Chris Jackson reports from the UIC ERTMS World Conference in Bern

Cab (Photo: SBB).

'THE SWISS have passed the point of no return', announced Swiss Federal Railways' Infrastructure Director Hansjörg Hess, addressing UIC's ERTMS World Conference in Bern on September 12. This attracted more than 700 delegates and exhibitors from around the world, suggesting that the European Rail Traffic Management System is set to form the backbone of future signalling technology.

With the host railways SBB and BLS Lötschbergbahn AG able to demonstrate two fully-operational ETCS Level 2 installations, on both the Mattstetten - Rothrist line and the Lötschberg base tunnel, there was a strong feeling that ERTMS has come of age. But no-one was under any illusion that there is still a lot to do in development and testing to achieve a truly interoperable system with stable technical specifications.

The European Commission's ERTMS Co-ordinator Karel Vinck was heartened that 'so much has happened' in the development of his six priority corridors (RG 5.07 p275), which gave him confidence that 'we are going to make it. [ERTMS] is the only system for the future - there is no way back.' But he warned that 'we must have a sense of urgency; we are in a competitive service industry', adding that 'ERTMS is not a goal, it is all about satisfying our customers'.

'There is no room for complacency', agreed UIC Chief Executive Luc Aliadière, insisting that 'we are building interoperability' whilst admitting that 'there are a number of critical issues to be addressed'.

Hess is concerned that ETCS development is still too slow. The legally-approved System Requirements Specification 2.3.0 is not technically stable, he said, and no funding or resources have been allocated for the development of SRS 3.0.0. 'We are losing energy and momentum', he warned, adding that 'there are too many diverging interests'.

No less than 55 Change Requests have been logged with the European Rail Agency to address known bugs with 2.3.0, and many more 'nice-to-have' enhancements are being proposed for inclusion in 3.0.0. The Limited Supervision functionality — which provides a discrete train stop at each signal rather than full ATP — is envisaged in the 3.0.0 specification, but may have to be developed for 2.3.0 as a stopgap measure.

ERA is now the Systems Authority for ERTMS, and the head of the project team Pio Guido agreed that version management will be critical. He confirmed that a change control process is being put in place.

Aliadière suggested that 'we should join our forces' to 'converge on 3.0.0', and his call for the industry 'to have a fully-available standard available by 2009 and products by 2011' was met with wide acclaim. However Hess warned that at the current rate of progress ?'I do not expect to see 3.0.0 before 2020'.

Swiss pioneers

With almost 600 locos and driving vehicles equipped for Level 2 operation using a modified version of SRS 2.2.2, the Swiss installation is by far the most complex ETCS application in Europe, and various speakers paid tribute to SBB's project management role in driving the development forward. 'We did not set out to be a pioneer', admitted Hess ruefully, 'but we did not realise how long other railways would take.'

The Swiss government's decision to install full lineside signalling as a back-up on Mattstetten - Rothrist enabled SBB to phase in ETCS gradually, starting with trial runs at night and then revenue services in the evenings, before moving to all-day operation and finally to 200 km/h in July (RG 5.07 p248). SBB is now racking up around 250 000 km of Level 2 operation per month, with up to 12 trains at a time on the 40 km route, running at headways of just 2 min.

With its legacy Signum and ZUB train control systems now 'at the end of their life cycle', the SBB board has approved a SFr300m migration programme that will see Level 1 with Limited Supervision rolled out across the core network by 2016.

In the Lötschberg base tunnel, the ETCS is specified for 250 km/h on 3 min headways. No back-up is provided other than a signal at each portal. BLS Chief Executive Matthias Tromp admitted that the railway had twice asked the government to be released from the requirement to install ERTMS, but after the second application was rejected 'we took the pragmatic approach and contracted SBB to project-manage the system. We had a lot of sleepless nights, but we got there.'

BLS went to competitive tender for the lineside equipment, which was won by Thales, whereas SBB is using Alstom technology. This provided an 'opportunity' to develop full compatibility between the two systems as well as on-board equipment from other suppliers. Another first was the provision for reverse operation, permitting trains to back out of the single-track bore in the event of an emergency.

'ETCS is a hugely expensive game', commented Tromp, noting that Switzerland has achieved its leading role without any of the grants on offer to railways in the EU member states. 'Infrastructure people don't run trains', he commented wryly, emphasising the importance of customer focus. 'Look at the operator benefits - for freight ERTMS is just a cost factor when we are facing greater competition from road'.

Roll-out accelerating

The signalling manufacturers have effectively ceased development of their legacy systems, apart from Specific Transmission Modules to provide an interface with ETCS. And clear evidence about the extent to which ERTMS will be rolled out over the next few years is apparent in a new atlas reporting the findings of a recent UIC study.

Whilst one could quibble with the detailed status of some projects, the statistics about ETCS and GSM-R progress are impressive. UIC reports that 1 739 route-km of ETCS Level 1 and 2 are now in commercial service, with a further 27 682 route-km contracted or planned for the next 10 years. So far 852 locos or driving cars have been fitted with on-board equipment, and contracts have been placed for a further 759 vehicles.

