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Level 3 slips over the horizon

01 Jun 2000

THE PRESENTATION in Madrid on April 25 to Loyola de Palacio of specifications setting out the functional and technical requirements for the European Rail Traffic Management System signals the success of initiatives launched in 1998 to rescue ERTMS and the GSM-R based European Train Control System from stagnation. As Vice-President of the European Commission, and holder of the transport brief, Palacio welcomed the documents as 'the foundations of signalling interoperability'. She recognised that resolving the impasse over ERTMS/ETCS was more than a technical issue: railways must break out of 'the limited space of national frontiers' and create 'a European railway culture'.

The documents were presented by UIC Chairman Miguel Corsini and UNIFE Vice-Chairman Brian Crowther. They were produced by two working groups set up at the end of 1998 after it became obvious that ETCS pilot projects in Italy, Germany and France were heading off in different directions. Antonio Lagana, Assistant to the Managing Director of FS and President of the European Economic Interest Group formed by the three railways in 1995 to develop user requirements for ERTMS, told the SignalComm Europe conference in Birmingham on May 16 that the three EEIG members had 'a different understanding of concepts'.

The first working group included Europe's principal signalling suppliers. Frustrated by the lack of direction from the railways, they set out to write a technical specification that could be incorporated into national legislation implementing the EC's interoperability directive 96/48. At the same time, a working group set up by the EEIG, now with six members, thrashed out common functional requirements, and approved the suppliers' specification that was completed last autumn.

At last, ERTMS/ETCS had a solid base on which to build. Lagana said it had 'brought Europe's railway signalling industry to a position of world leadership.' Interest has been aroused in India, South Africa, China and the USA, with India inviting bids for a Level 2 pilot project (RG 1.00 p6). Following last year's first demonstration of cross-border ETCS interoperability at Level 1 on the Wien - Budapest route, projects are starting to proliferate. Thus far, it has not been for real, with only a handful of locomotives fitted, but within three years several Level 1 and 2 routes should be fully operational. Night-time trials with Level 2 between Olten and Luzern began on May 17.

Conspicuously absent from the list of ETCS projects circulated at the Madrid ceremony was any mention of Level 3. The fact is that the technical challenge presented by moving block systems that rely on radio data links is only now being appreciated. And by the time allowance has been made for breaks in the continuity of radio links, the difference between short blocks and moving block becomes negligible. Maximising capacity on a mixed traffic railway relies far more on timetable planning than theoretical headways, and in real life headway is determined at junctions where facing points have to be changed and proved locked. As the Dutch experience with BB21 shows (p344), Level 3 is still a long way off. n