US Senate slams rail delays

Rail congestion is costing United States industry and agriculture hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation this week.

Rail customers in North America are suffering from network congestion - but what's the best way of  funding the improvements needed? Credit: Union Pacific.

Rail customers in North America are suffering from network congestion – but what’s the best way of funding the improvements needed? Credit: Union Pacific.

Senator John Thune expressed serious concerns about the impact of delays on the rail network, saying: “In all my years of working on rail matters, I have never seen producers more concerned than they are now regarding their restricted capability to move grain to market.”

“It is my hope that this hearing will continue to bring attention to the rail service backlogs that South Dakota shippers, and shippers nationwide, are currently facing, and encourage continued discussion about both short-term and long-term solutions to address these issues.”

The committee’s concerns carry weight, but perhaps they also reflect that the big Class 1 railroads are – to an extent – the victims of their own success: if traffic levels were lower, route congestion would be too.

The solutions are straightforward in principle: more infrastructure where it is needed most, and the rollout of Positive Train Control (PTC) to provide much needed extra capacity on existing routes. The challenge for railroads across North America is the same faced by their counterparts all around the world – funding.

Given the importance of heavy-haul freight in particular to the United States, perhaps central funding on a national network basis represents the best solution. One is sure – the  the railways must work together on the network improvements so clearly needed.

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.

Siemens-Invensys Rail a year on

Almost exactly a year ago, Siemens confirmed its acquisition of Invensys Rail, and at the time we said we thought it was a good merger for both parties. A year on, are those expectations really being met?

With any corporate acquisition there are always fears of job losses, and there is no question that there have been cuts at Invensys Rail. Ascertaining the precise figure is  challenging, but it appears that the majority of those job losses were in administration and management functions duplicated at Siemens rather than in the critical engineering and design posts that represented so much of Invensys Rail’s strength.

Any expectations of a ‘smash and grab’ raid by Siemens on Invensys Rail’s product range and intellectual property remain unrealised too. Recruitment across Siemens’ Mobility and Logisitics division is, we are told, rising in key markets, though the ongoing shortage of signalling engineers (an issue we shall be looking at very soon in more detail) remains a challenge. Furthermore, in Spain, where the Dimetronic operation was vastly bigger than Siemens’ own presence in Iberia, it’s Siemens’ operation which has been absorbed into the Invensys Rail one – quite the opposite of most takovers.

Siemens continues to win signalling deals, and with Westrace interlockings planned for countries such as Kazakhstan where Invensys Rail had little if any market presence, the synergies expected from the product ranges and key markets of both companies may well be coming to fruition.

The integration of Invensys Rail into Siemens remains a huge challenge for both companies, and realistically it’s likely to be 18 months to two years after the acquisition that major results will be clear. Nonetheless, it appears so far that the merger is proving broadly successful.

The challenge for Siemens is now to make the most of its signalling division’s vastly expanded scale.

Signalling and train control take centre stage at MetroRail 2014


The latest projects, developments and challenges in metro signalling and train control are set to take centre stage at MetroRail Europe 2014 next week in London, with rail industry professionals from around the world expected to attend.

The topics being covered range from the challenges of developing, commissioning, expanding and operating metro networks in cities including Paris, London, Jeddah. Toronto and Honolulu, to the latest developments in braking energy recovery, Communications Based Train control and communications technologies.

Some rather different parts of the conference include a ‘Dragon’s Den’ (named after a popular television series) discussion where rail professionals developing new technologies can present them to a table of high-profile rail bosses for their evaluation, what promises to be an intriguing debate on which communications standard (GSM-R, LTE, Tetra or Wimax) offers the most potential for metro networks, and a range of technical tours around some of London’s most important installations and projects.

Speakers include Transport for London Director of Rail Jonathan Fox, RATP Chairman and CEO Pierre Mongin, Siemens Product Lifecycle Manager Markus Dorn, and MTR CEO of European Business Jeremy Long – with many more high-profile names on the list.

An exhibition runs alongside the conference programme, with the biggest and most important suppliers in the metro sector attending, including Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens, Thales, Kapsch, and Hitachi, all showcasing some of their latest developments.

If you haven’t booked a space already, this looks like a really good conference and exhibition – and with such high profile speakers and exhibitors, it offers compelling proof that the metro sector is thriving.



Marmaray achievements marked at Eurasiarail

Turkey’s growing importance in the European and Asian rail networks is being marked on March 6-8 at the Eurasiarail exhibition in Istanbul. Such is the confidence in the region that more than 300 exhibitors from 25 countries are set to showcase their products and services, backed by what is set to be a fascinating conference programme.

The first train through the Marmaray Tunnel in Istanbul ran in August 2013. The achievements of this project will be amongst the centrepieces at Eurasiarail.

The first train through the Marmaray Tunnel in Istanbul ran in August 2013. The achievements of this project will be amongst the centrepieces at Eurasiarail.

The presence of companies as significant as sponsor Siemens, Bombardier, Alstom, Talgo, Thales, Vossloh, Ansaldo and Wabtec highlights the tremendous growth in the capability and capacity of Turkey’s rail network, and the opportunities for through traffic from Europe to the Middle East and Asia by rail.

