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Standardisation could spell chaos

Plans to harmonise European railway standards could cause chaos in Britain.

While Britain's railway industry tries to deal with its worst crisis for decades, further problems are on the way in the form of European legislation. A largely unknown tranche of new European Union (EU) laws is rolling into place and is expected to have a massive impact on the industry over the next decade.

Railway interoperability may not be the stuff of pub conversations, but over the past month it has become a topic of increased interest in the boardrooms of companies across the rail industry.

A consultation document issued by the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on 30 April gave the industry until the end of this month to respond to plans to harmonise all the EU's high speed rail systems. The plan covers everything from rail and rolling stock to signalling. And this is just the beginning: proposals to include other primary lines covering most of the country's network are just around the corner.

Like many of the trains which ply Britain's rail network, the legislation is not running to schedule, leading to increased urgency about implementing the relevant European directive, 96/48/EC.

Brussels has already instituted 'infraction' proceedings against Britain for failure to implement the directive by April 1999, the originally envisaged date for the directive to come into force across the EU. Britain is not alone, however, with most countries struggling to meet the timetable.

But further delays are not an option. The government has set an imminent schedule for passing the necessary legislation in Parliament.

This is expected to happen in September, just over a month after the industry-wide consultation is concluded. It is expected that the legislation will come into force at the end of the year.

The rail industry response is being channelled through Railtrack's independent safety division Rail Safety. It organised an industry summit on 6 July to gather views before consultation ends on 31 July.

The impact of the directive is influenced fundamentally by the scope of what are termed 'technical specifications for interoperability' (TSIs). These mandatory requirements are the rules which set the basis for standardisation for everything from rail clips to high speed locomotives.

These have not yet been drafted even though they were also to have been finalised also in April 1999.

The TSIs will cover the fixed and moving parts of the railway, replacing existing Railway Group Standards which govern all equipment. How they are to be implemented will represent perhaps the most far reaching change in the industry.

At present, approvals for rail equipment and standards falls largely between Railtrack and the Railway Inspectorate along with vehicle assessment bodies for rolling stock. Approving conformity with a TSI will become the responsibility of 'notified bodies' appointed by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA).

It is unclear what sort of organisation a notified body will be, although consultants with rail expertise could well be candidates.

So far no-one has applied to be one of these bodies, but there is potential for chaos if any firms acting as notified bodies also have commercial relationships with those whose work they are approving. The likelihood of firms abandoning all their commercial work to become specialist approvers is remote.

While ultimate responsibility for rail safety enforcement will remain with the Railway Inspectorate, the replacement under the Directive of its current approvals role with a tranche of new organistions or companies will present interesting challenges for the SRA.

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