California groundbreaking offers a new option for USA

The groundbreaking ceremony of California’s long planned high-speed railway from San Francisco to Los Angeles on January 6 marked a real milestone in rail travel in the United States, and it’s hard to think of any part of the industry that won’t benefit, including signalling.

The route has to be signalled with Positive Train Control – it’s the only interoperable technology in North America that can provide the Automatic Train Protection that high-speed rail needs – and it could just be that it provides a much needed fillip to the technology. It will also provide a much needed alternative to European Rail Traffic Management System, which is becoming a de facto standard for new high-speed railways all over the world.

So it’s all eyes on California’s high-speed dream. We wish them well in turning it into what we hope is a game changing reality.

Chinese bid for Ansaldo STS

Ansaldo STS could be acquired by a Chinese joint venture of Insigma Group and Xinzhu Corporation, and parent company Finmeccanica has confirmed a bid by Insigma for AnsaldoBreda.

Finmeccanica has long planned to sell the Italian operations to reduce debt levels, and some reports suggest the signalling division could also be included in the sale. If so it would give the Chinese companies a foothold in the growing European signalling market – especially the lucrative mass transit and European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) sectors.

Bombardier wins Ethiopian ERTMS contract

Bombardier Transportation has €36 million contract to provide European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) signalling for Ethiopia’s 400km Awash-Weldia line, which is due to open in 2015.

The contract was awarded by Yapi Merkezi, Turkey, which is designing and construction of the project, and will see Bombardier supply Interflo 250 systems for the route. Using ERTMS will provide the railway with proven off-the-shelf Automatic Train Control and train management systems and represents one of the first uses of such technology in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bombardier has already supplied signalling equipment for the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link and Durban’s Main Corridors in South Africa.

InnoTrans shows maturity of railway signalling

InnoTrans continues to grow - and it confirms the increasing confidence of the global rail industry. Credit: InnoTrans

InnoTrans continues to grow – and it confirms the increasing confidence of the global rail industry. Credit: InnoTrans

A short-notice family commitment meant that was sadly unable to attend InnoTrans in Berlin this week – but we’ve been keeping an eye on the events and stories. What seems striking is that while there were rolling stock and infrastructure developments galore, game-changing innovations in signalling were few.

Of course the major companies, including sponsor Siemens presented their latest innovations and contract successes, but whereas six years ago advances in the likes of European Train Control System (ETCS), Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) and Positive Train Control (PTC) technology were plentiful, this year it could almost be considered a case of ‘business as usual’.

For infrastructure owners, train operators and governments this is a hugely important shift in emphasis. Whether for metro, conventional or high-speed rail, signalling technology in all of the key areas is now of a high level of technological maturity, safety and reliability. The risk of opting for a given provider or technology only to find that months later the previous best has been superseded by something significantly more capable has been lowered substantially. The organisations who plan, fund and build railways can now have total confidence that the system they choose is genuinely going to be capable for its expected lifespan. Removal of that element of doubt (however slight) means that the focus can be on delivering the best possible transport systems for passengers and freight customers.

And this matters a great deal. The ongoing expansion of InnoTrans speaks volumes about an industry with growing confidence in its products and services, and of its increasingly important role in solving the world’s transportation problems. After more than a decade of development and innovation, the signalling and train control systems that will run our railways for the next generation and beyond have reached technological maturity. 2014 could go down as a landmark year in railway history for that reason alone.

What innovations stood out for you at InnoTrans? Let us know via the comments form and we’ll publish the very best of them in a future update.

Thales wins major Indian ETCS deal

Southern Railway, India, has selected Thales to install European Train Control System Level 1 signalling on a 66km stretch of line between Basin Bridge and Arakkonam. The value of the contract has not been disclosed.

ETCS is known in India as Train Protection and Warning System (not to be confused with the UK system, which is older and less capable), and this contract is the latest step in large-scale efforts to modernise the country’s heavily used railway network,

Thales will design, supply, install and commission lineside equipment, as well as guaranteeing compatibiltiy with onboard units, which are supplied by another company. Its Managing Director for India, Eric Lenseigne, says: “This contract, which will increase the efficiency and operational safety of this stretch, further cements our position in the Indian transportation market. As a trusted partner, we will continue to accompany the development of India’s transport infrastructure.”



Railways should focus on crash prevention rather than cure

More than half a century after many regional and secondary routes in the UK and Europe closed due to poor usage there are growing calls to reopen them to provide an alternative to automobiles. The big stumbling block, inevitably, is cost.

Whether it’s land acquisition, rebuilding track formations and structures or acquiring trains, there’s no question that building or reopening a railway is a formidably expensive exercise – but in civil engineering terms it is seldom more so than an equivalent road. It’s when it comes to acquiring trains that issues arise. With an approximate cost of €2.5 million per Diesel Multiple Unit vehicle, funding new trains to run on these routes (assuming no other vehicles are available) is simply far too expensive.

Surely it must be possible to provide the comfort and performance of a modern vehicle in a lighter train – and if you can achieve that, you can have lighter track and simpler structures. Part of the railway’s problem is that crashworthiness requirements add weight and complication to every passenger carrying vehicle, and this goes against the fundamental principles of railway operation – that the signalling system should prevent trains crashing in the first place.

If it were possible to do, passengers travelling in a 1930s express train running on a European Train Control System (ETCS) or equivalent route would be far safer than if they travelled in a modern train on a 1930s express route with no train protection systems because accidents are that much less likely to happen at all. Such is the difference a signalling system can make.

So, at the risk of being controversial, why don’t authorities relax rolling stock crashworthiness standards to perhaps those of the early 1990s (how many lives have really been saved by improvements since?) and allow railways to focus safety investment where it is needed most? Automatic Train Protection systems, continuing to eliminate level crossings and better suicide prevention techniques would save more lives.

