ERTMS and Infrastructure: Rail Strategy in Portugal

March 11, 2015

Rail offers a sustainable mode of transport to societies across the globe. Yet in Europe, the introduction of ERTMS has stalled. Discover Portugal's journey towards ERTMS and the strategy behind its investment in railways.

Birds-view of Dom Luís I Bridge in Porto Portugal

The Eurozone debt crisis affected a lot of things in Portugal. One significant set-back was the postponement of a high-speed rail project, as well as other investments of strategic importance for the country. It has delayed the development of a railway connection to major national ports, which would likely have led to important synergies being established between the country’s ground transportation and shipping capabilities.

These issues are of utmost importance to the national scene and thus were the object of intense discussion during the Iberian Railway Development Conference, held this month in Lisbon. Railways offer sustainable mobility and play a significant role in determining the economic growth of the overall infrastructure development.

It is certain that rail infrastructure investments require a large chunk of upfront capital. However, they offer lucrative potential benefits that would justify any initial investment through strong medium and long-term returns. There are two matters of significant importance to consider here: firstly, railway is the most efficient means of land transportation, more efficient than air freight even. Secondly, new technologies now implemented in parts of Europe make the use of rail transportation even more attractive, significantly reducing the infrastructure costs and, consequently, the industry’s operation and maintenance costs.

Europe is at the forefront of railway technology, with multiple areas of growth in Germany, France and the United Kingdom in particular. From this ongoing technological advancement, striking examples of progress have emerged: for example, the ERTMS system (European Railway Traffic Management System), an initiative backed by the European Union to enhance cross-border interoperability and the procurement of signaling equipment, through the creation of a single pan-European standard for train command and control systems.

Along with other relevant advances, this system makes extensive use of secure communications via the GSM-R network – a wireless-communication standard for railway networks. Also, there are other systems that make use of GPS systems to identify the position of trains. These offer a cost-efficient inter-operable replacement for existing interlocking systems, reducing operational dependency on traditional terrestrial systems.

All these new technologies have a common goal: to improve rail efficiency and cost-effectiveness, and prepare a transport system that is critical for both economic progress and for future mobility challenges. In this way, the initial investment required to bring such improvements to Portugal’s rail infrastructure could be justified through the delivery of a more strategic and sustainable long-term approach, driving industrial economic growth, and paying for itself in the medium-term by reducing rail operating costs.