Network Rail claim that they are obliged to introduce a GSM-R network covering all their track by a European Union law (Directive 96/48).

Directive 96/48/EC has been incorporated in UK law by Statutory Instrument 2002 No 1166, The Railways (Interoperability) (High-Speed) Regulations 2002. Relevant documents can be found on the Department for Transport website (in HTML, PDF, and Word).

The GSM-R network is mandated by the European Union for so-called TEN routes, and also for lines that cross or share track with TEN routes. TEN stands for Trans-European Network, a term first used in the Treaty of Rome Article 129b to cover a wide variety of networks, including road, ferry, and communications. The term is not used in Council Directive 96/48/EC - the expression high-speed lines (defined basically as lines equipped for speeds of 200 kph or more - that is, 125+ mph) is used instead.

A similar Directive on the interoperability of the conventional, ie non-high-speed, trans-European rail system came into force in April 2001 (Directive 2001/16/EC).

There are four TEN routes in the UK mainland: the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the part of the Channel Tunnel that falls within UK jurisdiction, the West and East Coast Main Lines, and the Great Western Main Line between London and Bristol/Cardiff.

In the Treaty of Rome, and in the Directives themselves, 'interoperability' meant what most people would understand by the term - that is, the ability for trains from one EU country to run on tracks in another. Both Directives are summarised on this EU Web page. Here is a quote from it (our emphasis):

The objective of these two directives is to narrow down the divide so that international trains can provide a better, completely safe service when they change national networks.

Here's another quote from the home page of the European Rail Traffic Management System:

Over the past decade, industrial giants and European governments have strived to attain rail interoperability, so that trains can cross borders without stopping.

Indeed, the standard letter sent by Network Rail to notify residents of a planned mast states that the purpose of the European directive is "to ensure that trains can safely travel from one country to another".

Increasingly, however, interoperability is construed as standardisation, regardless of whether any cross-border traffic will ever occur. The benefits of interoperability in this sense, the EU believes, will come from “more open, competitive procurement”.

However, the team responsible for ERTMS implementation in the UK clearly aren't interested in such savings: “To those rail pundits who advocate buying standard ERTMS products 'off the European shelf', the ERTMS team have a simple response - not just yet!” This comes from the December 2003 issue of ERTMS news, (160KB PDF) from the SRA's website. Clearly, it would be more sensible to say not just yet to ERTMS! Fairly typically, the file name, ERTMSNewsletterJan03.pdf, is somewhat misleading! Here's another very worrying quote from the ERTMS team:

Level 2 [of ERTMS, the version Network Rail is opting for] is still being developed and tested throughout the EC on pilot lines. Economic viability, standards development and ownership, certified product availability and funding are all areas currently under discussion at European level.

The Health and Safety Executive report, Train Protection - Review of economic aspects of the work of the ERTMS Programme, also talks of “the dangers of a British ERTMS which is so different from continental design that many supply-chain benefits are lost”.

So Network Rail, by pioneering this technology, is throwing away its one possible advantage to the UK - "more open, competitive procurement" for standardised products! Have they learnt nothing from the WCML modernisation programme?

The standards applying to TEN routes are broken down into a number of areas or sub-systems, including rolling stock, infrastructure, maintenance, etc; the sub-system under which GSM-R falls is control-command and signalling. For each sub-system, there is or will be a Technical Specification for Interoperability (TSI).

It is possible to gain 'derogation' (ie exemption) from one or more provisions of any TSI. However, derogation from one provision does not in itself entail derogation from any other provision.

It is also possible to apply for derogation on the grounds of cost. The budgeted cost of the GSM-R network itself is £171 million (Supplementary Information to the 2000 NMS, page 24 - see above), but the primary reason for implementing it (rather than a simpler, cheaper, less intrusive alternative) is that it also forms the infrastructure for ERTMS (see above). ERTMS is currently (May 2004) budgeted to cost £4.28 billion. The Strategic Rail Authority is distinctly tepid about ERTMS's contribution to safety (see above) and is also dubious about the operational performance gains that ERTMS is supposed to bring (the SRA regards its "lack of capacity and resilience as a major technical risk").

Has Network Rail, or the Department for Transport, sought exemption from the control-command and signalling TSI?

The answer is “Yes”, but only in respect of one UK line - and the one line that is exempt is (believe it or not!) the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, because it has to be compatible with the Channel Tunnel, which itself uses a non-GSM-R signalling system. This extraordinary fact appears on the Strategic Rail Authority's website. A written answer from the EU to Caroline Jackson, MEP for the South-West, confirms it: the only section of rail for which the UK has sought derogation from European railway interoperability standards is the only section of UK rail that interoperates with European railways.

In Clause 7 of the Regulatory Impact Assessment (also on the DfT website) it is stated that:

It is important to note that the Directive does not require works to comply with the TSIs to be undertaken; the obligations only arise when projects to build new high-speed lines, or to upgrade them for high-speed, are undertaken.

Since all the UK TEN lines have been high-speed routes (ie capable of handling speeds of 125mph and above) for quite a long time, another question is: what's forcing Network Rail to comply with the TSI now?

Here's a quotation from an excellent article called ERTMS: can it be made cost-effective?, published in the July 2004 issue of Modern Railways:

Up here in our little offshore island, where interoperability is not a practical issue, there is a tendency to assume that all the European railways are mad keen for ERTMS. They are not.
DB (German Rail) has taken the line that ERTMS brings no domestic benefit so that if European law decrees its fitment, Europe can pay. According to informed sources, the head of SNCB (Belgium Railways) described ERTMS as 'developed by subalterns, with no leadership, no business case and no migration strategy'.

According to the December 2003 issue of ERTMS news (see above), Italy plans to use Level 2 ERTMS on new high speed lines only, and neither France nor Germany have firm dates for implementing it at all. They obviously have more sense than to pioneer an unproven committee-designed technology on this scale! Only Austria and Bulgaria are said to have implemented Level 1 (a simpler version of) ERTMS.

If the EU really did intend to enable all trains in all countries to operate on all tracks, the costs involved would be staggering: the 'loading gauge' used varies from country to country, and the UK in particular is different from the others; in fact, the UK is exempt from the TEN loading gauge standards. (“The railway loading gauge is a series of height and width profiles above the rail tracks that govern the physical dimensions of a railway vehicle” - source: Highways Agency Guide to Freight.) Continental rolling stock is taller and (in the case of freight wagons) wider than UK rolling stock, and British platforms are much higher than the continental equivalent. Many of Britain's canopies, overhead power supplies, bridges, tunnels, etc, and all of our station platforms, would have to be replaced or modified to accommodate standard continental rolling-stock, while passengers on UK trains in Europe would have to jump up or down to get on or off at stations.

In any case, trains couldn't get safely from one side of the Channel to the other by rail, since their new GSM-R technology wouldn't work on the Rail Link or in the Channel Tunnel itself.