The rail industry should focus on preventing accidents happening in the first place rather than trying to protect passengers after they do so. That would improve safety, bring costs down and make it more viable than ever – but what do you think? Let us know via the contact form.

Signalling trends for InnoTrans 2014


August usually sees the rail industry go fairly quiet in terms of new announcements, but every two years the apparrent lack of activity is deceiving because companies around the world are busy gearing up for InnoTrans, which takes place as usual at Messe Berlin, this year on September 23-26.

Of course, for the signalling and train control exhibitors are of most interest, and while we await final confirmation of what the major players will be exhibiting, we can infer quite a lot from recent trends in the industry.

First of all, expect an even greater focus on European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and European Train Control System (ETCS) solutions from suppliers around the world. With installations outside Europe – in North Africa, the Middle East, Australasia and elsewhere it is becoming a genuinely global signalling system that’s unsurprisingly attracting the attention of the world’s major manufacturers.

Its North American stablemate, Positive Train Control, is also finding favour outside the USA and Canada, and for long-distance heavy-haul railways in particular it offers an increasingly attractive way of increasing route capacity and improving safety where interoperability is less of a concern.

The growing metro sector is enjoying a boom, driven in large part by the increasing availablity and efficiency of Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) options, and development is rapid here, helped by intense competition and rapidly evolving technology.

Improvements to conventional signalling will not be forgotten either – better and more efficient interlockings and train detection systems are likely to form a major aspect of companies’ exhibits, as will the latest developments in lineside signals and allied technology such as level crossing systems.

We’ll be previewing the exhibition in more detail closer to the event – but what do you think will be the standout trends at this year’s show? Let us know via the contact form…

Passengers can dictate train times as much as signalling

I’ve been doing some research into the Thameslink and Crossrail projects in London recently, and they are both really good examples of how visionary thinking can combine with pan-industry co-operation to transform urban transport. Both have high-frequency automated operation in their central section with very tight headways (ETCS on Thameslink, CBTC on Crossrail) – but there’s a big elephant in the room: station stops.

It only takes an unexpected surge of demand at a station, or a passenger struggling with heavy luggage to eat into recovery margins and cause late running – and there is very little a railway can do to cater for the unexpected situations short of providing extra waiting times, which of course eats up valuable capacity.

Pleasingly, it’s nothing new. As part of other research for a book being prepared, I found an account from the 1920s by the engineer W.G. Thorley about concerns that a particular locomotive was losing time on a fairly tightly timed commuter operation. The inference was that the locomotive’s operation or mechanical condition were at fault. However, when Thorley investigated timekeeping, he found that the Working Timetable was wildly unrealistic. A time of two minutes including station stops to serve two halts over 1.2km didn’t appear impossible, but when the actual time taken for passengers to board or disembark was studied, the railway – the old London Midland & Scottish – realised that especially on Saturdays, keeping time was impossible. The timetable was soon revised.

Which just goes to prove that you can have the best performing trains, the most advanced and efficient signalling and dedicated and motivated staff – but at times its the passengers themselves who dictate how punctually a train can run. Sometimes, a marginally less attractive service on paper can be more useful and dependable for the people who rely on it…. what do YOU think? Let us know your views via the comments form.

France clears GE/Alstom power and signalling deal

Alstom is to acquire GE Transportation’s signalling business for $800 million as part of a complex deal which sees the American giant gain most of Alstom’s energy assets.

Since GE made its bid around two months ago Siemens and Mistubishi Heavy Industries have pushed hard with a counter-offer, but following the agreement of French construction company Bouygues to loan 20% of Alstom shares (it holds 29.3%) on June 22 the way is clear for GE to conclude its deal. Bouygues will surrender its two board seats, effectively making the French government the main shareholder. The government is being loaned the shares for 20 months, during which time it can buy the shares at a 2-5% discount if the stock market price is €35 or greater.

GE Transportation’s signalling portfolio is comprehensive, with ERTMS, CBTC and Positive Train Control systems and a range of associated equipment including interlockings, train detection and operational control centres.

From Alstom’s point of view, while it loses much of its energy business it retains its system-wide capabilities in rail, and will have a much greater presence in the North American market. It also means that concerns about France’s flagship TGV trains being built by a foreign company are in abeyance. Subject to regulatory approval the deal with GE is expected to be concluded early next year.

It is another deal which shrinks the number of suppliers in the signalling sector, however. How will it affect the market? Let us know your thoughts…

A case for convergence?

Three of the most challenging signalling projects in the world – Turkey’s Marmaray tunnel, and London’s Thameslink and Crossrail routes – could well be heralding a new era of urban rail operation and blurring the distinction between traditional metro and conventional operations.

Turkey's Marmaray Tunnel is being signalled to allow CBTC commuter trains and in the futuer ETCS passenger and freight on the same tracks.

Turkey’s Marmaray Tunnel is being signalled to allow CBTC commuter trains and in the futuer ETCS passenger and freight on the same tracks.

In Turkey commuter trains will run under CBTC while in the near future high-speed and passenger trains will operate using ETCS with potential for freight; Thameslink will see ETCS fitted trains run on the busiest section in automatic mode, and Crossrail will use ETCS on its Western limits, CBTC in the central section and British legacy signalling systems on the Eastern section.

All three rely on growing commonality of components such as balises, onboard computers and other equipment to avoid what would otherwise be horrendously complex lineside and onboard installations, and all will see metro style operation on railways designed and built to main line standards.

The potential to provide higher service frequencies and (in the case of the Marmaray Project) dual-purpose operations seems offer cities real potential to increase network capacity and meet growing demand without – in theory – the need to build separate metro and heavy rail lines seems vast. Could we be seeing the start of a new trend? Let us know your thoughts…