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.

Siemens consortium wins €510m Spain signalling deal

A Siemens/Thales consortium has won a €510 million contract from Spanish Track Authority ADIF to install and maintain signalling, train control and communications systems on the 340km Olmedo-Ourense high-speed line.

Siemens will provide interlockings, Spain’s ASFA train control system and control centres, with Thales supplying European Train Control System Level 2 equipment, LED colour light signals, wheel detectors and axle counters, and fixed communications equipment.

The route connects with the Madrid to Valladolid high-speed line at Olmeda and forms part of a corridor connecting Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Castile and Leon with Madrid.

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.

Big signalling deals in Spain and Morocco

Major new signalling contracts have been signed this week, marking a real breakthrough for Spain’s CAF Signalling and the introduction of GSM-R to Morocco.

In Spain, a CAF Signalling led consortium is to install European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) Level 2 and Spanish ASFA signalling on the Tarragona to Vandellos part of the Mediterranean Corridor and the connection with the Madrid-Barcelona-Perpignan high-speed line. The contract is worth €98.6 million and also sees fixed telecommunications, centralised traffic control and other safety systems installed. A 20-year maintenance deal is also part of the contract.

In Morocco, meanwhile, state operator ONCF is about to start rolling out GSM-R with the award of a €30 million contract to a consortium of Thales, Huawei, and Italian company Imet. The consortium will install GSM-R on five routes with a combined length of 712km. The under construction Tangiers to Kenitra high-speed route is included within this.

Thales will manage the project, Huawei will provide its GSM-R and networking equipment and Imet is responsible for site design and construction.

Siemens-Thales install Automatic Train Protection on Spanish high-speed railway

A consortium of Siemens and Thales is to install signalling on Spain’s 126km high-speed railway between Antequera and Granada in a contract worth €210 million from Spanish infrastructure manager ADIF.

Siemens will supply European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 and ASFA automatic train protection systems, jointless track circuits and signals. The company will also upgrade the Cordoba to Malaga route to ETCS Level 2 as part of the project. Other equipment being installed by the consortium includes telecommunication and traffic management systems, in addition to maintenance over a 20-year period.

The new railway will enable direct connections between Granada and Malaga, Cordoba, Seville and Madrid, improving rail links in Andalusia and beyond. Both companies have extensive experience in Spain on its domestic and high-speed rail networks.

Alstom-Bombardier-Indra consortium wins Spanish HSR signalling contract

Spanish track authority ADIF has awarded a €410 million contract to supply and maintain European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) Level 2 signalling on the new North-West high-speed line to a consortium of Alstom, Bombardier and Indra.

The contract, whose maintenance element lasts for 20 years, covers the 310km of new high-speed railway from Valladolid to Leon, and Venta de Banos to Burgos. The consortium is responsible for design, procurement, installation and commissioning of the signalling, fixed and GSM-R telecommunications, Automatic Train Protection, centralised traffic control, security, and infrastructure for trains and mobile telephone operators.

It will be Spain’s second ERTMS Level 2 installation without ERTMS Level 1 backup, which Alstom claims offers a ‘significant reduction in the initial cost of civil works’.

Happy New Year! Here’s our predictions for 2014

On behalf of everyone involved with, a Happy New Year to all of our readers and followers on Twitter. Thank you all for your support, and we’re going to be expanding our coverage this year with some exciting external contributions (if you have a topic of interest, please do get in touch) and more in-depth reports.

With the best part of a year ahead of us, here’s our five predictions for the world of signalling and train control in 2014….

A New Zealand commuter train believes a major country outside the US or EU will roll out PTC or ERTMS on its conventional railway network, as New Zealand is currently doing. Credit: Paul Bigland

  1. A major country outside the European Union and North America will announce plans to roll out ERTMS or PTC on its conventional network
  2. In a similar vein, ERTMS or PTC will prevent a major accident that legacy signalling systems could not have, emphasising the safety credentials of these technologies
  3. The resurgence of metro networks worldwide will continue, with another major city (probably in the Middle East or Asia) announcing the construction of a new system
  4. While the growth of high-speed rail in Europe will slow as the network nears completion, North America will move forward with its HSR plans
  5. And finally, as a bit of fun for rail fans, an organisation in the United Kingdom or Germany will develop an ERTMS onboard package which allows the operation of heritage steam locomotives on routes fitted with ERTMS.

