’WE ARE STARTING to leave technical matters behind and move to commercial developments.’ This was the message with which Chief Executive Philippe Roumeguère opened UIC’s seventh annual conference on ERTMS/ETCS and GSM-R in Paris on November 25. Some 450 delegates were present. Certainly, the good news was mostly on the technical development of a European Rail Traffic Management System that will one day sweep into oblivion the confusion of signalling, train protection and radio systems used by national railways.

Technical compatibility between trackside and on-train equipment that provides automatic train protection - and should eventually replace lineside signals - was demonstrated in a video showing an ÖBB multi-voltage locomotive equipped by Alstom being driven across the border between Austria and Hungary. Siemens had equipped 15 route-km on the Austrian side with its version of the Eurobalise linked to existing signalling, while Ansaldo had done likewise for 31 km in Hungary.

It sounds simple, but it has been a long haul. Technical compatibility had been refined and demonstrated in Spain through the Emset trials (RG 12.97 p853). Jaime Tamarit of Cedex said the site was winding down and would close in the spring.

During 1999, the six signalling suppliers which formed Unisig (Adtranz, Alcatel, Alstom, Ansaldo, Invensys and Siemens) have worked hard to finalise the ERTMS/ETCS specifications to achieve this technical compatibility. As Bernhard Stamm of Siemens pointed out, ’we did not target exchangeability of components’. The objective was inter-operability ’which can be understood in many different ways’. The level demanded by the operators is important because ’too-high interoperability will have a too-high price.’

Agreement on the broad technical specifications for ETCS by Ecsag, representing the railways, was reached just before the conference, and remaining issues are expected to be resolved in a matter of weeks. However, the development of common operating rules (Heroe) may take a while longer.

A secure radio voice and data link has always been an essential part of ERTMS, and there was satisfaction that the decision to go for GSM-R (the railway version of GSM public cellular radio) had stood the test of time. Christophe Robillard of Nortel spoke for the Morane group charged with developing GSM-R when he said 1999 was the year products became ’available off the shelf’ from ’two committed infrastructure and two or three terminal vendors’.

So far the roll-out had been ’sluggish’, he said, but recently a ’snowball effect’ had developed with network deployment in Germany, Sweden and probably the Netherlands. Germany alone is expected to spend DM3·5bn. But Robillard warned that development depended on having a customer base. Even if all 32 railways that had approved GSM-R in principle actually installed it, this would account for under 1% of annual production by the industry.

One special feature of GSM-R is the ability to make broadcast and group calls. This was demonstrated for the first time on November 25 when Morane Project Director Robert Sarfati of SNCF spoke to Antonio Colaço of DGVII at the European Commission and Michael Watkins, Director of the Eirene project which developed GSM-R specifications.

What happened to Level 3?

The bad news emerged early in the conference at a Round Table with Antonio Colaço as Facilitator, followed by a presentation on Railtrack’s West Coast Main Line upgrade by Network Development Director Robin Gisby.

Roumeguère had reminded delegates that while safety was the goal of the ATP function inherent in all levels of ETCS, ’one reason for launching this programme was to bring costs down.’ Clearly, cost reductions are not going to be achieved by extracting data from existing track circuits, signals and interlockings, and processing this aboard the train to provide ATP.

The big savings come with Level 3, which allows conventional signalling to be scrapped - provided all trains which might possibly use the line are equipped, of course. And there lies the problem. Even on new lines, such as Roma - Napoli and the planned TGV Est route from Paris to Strasbourg, ETCS is going to be a costly bolt-on extra rather than replacing track circuits. Rob Te Pas of NS drew comfort from the fact that ’standardisation in the market means the unit cost of signalling will go down’, but it seems there is still no commitment to using Level 3 on either the Betuwe freight line or HSL-Zuid to Belgium.

Until now, only Railtrack had grasped the Level 3 nettle on the West Coast Main Line. But Gisby had to admit this was now postponed to some undefined ’third stage’ on WCML - or maybe ’a busy commuter route’ - following Railtrack’s decision to install Level 2 for the fast tracks only between London and Crewe (RG 12.99 p753). Significantly, Gisby said ’the biggest challenge is fitting equipment into existing rolling stock.’