Good year or bad year? Here’s our 2015 signalling predictions…

As 2014 draws to a close, it’s that traditional time to make some predictions about what developments the signalling sector might see in 2015. 2014 has seen major projects completed and others move closer to fruition. European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) have continued to expand their capabilities and geographical coverage, and in cities and countries around the world rail is increasingly seen as a vital aspect of transportation networks. So, what does think will happen in 2015? Here’s our top five predictions:

Our fifth and light-hearted prediction: technology to allow legacy steam traction to run under ETCS will be developed in the UK or Germany. Credit: Andrew Roden.

Our fifth and light-hearted prediction: technology to allow legacy steam traction to run under ETCS will be developed in the UK or Germany. Credit: Andrew Roden.


  1. ERTMS Level 3 will be announced for a major main line resignalling project in Europe in the hope that by the time work is ready to start issues about end of train detection and other issues have been resolved.
  2. Consolidation in the signalling sector will continue with the acquisition of Ansaldo STS but Chinese suppliers will increase their presence – as will Hitachi Rail, which will win a major European contract.
  3. Positive Train Control will remain contentious in the United States, with railroads continuing to complain about costs. However, its installation will prevent an accident that would have otherwise occurred, leading to renewed faith in the technology…
  4. However, elsewhere a major accident will be caused by a contractor (probably not involved in the signalling sector) inadvertently interfering with crucial lineside signalling equipment, bringing into focus the interfaces between track authority, train operators, and maintenance staff.*
  5. And finally, a bit of fun: in Germany or the United Kingdom technology will be developed to allow legacy steam locomotives to run under European Train Control System (ETCS) signalling.

Those are our top five predictions, but what are yours? Let us know via the comments form…

*This is a prediction we hope we get wrong.

Will train integrity issues stall ETCS Level 3?

Ensuring that train consists remain intact is a cornerstone of signalling. Accidents have happened (and doubtless will continue to do so) when trains split unintentionally – but for signalling engineers across the rail industry, providing the planned radio based, moving block ERTMS Level 3 system with sufficiently robust train integrity measures is proving a real headache.

Years ago it was simple – tail lights on the last vehicle of a train would prove to a lineside signaller that the train was intact and that the preceding section could be cleared. Track circuits and axle counters provide the same functionality for today’s centralised control centres. But how do you prove a train is intact when there are no fixed block sections and no lineside infrastructure?

In theory, when a train splits accidentally, brakes are automatically applied and the vehicles come to a stand, usually not too far away from each other. But no signalling designer in the world would rely on that for ERTMS Level 3: the old axiom that anything that can go wrong will applies particularly to signalling – who would really guarantee that all the vehicles in a formation would come to a halt relatively close to each other? And what if an unbraked train (perhaps a failed high-speed train being towed to a depot) splits? How could ERTMS Level 3 deal with it?

Perhaps we need to look at radio transponders on each vehicle that communicate with the control centre – any significant variation in speed between vehicles in a consist would be spotted and the appropriate alerts given. That would be viciously expensive though, and what about freight trains that are marshalled en route? Could there be some sort of ERTMS ‘tail light’ that provides confirmation that the end of the train is where it’s supposed to be? As with tail lights on existing trains, how could relocating the equipment to the rearmost vehicle be guaranteed?

These are all questions that are going to have to be answered before ERTMS Level 3, with its potential for absolutely maximising route capacity, can go forward with confidence. To judge from the experience of railway history, a solution will be found and it will probably be conceptually very simple. The question is – with sufficiently intelligent design, can ERTMS Level 2 deliver most of the benefits of Level 3 without introducing yet another layer of complexity to a signalling system which is beginning to match the expectations of its designers? Perhaps the exhibits at InnoTrans in Berlin will shed some light on this fundamental issue…