We’ll revisit these predictions at the end of 2014 to see if we were correct – but if you have any views on them, or your own signalling predictions, please let us know!

Automatic HSR – the debate continues…

In yesterday’s first part of the discussion about automated operation of high-speed rail, commentators considered some of the technical issues around introducing the technology, and Bombardier Transportation Manager for Functional Integration Despina Ziaka calls for “a more consolidated international ‘Concept of Operation’ for fully automated metros, high-speed rail, and other operations.” The argument is that with a set of globally defined criteria the possibilities of widespread ATO would have a clear picture.

Nick Fotis, a regular commentator on Railgroup, highlighted some potential technical pitfalls which could handicap ATO on high-seed rail: “A HSR system is not as well isolated from environmental intrusions as an underground and isolated Metro system. Even worse, it may connect to the conventional rail system. Also, you cannot transfer quickly and reliably the situation to a central console from a 300+ km/h train. Have you attempted to transfer video via wireless from such a quick-moving train (which may lose the signal due to tunnels, bridges and whatnot) to a control station 500+ km away?”

Phillip Barker, meanwhile, pondered the commercial and societal aspects: “While technically possible, it comes down to a commercial requirement. One is improving availability of the assets – you can run the trains when needed not based on driver availability, as in Singapore. Reliability of services also increases – drivers are subject to fatigue, boredom, and inconsistent application of skills especially in close headway operations.

“On passenger acceptance of an empty driving cab at high speed, I think we too quickly assume that it wouldn’t be accepted. There are enough driverless operations around the world now that show passengers are happy to sit up front and enjoy the view where a driving cab should be – look at Kualar Lumpur, London’s Docklands Light Railway etc. Even the terminal people mover at Hong Kong airport can be concerning to some but acceptable as it hurtles along and seems to leave braking to the last moment even as the dead end platform looms into view. But drivers do have a place as they offer the flexibility that machines may not offer. System failures occur and a train driver one of the better forms of redundancy ensuring a train can at least continue to its destination in a degraded mode.”

The final word, however goes to Hendrik Kassebohm, Managing Director & Chief Consultant at HK Railconsult CC, who had followed the discussion for almost two weeks before concluding his considered response with something all rail professionals hold dear: “What is the purpose of full automation, and does it have the best interests of the paying customers in mind?”

And with that, for the moment at least, we’re going to close the debate on automation. Next week we’ll take a slightly different tack and examine some of the challenges metro operators face, and how developments in signalling and train control systems might be able to help them.

Experts debate automated high-speed rail

What a wonderful response to the question we posed in our recent Automation Week – can ETCS deliver automated high-speed rail? The piece provoked a fascinating debate on LinkedIn’s Railgroup, with rail experts keen to share their views. So numerous and good were the responses that we’ve split the report into two parts, running today and tomorrow.

Starting the debate, Nick Fotis asked very simply: “Would you embark on a 300km/h train without a driver?”

He garnered an immediate response from Mike Blaszak, Senior Counsel-North America Business Lines at AECOM, US, who argued that as trains operate at increasing speeds automation was “inevitable,” adding: “You’re always going to staff passenger trains for ticket collection (or enforcement of honour systems), mediation of disputes and passenger assistance, particularly in the case of emergencies. But there’s no reason (other than tradition and labour agreement rules) why these people couldn’t also be trained to recognise and possibly address simple mechanical problems, as they already do with HVAC and toilets.”


ETCS is not designed to provide automation, but could it develop in the future?

ETCS is not designed to provide automation for high-speed rail, but could it develop in the future?

Rick Valero, Manager Rolling Stock at Metra, Milwaukee, United States posed a telling challenge to the US passenger railway: “If US train travel wants to rival the airline industry automated control will be needed. The question is at what cost? Maintenance of the systems in place now is high and [the systems] are not reliable. Then there are the different systems that “host” railroads use and commuter equipment using their rail must comply with will be difficult to standardise. There may not be an easy way other than to standardise the systems and mandate it’s use. Then MAKE it work.”

