You’d be forgiven for thinking the European Union’s (EU) largest-ever funding programme was winding up. Not so, in fact as recently as early December parties were being invited to apply for funding for new projects. From energy to healthcare, technology to agriculture, sectors across the Union of been benefiting from the financial support available as part of this multi-billion euro initiative. Transportation has played a major part since the initiative began in 2014 and is seemingly a key component in the future societal and economic development of the EU.
Heralding research as an investment in the future, the EU said: “The goal is to ensure Europe produces world-class science, removes barriers to innovation and makes it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation.” The question now, as the curtain slowly lowers, what impact has it really had?
Europe’s rail infrastructure and how it operates has been of interest to the continent’s political leaders, first under the European Economic Community and later the EU, for many decades. That interest manifested itself under railway directives and later “Packages” intended to help modernise the way the network of standalone infrastructure is managed and integrated. It reaches beyond legal frameworks and formed a significant part of the Horizon 2020 programme.
Managing the entire budget for all research into rail across the EU, to the tune of €920m – €450m of EU funding and €470m from industry – Shift2Rail has been responsible for funding research and innovation since July 2014, although it dates back to 2009. The public-private initiative would “drive innovation in the rail sector”, the EU said. Its aims were to cut life cycle costs, double rail capacity, and raise punctuality and reliability by 50%.
As an indication of its success, Shift2Rail launched the first Catalogue of Solutions, comprising 54 products and solutions covering almost all aspects of rail travel and infrastructure. It included what it called “horizontal innovative solutions for railways”, “optimised infrastructure”, “European rail freight”, “traffic management”, “passenger trains” and “digital services”. It is hoped the catalogue will be updated yearly as research continues.
“The rail research and innovation activities under Shift2Rail are starting to deliver concrete results, bringing us one step closer to a railway system that is more attractive for passengers and businesses, competitive, efficient and flexible,” said European Commission director-general Henrik Hololei. “Shift2Rail plays a pivotal role in unlocking the hidden potential of rail and making our overall transport system more sustainable.”
Also a funding recipient of Horizon 2020 through Shift2Rail, Roll2Rail has the objective of developing “key technologies” and removing what the EU said were “already identified blocking points for radical innovation in the field of railway vehicles”. Running for 30 months from May 2015, it received a total of €16m. “Future trains should be more energy-efficient, lighter, more reliable, have more capacity, cost less over their life cycle, be connected and be more comfortable and attractive. Only then will the railway sector be able to raise its market share,” the European Commission said.
Focusing on operational rolling stock and its use, headline objectives included technologies to reduce noise, improve efficiency, and increase levels of patient comfort and reliability. It did this by investigating technology in the field of traction, train control and management systems (TCMS), rail carbodies, running gear, brakes and interiors among others.
The project resulted in a handful of new technologies, including smaller, lighter, more efficient and reliable traction systems using incipient silicon carbide semiconductor technology, a wireless TCMS, and three new noise separation methods tested in real conditions – advanced transfer path analysis, beamforming and wave signature extraction. It also produced several studies and standards, including a study on adhesive joints and the reduction in weight linked to composite materials, and braking and rolling stock energy standards. All were ultimately fed back into Shift2Rail.
The Greenrail project’s primary focus was to investigate innovative and sustainable railroad sleepers, incorporating materials and technologies first identified via a feasibility study which began in 2015. Borne out of the Polytechnic University of Milano, Italy, a startup company, Greenrail SRL, secured €2.29m of EU funding as part of the project.
It designed and patented sleepers the European Commission (EC) said had the potential to have a significant impact on rail transport. Around a prestressed concrete core, recycled materials such as plastic and end of life tyres formed a sleeper system the company said extends life cycle whilst reducing maintenance as well as noise and vibration.
Some of the company’s solutions also have the capacity to integrate sensors and even capture and store solar energy under its smart sleeper brands, Solar, LinkBox and Piezo, which also provide data on maintenance requirements. Speaking of its work company founder Giovanni De Lisi said thanks to the EU funding the company had completed the final designing, production and testing phases of the sleepers. “Now we feel we’re truly ready to enter the market,” he added.
The X2Rail-1 project’s objective was to enhance communication systems through the development of next-generation automation systems, increase usable track capacity and deliver new cybersecurity systems for railways.
The AXLEINSPECT project resulted in new ultrasonic inspection technology for rail axels. Another funded initiative looked at reducing rail company energy usage by 10% while others looked at technologies and solutions to help improve efficiencies in other areas, in some cases by providing critical data on infrastructure, passenger use and rolling stock.
One project investigated the possibility of reducing road freight by making it easier for rail freight to be transported from ports via rail thanks to a new loading system which, the company funded by the project said, has the potential to reduce costs and improve efficiencies.
Although its name might suggest it’s over, the Horizon 2020 programme continues to offer funding for an array of wide-ranging, niche and varied projects, all still open to applications. Currently, more than €105m is available for transport-specific projects; however, hundreds of millions remain to be invested across a plethora of projects and industries. Whilst they are not directly related to transport, the likes of low carbon energies, green vehicles, batteries and infrastructure remain of huge interest to the EU and will arguably continue to innovate transportation. Applications are open until 21 April 2020.
It’s likely we will continue to see modernisation in rail through Horizon 2020 for some time to come, with projects ongoing and new ones set to take shape in coming months. The focus will be the environment and sustainability with the aim of “achieving a European transport system that is resilient, resource-efficient, climate and environmentally friendly, safe and seamless for the benefit of all citizens, the economy and society,” the EU says.
transport more sustainable, safer and smarter,” said EU Commissioner for
Transport Violeta Bulc. “Today’s decision gives a further push to the
transition to low-emission mobility across Europe, starting with our railways
and our ports.”