Iran deploys Automatic Train Control system’s friends at International Railway Journal report that Iranian Islamic Republic Railways (RAI) has completed installation of an Automatic Train Control (ATC) system between Tehran and Mashhad.

IRJ says fibre-optic telecommunications and balises on most of the 926km line, with audio frequency track circuits for train detection at stations and other key locations.

RAI has an ongoing programme of safety improvements, and expects to complete ATC installation at 461 stations next year. It has fitted 80 locomotives and 10 Diesel Multiple Units with ATC onboard equipment.

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.

Will camera spending really improve safety?

The North American railway journalist Fred Frailey has been a vociferous critic of moves to install video cameras in locomotive cabs to monitor drivers’ activities, arguing that all they will achieve is to help identify what went wrong in an accident rather than prevent them from happening. However, he published a response on his blog from Chicago, South Shore & South Bend Railroad president Andrew Fox, who makes a cogent argument for the technology.

Can inward facing video cameras really improve rail safety? Some railroads in North America believe so. Credit: Union Pacific.

Can inward facing video cameras really improve rail safety? Some railroads in North America believe so. Credit: Union Pacific.

Fox makes some good points about being able to monitor and enforce regulations such as not using mobile telephones in the cab, but is Frailey right? Most modern locomotives and multiple units already have extensive monitoring and recording facilities to assess operations, and real-time monitoring from onboard systems already allows railways to evaluate any number of activities – from throttle and brake settings to fuel consumption, component status and more. With the likes of driver vigilance devices already ensuring that crews remain focused, it is difficult to see how monitoring video feeds from all cabs in real time would highlight any improper practices, except by chance or in the event of an accident. Other than the thought in the back of a driver’s mind that he or she could be being monitored at any given moment, what safety gains are there really?

There is a strong argument that suggests that better signalling systems and safety devices will do more to improve rail safety than an in-cab video feed and the costs of setting it up and employing people to monitor them. The rollout of Positive Train Control and onboard systems monitoring is surely a better investment in terms of safety and performance evaluation than a video camera, however cogently North American railroads may argue the case. That is certainly the view of the majority of railways elsewhere in the world.

This is becoming a controversial issue in North America, but fundamentally the question has to be asked: is it better to invest in safety systems to prevent accidents, or in those which merely help explain what went wrong?

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.