European Commission refuses to be blamed for recent Belgian rail disaster - La Treizième Étoile: A blog on EU politics
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European Commission refuses to be blamed for recent Belgian rail disaster

Wednesday, 17 February 2010
The European Commission has strongly refuted accusations made by Belgian train officials who suggested that delays in implementing an EU-community standard for railway signalling and safety systems is at fault for Monday's train disaster near Halle, south of Brussels, in which 18 have to date been confirmed to have lost their lives.

The devastation at Halle, Belgium (Photo: rnw.nl)The Chief Executive of Belgian railway operator SNCB Marc Descheemaecker had reportedly told the press that "the EU's hesitations on a harmonised automatic braking system caused delays to Belgian plans to secure the lines", an accusation that has been quickly rebuffed.

"We've read comments in the press this morning with some surprise, because they do call into question European safety rules. At this stage, we don't really understand these comments. We don't see that they are founded on evidence," Helen Kearns, spokeswoman for the transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, said during a press briefing yesterday.

The head-on collision near Halle, approx 14km south-west of Brussels, occurred during the morning rush hour on Monday morning and has left more than 170 injured and heavily disrupted local and international rail services.

The black boxes of the two trains were recovered this morning and an investigation into the causes of the accident has been launched which could take weeks or even months to conclude. However, it is believed that the two trains collided head-on after one apparently ignored the red light. A third train narrowly missed being involved in the wreck after “making an emergency brake”.

The force of the collision smashed one train deep into the front of the other, tearing back the metal sides and tipping the carriages high up into the air breaking the overhead power lines. As a result Eurostar services to and from Brussels have been suspended and other high speed train services to Paris and beyond suffered widespread cancellations.

It has since come to light that the collided trains were on a regional track, which had been fitted with the EU rail safety system, the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). One component of the ERTMS is the European Train Control System (ETCS) which guarantees a common standard that enables trains to cross national borders and enhances safety.

Balise on the track (Photo: railway-technical.com)The system ensures communication between the tracks and the train through a series of balises, see left, which are located either adjacent to, or on the track beside line-side signals, or at required intervals. These balises liaise with the onboard ETCS equipment on the train so when a signal ahead is at red, the onboard system prevents the train from proceeding.

As for Monday's crash, even though the tracks were equipped with the system, one of the trains involved was not, Mr Descheemaecker confessed.

The EU-wide harmonisation process of 20-odd different signalisation systems across the EU begun in 2000, but was only formalised in 2005 by a memorandum of understanding signed by the Commission and the rail industry.

So far, it is only mandatory for international trains. The high-speed Eurostar, for example, uses seven different signalling systems across Belgium, France and Great Britain on its typical journey.

Train in the air following similar crash in Pécrot, Belgium, 2001 (Photo: hln.be)After a similar train crash in Pécrot in the Walloon region on 27th March 2001, see left, the Belgian authorities said they would install a system to stop trains automatically when they ignore a red light, but Mr Descheemaecker said "that cannot be done over night" adding that the SNCB had only installed that system on a third of its trains and expected to finish the process by 2013.

Back in 2001, the cause of the crash was principally the language barrier with the French driver unable to understand the urgent call made in Dutch from the signalman. With this EU system installed in both trains, such an accident is extremely unlikely to happen, so hopefully everyone will speak in one language in calling for quick harmonisation before another such incident occurs.

In a move that further disrupted train services in Belgium, train conductors and controllers went on "symbolic" strike on Tuesday in protest over dangerous working conditions and to protest the accusation that their colleague driver caused the crash after not stopping at a red light.

The investigation (and disruption) continues.

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