Train drivers, illustrative

EU railway companies should ‘get going’ with language pilots

Photo: Pixabay

In 2019, railway undertakings may carry out pilot projects to test alternative means of ensuring effective communication during railway operations. The European Commission urges the sector to ‘get going’ with these tests, which are aimed at forming more effective legislation regarding the language requirements of train drivers.

At the moment European legislation states that locomotive drivers must possess a B1 level of language competency in every country they drive a train. This means that train drivers are only able to drive on certain routes, a limitation which was negatively experienced during the disruption of the line between Rastatt and Karlsruhe last year. Trains were diverted via other routes, but there was a lack of eligible drivers to operate these trains.

Real conditions

A lesson learned, the European Commission drafted the amendment of Annex VI of the Train Driver Directive. “It is necessary to explore alternative options to the current language requirements allowing for greater flexibility but ensuring an equivalent level of safety with the current requirements”, the commission wrote. “It is necessary to test the alternative means in day-to-day operations. Therefore, the impact of those alternative options should be examined under real conditions in the framework of pilot projects”, the EC stated.

Elisabeth Werner, the European Commission’s Land Transport Director at DG MOVE (Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport), urged the sector to get going with testing alternative language and/or technological solutions at the Annual Strategy Workshop of lobby organisation ERFA last week. She highlighted the possibility for railway companies to test English as one of the many alternatives that could be explored during pilots from 2019.

English as common language

According to ERFA, both train driver trade union representatives (ALE) and private rail freight companies agreed that English should be adopted in the future as a second operational language for rail, facilitating cross-border rail services in Europe. “This would help make the train driver profession more attractive and accessible for a new generation of train drivers. English is now the most widely-learned second language in the EU”, said the Brussels-based organisation.

ERFA earlier proposed an eradication of the B1 language requirements, gradually phasing in English as a common language. “We recognise that this is a long-term aim, but development work for this project should begin now so that all parts of the railway can consider recruiting staff with English language skills. They will be the train drivers and signallers in ten years time”, the organisation said in June this year.

Other options

In the proposal, the EC mentions that “options could consist in more targeted language requirements (i.e. with focus on rail specific terminology), or to a lower general language level combined with alternative means to support effective communication”.

ERFA suggests to carry out a pilot following the Swiss model. “The language requirement is A1+, the system works and the safety concerns are managed cleverly. What is good for Switzerland could be good for other countries. Roll out lessons learned from trials at borders and then extend on to corridors”, it stated. Moreover, it suggests developing a glossary of key commands that can be used by both signallers and drivers, for example, if there is a need for urgent evasive action.

Two phases

According to the draft amendment, the pilots may be carried out in two phases. In the first phase, train drivers may be tested acquiring alternative skills, but still fulfilling the existing requirements. If the alternative skills prove to effectively complement the language skills of the driver, then the second phase be carried out where train drivers are employed without the current language requirements.

Also read:

Alternative language requirements train drivers proposed

Author: Majorie van Leijen

Majorie van Leijen is the editor-in-chief of, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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