Home » A common language for European train drivers: additional hurdle or solution?

A common language for European train drivers: additional hurdle or solution?

The European rail sector remains divided: should there be a common language for cross-border train operations for staff such as train drivers, personnel and traffic controllers? The remarkable thing is that freight association ERFA, which represents private and independent railway companies, and the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) and Transport workers Federation ETF use seemingly similar arguments, but with an opposing outcome.

The creation of a Single European Railway Area by better integrating the various national railway systems is a long-term EU target. The many differences between national railway systems, from infrastructure and signalling to rules and regulations, are making cross-border traffic more difficult, and harmonisation can improve rail across the board.

Making sure that national borders no longer constitute obstacles for EU-wide operations is at the heart of it, according to a EU Commission evaluation of the current Directive, which went into force in 2007. One of these obstacles is the fact that staff requirements and standards currently require changing train drivers and crew every time a train crosses a border. The Commission’s evaluation concluded that the Directive has contributed to achieving a certain degree of harmonisation and consistency with regard to the certification scheme of train drivers and has thereby contributed to maintaining the safety level.

However, the main problem of fragmentation has not been completely solved; the lack of detail of some provisions of the Directive, incompleteness and unclear purpose of some provisions, as well as by the freedom left to Member led to differences in interpretation and implementation across Member States and impacted the achievement of the objectives.

The patchwork of national certification schemes has been replaced by a certification scheme including a license with EU-wide validity and complementary certificates for rolling stock and infrastructure, and setting a framework with minimum common requirements for both license and certificate. Therefore, the European Commission announced in its work programme for 2022 that it wants to review the Directive 2007/59/EC on certification of train drivers.

Common language: additional hurdle or the solution?

Currently, European legislation states that locomotive drivers must possess a B1 level of language competency in every country they drive a train. This means that train drivers are only able to drive on certain routes. In case of a diversion of a freight train, for example when a line is closed for planned engineering works or during an unforeseen event, there may be no train driver available with a B1 certification in another language for a reroute through a different country, resulting in the cancellation of the train. This was the case when an incident in Rastatt, Germany happened in 2018, causing the line from Karlsruhe to the Swiss Basel line to be closed for all traffic for a period of seven weeks.

Construction work at Rastatt, which caused many problems for cross-border rail traffic | image: Thomas Niedermüller, Deutsche Bahn

In 2016, the Directive was amended to give the possibility of exempting train drivers on border crossing sections who drive only up to the first station after crossing the border with the neighbouring Member State from the B1 level requirements. In 2019, a legal basis was created for testing alternative options to the current language requirements in pilot projects. At the start of last year, the Commission published a call and collected input from stakeholders for the train driver Directive, among which the issue of whether a common operational language, most likely candidate being English, would be beneficial, but no decision has been taken on it yet.

The European Rail Freight Association (ERFA) believes that a single operational language, for international traffic is a necessary step towards an integrated Single European Railway Area, and should be part of the revision of the train drivers’ directive. This would eradicate the need for B1 language training for drivers and improve the flexibility, reliability and efficiency of the offering to customers across all rail networks, it advocates.

The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) on the other hand support keeping the general requirement of language level B1. They are also not in favour of introducing a single or an additional common European language, such as English, saying it would not bring any added value, but would instead constitute a massive disadvantage for the railway sector competing with other modes of transport. The organisations call a common language “an additional hurdle”, as it would require significant retraining of staff and service providers, and could hinder the shift from road to rail.

ERFA however points out that truck drivers operating in different road networks in Europe do not need to comply with a level B1 when crossing borders in an input paper some time ago. There are often no language requirements at all or very low ones. Aviation works with one single operational language, English, which allows a wide and open competition between all airlines by not putting at risk high safety standards.

Good communication, safe operations

CER and the ETF say that it cannot be ensured that the existing safety level can be maintained. “Safe rail operations can only work if communication between drivers and traffic controllers, emergency services, and other rail staff works flawlessly, particularly in disrupted/emergency situations. The rail communication arrangements in place already ensure this essential requirement”, they say in a statement. They argue that a multiple language regime at border stations has been working successfully for decades.

ERFA single operational language responds to the need for a common understanding on safety issues and standards. The deployment of a single operational language will reconcile the requirements for safety in the railways with the need for rail to be competitive at the supranational level.

Regarding exemptions to the rules, their views do differ, however. ETF states that the minimum of a “B1” level shall be required on the entire European rail network, whereas CER favours exemptions for countries with more than one official EU language and for border sections.

GSM-R communication in Switzerland, image: SBB

Innovation as a technical solution?

The CER and ETF also mention a possible future target system for railway communication, which could take into account all communications aspects and relations. They recommend a scientific study which looks into the communication needs of the railway sector, including field tests and pilots are carried out, but make no concrete plans or take the lead in this. In fact, there has already been a project with a translation tool, called Translate4Rail, a joint programme by the International Union of Railways (UIC) and RailNetEurope (RNE). This was financed from the Shift2Rail fund of the European Union, and the laboratory phase of the tool testing already took place between 2020 and 2021.

The tool was field tested on the Villach-Tarvisio-Pontebba route, crossing Austria and Italy, together with railway managers RFI and ÖBB and four railway undertakings: DB Cargo, Lokomotion, Rail Cargo Austria and Rail Traction Company. A tablet running the translation app was connected to the GSM-R network and tested on the open lines between Villach and Pontebba.  A real case scenario were simulated by an active loc driver and his counterpart, an active signaller. Since the completion of the test at the end of 2021, finishing the project as part of Shift2Rail, there has been mostly radio silence from the project.

More flexibility regarding the language requirements for train drivers could improve cross-border operations between European countries. Whether a technical solution or a common language, it remains to be seen how the European Commission decides to weigh the different opinions of the various stakeholders.

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