Wednesday 5 May 2021

Interview with Laurent Schmitt, Chairman of the Standardisation Platform

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Mr Schmitt, you are heavily involved in the standardisation world – what have been the benefits to you professionally and personally?

My experience of standardisation was somewhat limited before my current job. I made contributions from time to time as a CEN expert, and was also involved in UIC leaflet and IRS development as UIC Sector Coordinator within the Rail System Department.

My current position at SNCF and my involvement in European and global standardisation offer an exceptional overview of all aspects of the railway system, from the highest technical level to the regulatory consequences, sometimes with high stakes. It’s very exciting and provides an opportunity to learn on a daily basis, which satisfies my curiosity and interest in international relations. I once heard someone say ironically that standardisation takes three years to understand, five years to love and ten years to become completely addicted to. It’s true that it is a complex world that demands 100% commitment, but it certainly didn’t take me five years to grow fond of it!

This is your second mandate as UIC Standardisation Platform Chair. What are your thoughts on these past three years?

I have always held our association in affection as a meeting place for the world’s railways, sharing the same essential values for almost a century now. The first UIC leaflet was published in 1928, so my first mandate was an extremely short moment in UIC’s long history. But I am proud to play my own small part in it.
Supported by our members, we have been working together with Simon Fletcher and Célia Levy in a very convivial atmosphere, on an agenda that has been dominated by setting up new processes, tools and ways of working, not just internally but also with the other European and international standardisation stakeholders. Personally, I have learned a lot and it has been – and still is! – a very positive experience and complements my other commitments in a very useful way, particularly at European level.

What is UIC’s added value in terms of standardisation?

UIC was historically the first editor of worldwide railway specifications, and played a dominant role. UIC leaflets have long been a key tool for harmonisation between the railways, ranging from descriptions of sleeper screws to GSM-R specifications or the rules for international financial relations. With time, the increased importance of the supply industry’s role in the design of products and systems, combined with the creation of the CEN and CENELEC Railway Technical Committees in the early nineties, has logically brought about a massive shift of many standardisation topics from UIC to CEN and CENELEC. I believe we are now striking a good balance in which each organisation can be efficient in its respective areas of responsibility, with one complementing the other. UIC members’ collective experience is precious and unique. UIC IRSs play a key role in the railway development cycle, expressing users’ expectations and contributing to achieving innovation, integrating innovative products into the operational framework and providing broad, rapid feedback in order to progress further.

What are your objectives, priorities and goals for the next two years?

Thanks to the excellent work of the Standardisation Unit, we now have a complete set of tools to work efficiently: a digital workspace, the IRS database, processes, guidelines, Terms of Reference, etc.

The Standardisation Platform has gathered a worldwide team of members from Japan to the United States, including China, Russia, and of course Europe. I hope our colleagues from the African and Middle East Regions will also join us soon. Asako and I have added regular presentations of our members’ respective concerns and circumstances in terms of standardisation to our agendas so that we can advance together on the basis of mutual understanding.

Our annual conferences have provided opportunities for us to broaden our horizons and discuss hot topics with high-level stakeholders around the world. The recent IRS Awards put the spotlight on the high quality of the IRSs developed by the sector experts. Although the events held in 2020 weren’t as convivial as we would have liked due to the pandemic, these initiatives were very successful and must be continued.

The members of the Standardisation Platform are willing to be active in supporting the technical expert groups in the production of high-quality IRSs and in providing help wherever and whenever needed. We want to work more closely with the expert groups and the UIC Standardisation SPOCs within the various UIC sectors and platforms, whose task is quite challenging, and to support the excellent work of the Standardisation Unit and ETF under Célia Levy’s leadership.

As railway companies, the members of the Standardisation Platform are involved not only in UIC standardisation, but also in ISO, IEC, CEN, CENELEC and other regional and sectorial standard-setting organisations. We pay particular attention to complementarity between these standardisation activities. Part of the role of the Standardisation Liaison Groups between UIC and ISO, IEC and CEN/CENELEC is, of course, to anticipate and prevent overlaps, but it is mostly up to the members themselves to maintain a balance so that the right standard is developed at the right place for the benefit of the entire railway sector.

How does standardisation strengthen cooperation between Asia and Europe?

