Written by Damiano Scordamaglia
The EU is faced with major societal issues such as rising transport demand, traffic and road congestion, security of energy supply and cutting CO2 emissions. Greater reliance on rail transport and improvements to the sector’s competitiveness and resource-efficiency could help tackle these problems. To this end, a new EU initiative for a public-private partnership, the ‘Shift to Rail Joint Undertaking’ (S2R JU), was established in 2014 under the Horizon 2020 programme, in order to boost and coordinate research and innovation in rail products, processes and services.
The challenges for research and innovation in the EU rail sector
According to the European Commission, the development of common innovative solutions for rail via research and innovation (R&I) activities is hampered by a number of obstacles. Besides the difficulties of ensuring broad coordination of the different stakeholders, integration of R&I efforts at EU level is also handicapped by fragmentation among national railway systems, segments and technical operating standards. The industry has therefore constantly to develop tailored products and solutions, leading to increased costs and lower operating margins. Moreover, the capital intensity of investment in rail, and long product lifecycles have contributed to limited private investments in R&I and low leverage of EU funding. Market uptake of rail innovations has been slow and its impact low.
The Shift to Rail initiative
In the Fourth Railway Package presented in January 2013, the Commission proposed a range of legislative measures aimed at removing administrative, regulatory and technical obstacles to rail interoperability and to market opening. Recognising that R&I is a strategic tool not only to complete the Single European Railway Area but also to strengthen EU rail, which faces increasing competition from US and Asian rail supply companies, the Commission proposed in December 2013 to tackle shortcomings of EU R&I in the rail domain though a new initiative: the Shift to Rail joint undertaking.
While agreement has yet to be found on the different legislative proposals of the Fourth package, the S2R JU proposal was strongly supported by the European Parliament and was adopted by the Council in June 2014.
The S2R JU was established by Council Regulation (EU) No 642/2014, based on Article 187 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). A platform to programme, coordinate and carry out rail R&I activities until the end of 2024, it is intended to answer the needs of rail infrastructure and technology. The initiative is funded from the budget of Horizon 2020 Research Framework Programme, and is subject to the objectives, conditions and criteria of this programme. It is a single dedicated administrative body, whose financial resources are jointly held by public and private partners, following a public-private partnership (PPP) model of governance. It is the third PPP in the transport sector created under Horizon 2020, after Clean Sky 2 (aeronautics technologies) and SESAR (air traffic management).
A joint undertaking is a legal entity providing a collaborative structure to implement specific EU research and technological programmes effectively.
A public-private partnership (PPP) provides a framework for cooperation between public and private actors. It enables them to share their skills, assets and resources with a view to carrying out activities in the field of development and cooperation or providing services or infrastructure. A PPP is often seen as effective to build synergies and identify and share risks with private partners.
Under the consultation procedure, the EP expressed on 15 April 2014 its strong support for the S2R JU initiative. Agreeing on its objectives, the EP considered the undertaking could contribute to a more competitive, efficient, integrated and sustainable European rail system. The EP also called on the Commission to organise by the end of June 2017 an independent interim evaluation of S2R JU, focusing on its administrative functioning and the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Shift to Rail’s objectives and priorities
The S2R JU aims to play a major role in rail-focused R&I, ensuring coordination and informing stakeholders. It will promote the participation of stakeholders from the entire rail value chain and from outside the traditional rail industry. It will help to achieve the Single European Railway Area, removing technical obstacles which hinder system interoperability, and improving the attractiveness, user-friendliness (including for persons with reduced mobility), competitiveness, efficiency and sustainability of European rail.
Concretely, the S2R JU shall seek to develop, integrate, demonstrate, and validate innovative technologies that uphold the strictest safety standards, and the value of which can be measured against a range of key performance indicators set by the Council, namely:
- reduction by 50% of the costs of the railway transport system lifecycle (developing, operating and renewing infrastructure and rolling stock);
- doubling the capacity of the railway transport system for both passenger and freight services;
- increase in the punctuality and reliability of rail services by 50%;
- removal of remaining technical obstacles in terms of interoperability and efficacy;
- reduction of negative externalities (such as noise, vibrations and emissions).
In pursuit of these objectives, the S2R JU will establish and implement a strategic master plan, in consultation with the European Railway Agency and the European Rail Research Advisory Council (ERRAC) Technology Platform. This road map was adopted in September 2014 by the JU governing board and endorsed by the Council on 10 February 2015. The master plan is structured around five long term priority research clusters, called innovation programmes.
The five S2R innovation programmes concern cost-efficient and reliable high-capacity trains (structure and on-board systems of passenger rolling stock), advanced traffic management and control systems, cost-efficient and reliable high-capacity infrastructure (track and energy systems), IT solutions for attractive railway services (inter-modal passenger transit) and technologies for sustainable and attractive European freight.
The S2R JU structure and budget
The founding members of the JU are the European Union and eight enterprises: six major players in the rail industry (namely Alstom Transport, Ansaldo STS, Bombardier Transportation, Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), Siemens and Thales) and two infrastructure managers (Network Rail and Trafikverket). Other industry partners, SMEs, infrastructure managers, operators, research centres and universities will have the opportunity to become associate members of the JU, based on calls for expressions of interest, the first of which was launched in October 2014.
The governing board, chaired by the Commission, is responsible for the strategic orientation, operations and supervision of the S2R JU activities, while the Executive Director is in charge of day-to-day management. They are assisted by the scientific committee and the states’ representatives group, with an advisory function.
According to the Commission, the estimated global budget of the S2R JU will be €920 million (for the 2014-20 period). The EU contribution to the S2R JU budget will amount to €450 million coming from Horizon 2020. Compared to the previous Seventh Research Framework Programme (2007-13), EU financial support for rail research will more than triple. It will be made available to the S2R JU provided that the rail industry commits to add a minimum own contribution of €470 million (partly in-kind). Additional funding could also be found from other EU instruments, such as the EU investment programme in transport, energy and telecommunications infrastructure, the Connecting Europe Facility.
The S2R initiative was welcomed by rail stakeholders both in terms of content and structure. Some of them have stressed the need to integrate other transport modes, take account of the urban dimension and give strong support to freight. With the first calls for expressions of interest (for selection of members of the scientific committee, as well as for possible associate members) having been launched, S2R JU is expected to become fully operational in the second half of 2015.