The European Union is going through a difficult phase right now with lots of challenges but also lots of opportunities to further strengthen the integration of the European states. Obviously there are also the critics, mainly nationalists who are looking for salvation in isolation, doubting the benefits of a common market and a common future. But the madness of everyone going their own path can be shown in many areas and railways is a particular good example. What does this have to do with telecoms? Bear with me for a minute and find out.
Up until 10-15 years ago, every country in Europe used their own system for electric train power and signaling. The only thing that railways seemed to have in common was the same track width and even this changes when you go towards Eastern Europe. In other words, trains crossing country borders have to have several power adaptations, several different radios the driver has to know and understand several different signaling systems and the list goes on. An interesting example are the Thalys high speed trains that operate between France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Four countries and four different communication and signaling systems, and all within a journey time of 3 hours. Just crazy but a result of national planning and implementation without neighbors in mind.
To some this might seem but a small inconvenience but image the same would apply when you cross the border with your car. And it actually did until the early 1990’s. Before, each country had its own mobile communication system and mobile phones became pretty much useless when crossing the border. In some instances it was even forbidden to take the mobile device with you to prevent you from using it in the other country because radio waves could not be made to stop at the border. Crazy nowadays but perceived as normal only 20 years ago. And then GSM came along, one of the first children of European collaboration in the then young European Community. And evidently it has changed every country in Europe and pretty much the rest of the world afterwards. But when looking at how radio communication worked in Europe before the days of GSM, it has had the most profound influence here from a cooperation point of view. If nationalists had gotten their way back then I wonder how mobile communications would look today.
Now back to railway communication. Also here, GSM was accepted as the basis for voice and data communication and new pan-European railway tracks that are partly funded by the EU have to have a common signaling and communication system based on GSM, or it’s enhanced flavor GSM-R (GSM Railways). The data and signaling part of it is called ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) and is used to replace national signaling systems. Thalys is one of the beneficiaries, using ERTMS as train control system on its journey through the different countries. The picture above recently taken in Cologne shows the ERTMS logo on a Thalys train.
Some where hesitant to join the club back then and some are hesitant to join it now. But if you are into telecoms history, here’s an account of someone late to the party, who has joined nevertheless and still made a profound positive impact despite of it. Enjoy and think about the story there and this blog entry here next time someone sees the end of the EU in sight.