It is obvious that the centre of gravity for railway standardisation is progressively shifting from the European towards the international arena, where the global market is and where we see fierce competition for product supply. European and Asian members of the railway operating community are not engaged in such stiff competition and likely have a major role to play for the benefit of the sector by cooperating more closely through UIC and standardisation activities. While research initiatives remain largely regional, interregional cooperation is encouraged within the UIC work programme, and standardisation should be the backbone of such cooperation. It is essential that we work together more closely. This applies not only to the relationship between European and Asian UIC members, but also between UIC and international standardisation organisations such as IEC and ISO.

What is the role of standardisation in innovation, and how can we ensure that the results of research and innovation are implemented in standardisation activities in good time?

Closely associating R&D with standardisation activities creates a very powerful lever for progress in the railway system. Standardisation is relevant throughout the innovation process.

The initial elements of standardisation are about user requirements and specifications: they give direction to innovation, securing the developer’s investment by making sure that the innovation actually responds to a market need.

Downstream standardisation is about applicability and acceptability. It provides a path to innovation, guaranteeing market acceptability and ensuring that the innovation meets regulatory requirements. I believe this is probably the most difficult part of standardisation as it relates to innovation. It should not be custom-developed on the basis of the latest research results, but should allow implementation of innovative developments in the longer term and for a wide variety of solutions.

During the innovation process itself, standardisation is about architecture and interfaces. It provides a secure framework for innovation, ensuring modularity, interoperability and integration of subsystems. It enables segmentation of efforts and investments, efficient parallel development of products, failure with limited risk, and competition between innovative solutions.

Based on my experience with standardisation and innovation within the Shift2Rail research initiative, I am convinced that research programmes and standardisation objectives have to be defined as a joint effort by the entire sector in a single strategy. Dissociating research from the supporting standardisation could result in considerable loss of time and opportunities if the respective timelines are not aligned.

While I believe that research and standardisation need to go hand in hand in a complementary way, I think that they are two distinct processes, which explains why turning research results into a standard is not as easy as it looks. Research is a cooperative process: all partners contribute with individual, segmented tasks that are coordinated and assembled together to yield a higher-level result; the contribution of each research partner can be identified at all stages and they each remain individually responsible for the work they have produced. On the other hand, standardisation is a collaborative process: it is a collective involvement in a single effort, where individual contributions can scarcely be identified and where the responsibility for the final deliverable is shared between all.

This may not seem like a major difference, but for me it is fundamental and must be kept in mind when translating research results into standardisation activities.

How can standardisation boost dissemination of project results and ensure market uptake?

Standards can of course provide a large audience for research results, but dissemination is not the purpose of standardisation and I would prefer to talk about capitalisation of knowledge. Regrettably, a research project report is often left forgotten on a shelf after five to ten years. Building on past research requires bibliographic work and fresh assessment of past results, which are often considered with limited confidence by the new research team.

When integrated into standardisation, research outcomes are challenged by a wide community of experts and filtered to retain only what is essential and useful to the entire community and generally accepted as valid, independent of the specific research context and methodology. Validity is systematically reverified at least every five years, thus maintaining long-term confidence. This requires openness, transparency and reciprocal confidence from both research and standardisation communities.

Continuity between research activities at UIC and the subsequent development of IRSs is extremely efficient to streamline this process of knowledge capitalisation. But time must be afforded to the expert groups to assess and appropriate the results to ensure that the resulting IRSs are of good quality and broadly applicable.

How can UIC work more closely with ISO/IEC and CEN-CENELEC?

The work of Célia Levy and the UIC Standardisation Unit, through the various Standardisation Liaison Groups with IEC, ISO and CEN-CENELEC, is very effective and is extremely important in achieving better mutual understanding and recognition and anticipating potential conflicts. But they are sometimes powerless in the face of the standardisation organisations’ decision-making processes, which remain in the hands of their members.

UIC members often contribute to CEN, CENELEC, IEC and ISO working groups through their respective national standardisation bodies. It is essential that the experts be aware of the importance of the principles governing complementarity between these organisations and UIC in order to develop the right standard at the right place. Constant communication to our members and their experts is key in this context.

Recent work on DMI or the CACTUS project, within TRAINET, or the current discussions with CEN TC278 on ticketing and fare management, demonstrate that cooperation works as long as there is good-quality input from both sides. It is important that we engage UIC experts and invite our partners from the standardisation organisations to take part in joint workshops or study groups to address the issues of standard mapping and common workplans at a very early stage.

For further information, please contact: or Laurent schmitt at

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