Not surprisingly, Turkey’s impressive Marmaray Project is the hot topic on the conference agenda, with a host of speakers from Turkish State Railways (TCDD) and other organisations dicussing the challenges and achievements of this massive piece of infrastructure. Other topics will see VUZ highlight the capabililties of its test track at Velim, Czech Republic, developments on Kosovo’s resurgent rail network, and the latest insights into signalling and train control and rolling stock.

With less than a week to go before the exhibition opens, it looks certain to be another success and a showcase for Turkey’s rail developments.

4G or not 4G – is LTE technology the future of signalling?

The Global System for Mobile Communications – Railways, better known as GSM-R, is a cornerstone of European Rail Traffic Management System technology, providing the means for voice and data communications between operational staff and control centres, but could there be a future role for the latest mobile communications technology, Long Term Evolution, or LTE for short?

Although GSM-R is able to handle the relatively limited volumes of data demanded by current signalling systems, the much greater data capacity of LTE (up to 75Mbits/second uplink) offers potential the rail industry will find hard to ignore. With, potentially, the ability to stream much larger volumes of data, a host of applications could emerge. One of the obvious ones is for passengers, where with suitable sensors embedded in seats and a suitable application on a smartphone, a train could direct passengers to unoccupied seats before the train even arrives at a station.

From a ticketing point of view too, on long distance services, trains could relay data about train occupancy to fares management systems and adjust ticket prices for those travelling on the day to encourage them to use more lightly used services.

But it’s from a signalling point of view that LTE may just offer the most exciting potential. The potential for Internet Protocol (IP) based radio is well understood, with second generation mobile data technology GPRS likely to be deployed in the next two or three years. The logical development of that is to use LTE to expand the potential further, essentially allowing the railway to use a single communications standard for all purposes. By the mid 2020s, it LTE could well be the de facto standard. How much more capable could ERTMS, PTC and CBTC systems be with a much greater data capacity?

At the moment it’s the potential granted by the extra data capacity of LTE which is the most exciting aspect. It’s impossible to say at this early stage what the addtional applications beyond train control, onboard diagnostics and voice communications will be developed – but at InnoTrans this September it may just be worth paying a lot more attention to providers of LTE technology for a glimpse into the future.

If you have any thoughts on the potential of LTE, please let us know via the comments form.

Norway begins ERTMS pilot

Norway’s planned national rollout of European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) signalling moved a step closer this month with the start of trials on the 25km Ise-Rakkestad line.

Norwegian track authority Jernbaneverket plans to replace all conventional signalling with ERTMS by 2030 so the trials are of vital importance if the current life-expired signalling systems are to be replaced on time.

The total cost of converting Norway’s  4230km network to ERTMS is estimated at NKr 15 billion (USD 2.4 billion).

Alstom consortium scoops Sardinian signalling deal

An Alstom led consortium is to supply and install signalling systems on two routes in Sardinia in a contract worth €33 million for Sardinia Regional Transport Authority (ARST). The routes – Monserrato-Senorbi and Macomer-Nuoro – have a combined length of 90km and the project is expected to be completed in 2015.

Alstom's Iconis integrated control centre technology will be installed on two routes in Sardinia. Credit: Alstom

Alstom’s Iconis integrated control centre technology will be installed on two routes in Sardinia. Credit: Alstom

Alstom’s Smartlock and Iconis control centre technology form the bedrock of the new installation which will see a computerised multi-station interlocking and traffic management system at the control centres on each line. The contract also involves level crossing, passenger information, video surveillance and security equiipment.

A 100% increase in capacity on the Monserrato-Isli line and a 70% increase on the Macomer-Nuoro line are exected when the new signalling is commissioned. The contract showcases the potential for modern signalling systems to provide a step change increase in capacity on regional routes, and Sardinia could well become a showcase for the capability of the latest signalling and train control technology.

Siemens and Bombardier upgrade New York commuter lines

A consortium of Siemens Rail Automation and Bombardier Transportation is to develop, test and commission Positive Train Control (PTC) signalling on the USA’s busiest two commuter railways in a contract worth USD 428 million if all options are exercised.

Long Island Railroad has just finished restoring Queens Village station - but its signalling is set for a far more radical makeover. Credit: MTA Long Island Railroad

Long Island Railroad has just finished restoring Queens Village station – but its signalling is set for a far more radical makeover. Credit: MTA Long Island Railroad

Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) awarded the deal for the upgrade of the North Railroad and Long Island Railroad in New York State with completion scheduled for 2019. In common with other PTC systems, the installation will see trains monitored extensively to prevent overspeeding and passing signals at danger. It also offers a significant potential increase in network capacity over the 1100 track-km long routes.

Bombardier will be responsible for system integration, project management and design, and supply control centre subsystems while Siemens is responsible for onboard equipment and modification of existing signalling equipment.

Speakers prepare for CBTC World Congress


A remarkably comprehensive line-up of speakers is set to take the stage at the Fourth Annual CBTC World Congress in London in just a few weeks’ time. Representatives of all major CBTC suppliers and operators are there, and the agenda promises to spark some provocative debates.

The keynote session on November 5 looks as maximising return on investment from CBTC networks, while that on November 6 asks a question operators of suburban rail systems – particularly those isolated from other networks – have been asking for some time: which is better – CBTC or ERTMS?

Other sessions over the three days examine operational optimisation and the business effects of installing modern CBTC systems, with workshops on the final day, November 7, covering two topics examined in detail by – automation and intelligent networks.

It looks set to be a fascinating conference, and will be there reporting on developments as they happen.