Hans Wyss, Head of Projects with Crossrail AG Zurich, drew on Switzerland’s eight-year experience with ETCS: “ETCS is not suitable for a driverless train. ETCS – in the current and next version – cannot actively control the speed of the train (such as LZB in Germany). ETCS “only” monitors compliance with the maximum speed and braking curves… In summary – ETCS with no driver on the locomotive does not work.”

V.G. Ramesh Kumar Rail Transportation Systems – Director and KAM – Railways at Thales India Pvt Ltd, agrees that ETCS was never designed with ATO in mind, but concludes that a workable system should be built with established components of ETCS such as odometers, brake interfaces, speed curve estimation and so on.

A perspective from Australia’s experience with heavy haul freight came from Phillip Barker, Director of Rail Safety Consulting Australia: “While driverless operation is almost exclusively confined to the metro type of operation in a controlled environment, there have been driverless freight trains but limited in operation. An iron ore railroad in Australia however has embarked on driverless heavy haul operations on its network which includes some public road level crossings.”

Tomorrow we’ll continue the report, with experts discussing the need for open standards, and whether commercial imperatives really justify greater automation.

Automation Week Day 4: Automatic for the high-speed people

Conventional HSR such as France's TGV relies on cab-signalling for supervision. In less than a generation, operation could be totally automated.

Conventional HSR such as France’s TGV relies on cab-signalling for supervision. In less than a generation, operation could be totally automated. Credit: SNCF

So far this week we’ve looked at the possibilities automation offers for metro and heavy-haul freight railways, and came to very different conclusions, but what about high-speed rail (HSR)? Countries all over the world are seeking to reap the benefits of 300km/h+ trains in terms of shorter journey times, increased transport capacity and a reduced need for air travel. Can greater use of automation make a difference in this high-profile and rapidly developing sector?

The answer really, is that high-speed railways since Japan’s Shinkansen in the 1960s have always relied on a high degree of automation, with cab signalling systems in use from the very start. While drivers have always been in control of their trains, it was implicit from the outset that signalling systems would intervene if needed to prevent overspeeding. Today’s gold standard – an increasingly global one – is European Train Control System (ETCS) which uses in-cab displays to show a speed curve to drivers and intervene if necessary. In essence, a system already exists to control train speed. All it needs is for application of power to be added to the mix and in theory the trains could drive themselves.

As with heavy-haul freight, the possibility of external events affecting the railway is ever present, and it’s difficult to imagine that passengers would be happy travelling in a train at 350km/h without a supervisor in the cab. But, because the trains running on a given route will have identical (or at least nearly so) performance characteristics and similar stopping patterns, the same benefits which accrue to metro systems in terms of better performance, greater efficiency and better ability to deal with service disruption could apply to HSR. In fact, given the greater power demands from the trains, even small savings in energy consumption could, across a whole route, deliver significant gains. Similarly, over long distances, optimised acceleration and braking could deliver journey time savings too. They may not appear that great in themselves, but they all make rail travel more attractive. These are gains that even with the very best manual driving techniques would inevitably be inconsistent across a fleet.

You could, in fact, think of a typical high-speed railway as a very fast, long-distance metro system. The technology exists now to make HSR driverless without any compromise to passenger safety or punctuality. There are cultural objections to it – as with unmanned civil aircraft, a hot topic in the aviation community at the moment – which will doubtless ensure the presence of a supervisor in the cab, but with energy costs constantly rising, it is entirely possible that the generation of high-speed routes due to open in the 2020s may look to automatic operation as a way of operating as efficiently as possible.

So, by way of prediction, we firmly believe that by 2030 at the latest, somewhere in the world, passengers will board a high-speed train from origin to destination and travel without any human intervention at the controls. What do you think? Please let us know via the comments form.

  • Tomorrow, in the final day of’s automation week, we’ll pull the strands of the various topics together and ask whether a fully automatic mixed-use railway is a realistic possibility within the next 20 years.