The roll-out of GSM-R digital radio is progressing faster, with almost 60 000 km out of a planned 148 000 km network installed, albeit less than 40 000 km is operational. In January this year ProRail became the first infrastructure manager to turn off its old analogue radio network, although four more railways are expected to migrate to GSM-R by the end of this year.

It is clear that each railway using ETCS has managed to get it working by optimising the system for domestic operation, but there seems little agreement on cross-border issues. DB's Klaus Junker, representing the Corridor A committee, graphically described the hotch-potch of ETCS planned for the Rotterdam - Genova route, which is due to be equipped throughout by 2016.

In the Netherlands, the Betuwe Route is being fitted with Level 2 to SRS 2.2.2, which Junker believed was 'in good shape' despite widely-reported commissioning problems. DB Netz envisages using 3.0.0 when it becomes available, either Level 2 or Level 1 with Limited Supervision. SBB is now using 2.2.2 Level 2 and plans to fit Level 1 LS elsewhere. In Italy RFI is looking at Level 1 with radio infill using 3.0.0, but not before 2010.

'What we need is a design freeze, an operational requirements specification and some corridor rules', said Junker, emphasising that 'compatibility of hardware and software is vital for implementation.' Emphasising the business objective, he reminded delegates that 'we are developing this corridor for the customers - to win this heavy traffic back off the roads'.

Many railways are trying to develop a business case for ERTMS, but it is clear that any reduction in the cost of the equipment will depend on achieving critical mass. To this end, the report from UIC Deputy Chief Executive Vipin Sharma that railways around the world were starting to adopt ETCS offered a sign of hope. As well as contracts for China, South Korea, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia, he confirmed that pilot projects were underway in both India and Australia.

RailCorp's Bob Hammer reported that his team looked at '67 alternative ATP systems' before deciding that ETCS offered the mix of signal enforcement and speed supervision needed for the Sydney suburban network. 'The Level 1 specifications are well-developed and the equipment is available off-the-shelf', he believed.

RailCorp has awarded three contracts to Siemens, Alstom with United Group and the Interop joint venture of Bombardier and Invensys Rail, who formed a 'collaborative development group' in April. Each supplier is currently equipping a short section of the Sydney - Lithgow route and one four-car EMU, and this month is due to see the start of testing. Each of the trains will spend a month on each section of line to test the compatibility between the three systems. Hammer said this approach would ensure an open market when RailCorp comes to tendering contracts to equip its network.

Traffic management

As conceived, ERTMS was intended to have three main components - ETCS, GSM-R and the European Traffic Management Layer. With much of the effort in recent years being focused on the first two elements, little progress had been reported with ETML.

However, delegates were heartened by the revelation from ProRail's Manager of Network Development Michel Ruesen - who chairs the ERTMS Users Group of eight infrastructure managers plus SBB - that a pilot project for ETML is already being tested on Corridor A.

Under development since 2003, as part of a €10m research programme, Europtirails includes a European information system and path optimisation tools to minimise train delays on international corridors. A plug-in module to work with existing control centres has been developed by Steria Swiss AG under a contact awarded in 2004, based on the TSIs for electronic data transmission and freight traffic management as set out in Directive 2001/16. Europtirails has been under test since early 2006, and Ruesen said it will shortly be handed over to RailNetEurope for use in revenue service.

Further ERTMS developments expected to take shape over the next few years include GPRS packet switching to handle increased volumes of data within GSM-R, and the ETCS-Regional low-cost train control system for regional lines - regarded by some as a forerunner of Level 3 with no lineside equipment for train location. Another initiative is Iness - the Integrated European Signalling System - which will build on the work of the Euro-Interlocking team to develop a series of standard building blocks for the vital safety elements that sit between ETML and ETCS.

  • CAPTION: More than 250 trains/day are operating at up to 200 km/h on SBB's Mattstetten - Rothrist line, which is equipped with ETCS Level 2

Uncertainty continues on HSL-Zuid

TECHNICAL issues continue to dog the ETCS installation on the HSL-Zuid high speed line in the Netherlands (RG 9.07 p572).

According to signalling industry insiders, the upgrade of the lineside equipment from SRS 2.2.2 to 2.3.0 has been completed on both the northern and southern sections either side of Rotterdam. Testing is currently underway to check the revised track-train functionality.

However, even though both Belgium and the Netherlands have standardised on 2.3.0, there is a suggestion that the handover problems between the Thales Radio Block Centres used in the Netherlands and the Alstom RBC controlling LGV 4 south of the border have not yet been solved.

Bombardier is currently delivering the Traxx multi-system electric locos that Angel Trains is leasing to the High Speed Alliance to operate interim passenger services on the Amsterdam - Brussels route, pending the delayed arrival of the Ansaldobreda V250 trainsets. But there are now suggestions that the interim services may only be run as a domestic Amsterdam - Breda service in the Netherlands and an Antwerpen - Noorderkempen shuttle on LGV 4, with no cross-border working and the locos restricted to Level 1 operation.

One Thalys PBA trainset has been fitted with on-board ETCS equipment for testing, but there are reports that no contract has yet been placed for the series conversions and Thalys services will not start using the high speed line before 2009 at the earliest.