified. So there is no excuse for not delivering ERTMS as agreed. While there may be technical difficulties, everything must be done to meet the 2015 deadline - and the time needed for tendering, installing, testing and authorising is running short.
ERTMS is not a system that can be deployed in isolation by just one country. After all, Member States decided together to press forward with deployment. So they must also act together - if trains are to be able to operate over the entire trans-European network. When that happens, everyone will benefit, from increased mobility, business and trade.
Failing to equip just one kilometre of a route could jeopardise rail transport’s competitiveness on the entire route, putting the wider objectives of the ERTMS project at risk. If that happens, then other countries suffer unfairly. There could also be a negative impact on the project’s credibility outside Europe where it has rapidly won acceptance.
ERTMS is one of the essential elements for "building the dream" of all those years ago, the single European rail area.
There is no time to lose: full and on-time system deployment is the best way to make our national railway systems connect together. We need to work together to make sure that this is indeed the case - so that we all benefit.
Thank you for your attention.