Is a new EU harmonisation directive going to be the railway's equivalent of the 'straight banana' debacle, asks Diarmaid Fleming.
When European civil servants thought up the idea of harmonising rail standards across the EU, they must have intended it to simplify the way railways operate.
For an island nation like Britain with only a single link to the Continent, ensuring harmonisation of standards or 'interoperability' of rail systems with the rest of Europe would seem to be well down the list of priorities in an industry in chaos following the Hatfield crash.
But with a sense of timing as appropriate as a Railtrack director's bonus, the industry has been ordered to come up with proposals to conform with a European directive just as it struggles to deal with its worst post-War crisis. That it is only being dealt with now is not the fault of faceless Eurocrats, but indicative of a lack of urgency on the part of government and the rail industry to implement the directive. In mitigation however, trying to marry the requirements of the directive and the way in which the UK rail industry is currently run represents an immensely complicated task.
Directive 96/48/EC on the Interoperability of the Trans European High Speed Rail System was produced in 1996 and signed up to by John Major's Conservative government and supported by its Labour successors. All member states should have introduced the directive by April 1999. The UK is one of a number of countries now facing infraction proceedings for failure to do so.
Grappling with the subject appears to have proved difficult for those in government charged with introducing the legislation, to be brought into force as a series of Parliamentary regulations. In keeping with the industry's delay-ridden schedules, it was not until April 2001 that the first draft proposals were presented - almost two years to the day after the legislation was intended to have been in force.
The consultation document which included draft legislation to implement the directive was circulated by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) in April. The document was circulated to a wide range of organisations and bodies involved in the railway industry, with responses requested by the end of July.
From this it was envisaged that legislation could come before Parliament in September with the regulations brought into effect by the end of the year.
This will not now happen. The range and detail of submissions is such that the team sifting through them at the DETR's successor - the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) - will need to consider them carefully and at length. No completion date has been given for this task, nor has an amended draft been published. The end of the year now seems the earliest estimate.
Andrew Crawford, who is leading the DTLR team, says the responses are likely to mean changes will be needed. 'There are a lot of responses to consider and these will require changes to the draft regulations, some of which may be substantive. While we would have liked to meet the original timetable a wide range of comments have been made which we have to consider. We need to get it right, ' he says.
The difficulties stem in part from the rationale behind the directive. While it could be assumed that something fundamental to the operation of railways across Europe would come under the remit of the EU Transport Commission, the interoperability directive has been developed and promoted by the Trade Commission. Its thrust, therefore, is to make trade in rail components easier, rather than make it easier to travel on a train from Cardiff to Vienna. Trade in rail equipment across the EU - anything from sleepers to highspeed locomotives - can be best facilitated if individual countries' railway operating standards and approvals systems can be replaced with a uniform system applying throughout the EU.
But trying to introduce legislation to unify a myriad of operating rules and regulations built up since the nineteenth century is no easy task. And when it is motivated ultimately by trade rather than transport considerations, further difficulties arise.
One senior industry figure involved in the discussions over the directive would not comment openly but said: 'There are major difficulties with this. It is one thing to produce a directive for the uniform manufacture of widgets across the EU. But you are dealing with rail systems which are immensely complex.
'Some of the directive appears to have been written by civil servants rather than people with railway expertise, ' the source goes on. 'There is a big list of queries and the regulations are going to need serious redrafting.'
Railway Safety presented Railtrack's response and organised industry-wide seminars to co-ordinate the answers. 'Some have suggested fairly detailed changes and there was a fair degree of alignment in the responses. But there are restrictions in what can be done because of what the directive says, ' says Railway Safety Europe controller Mike North.
'There are concerns about the transition from what we have now to the new regulations and how it is managed. Some are saying there will have to be changes or the regulations will be quite difficult to work with.'
Major difficulties appear to be emerging on a number of fronts.
Central to the directive are 'technical specifications for interoperability'. These define required standards for everything covered under the regulations - effectively every piece of railway hardware. But these are only at the final drafting stage.
EU member states are due to approve these later this month but they are not expected to come into force until the end of the year at the earliest. Until they are approved, the precise impact of the regulations is unknown.
Compliance of a product or equipment with the directive must have certified approval from a 'notified body' - organisations approved as being competent for such a task. Any company or group can apply, but appointing organisations competent in making assessments subject to a set of criteria which have not yet been drawn up has not surprisingly proved difficult.
Although expressions of interest have been received from a number of firms - believed to include at least one major consultant - none has been appointed yet.
But deciding who approves the notified bodies is another issue to be tackled. The UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) has been given the role, with formal appointments to be made by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), but indications are that already this is proving another stumbling block.
'UKAS is being expected to develop the expertise immediately to accredit notified bodies, but where is this going to come from?' says the senior industry source. 'It could take at least two years before their people are qualified to assess people.'
Concern over this is believed to have prompted approaches by the DTLR to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and the SRA to consider taking on the approval role. One industry source said this had been given a cool reception, with the HSE saying it would not have the resources.
'Discussions are taking place at the moment about setting up an umbrella organisation for notified bodies rather than having lots of different ones, ' says Rail Industry Association technical director Richard Gostling.
'The DTLR is looking at a fasttrack system for getting a number of 'temporary' notified bodies so they could be in place when the regulations are effective, probably towards the end of the year, ' he adds.
However, limiting the number of notified bodies could have its own difficulties. Little is being said about the prospect of defending a legal action should an unsuccessful company allege restraint of trade if its application was barred.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty for the industry is that, despite the uncertainties, no transition period has been allowed for.
Once the regulations come into force, the industry will be bound by their requirements.
While the current directive applies only to high speed lines, finding a workable arrangement has much greater significance.
Work is already under way on further interoperability directives for secondary lines on the UK network - covering most of the busier routes apart from branch and local lines. This, according to the DETR consultation document, 'will have a far more significant impact on existing arrangements for the construction, approval and use of the railway network'. Current high-speed regulations are likely to act as prototype for the framework which follows.
Getting it wrong this time round could mean the imposition of what some might call 'straight banana' regulations for the UK's railways. 'This is one for ministers to sort out, ' according to the industry source.
Directive 96/48/EC on interoperability, says the DLTR, is to 'facilitate the interworking of trains on the European high speed rail network and to assist [the] EC railway manufacturing industry by adoption of current standards'.
Parliament must pass regulations to implement the directive, approved in 1996.
These should have come into force in April 1999 and the UK faces infraction proceedings from the EU for failure to implement them already. The latest estimates for the regulations to come into force is the end of 2001.
The directive covers high speed lines only, defined in the UK as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), the Channel Tunnel, the West Coast and East Coast Main Lines, and the London to Bristol and Cardiff line.
The directive will require all railway equipment and rolling stock infrastructure on high speed lines to conform to 'technical specifications for Interoperability' (TSIs). These are being drafted.
Certification of approval to TSIs will be given by 'notified bodies' - independent organisations competent to approve TSIs. These will be appointed by the Strategic Rail Authority. None have been appointed in the UK, but will have to be in place for the regulations to become effective.
The directive allows for derogations or exceptions for work already begun such as the CTRL, but new lines or major upgrades will fall under the regulations.
Proposals to cover much of the rest of the UK network's busiest lines are being drafted and will follow soon.
Maintenance and renewals will also be covered in these forthcoming regulations.