Britain's rail network must go metric, says EU

The European Union has ordered Britain’s railway network to go metric … sparking renewed fears over safety. Eurocrats are insisting on the introduction of kilometres and metres on trackside signs, instead of the imperial measurements of yards and miles.

A train on the North London line

A train on the North London line Image by Phil Richards / CC BY 2.0

Until the changeover, the Daily Express reports that train drivers on Britain’s 10,072 miles (16,209km) of track will have to calculate speeds and distances in both imperial and metric measurements. Train drivers’ union Aslef say the plans are an “unacceptable safety risk” while experts point out that it raises the risk of confusion. Following a risk analysis undertaken by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, the fear is that problems could arise when staff are required to handle both trains that are metric-compliant and others on which speed is still measured in miles per hour during the transition period.

The EU demand is part of the installation of the European Rail Traffic Management System on selected routes between now and the 2030s. Rail bosses must now begin the task of replacing trackside mile markers with kilometre signs. Similarily, staff rule books and training manuals must be rewritten after a directive from the European Railway Agency, which is an EU quango based in France.

The system has been getting trial runs on the remote Cambrian line between Shrewsbury and the West Wales coast. This has been blamed for a series of problems, including five incidents in five months of trains passing red signals. The Department for Transport originally applied to Brussels for an opt-out from the metrication directive in 2012 but was turned down. Network Rail said: “Our aim is to digitise the railway to ensure Britain has the network it needs for the future.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “To meet EU regulations ERTMS-equipped trains and signs will use the metric system, but when these trains are operating in areas with a conventional signalling system speedometers will automatically switch to imperial measurement. "This is because special permission was sought by the Department in 2012. The speedometer is set in a way that it will not display both metric and imperial measurements at the same time.”

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