The future is seamless
E&T explains that the European Union has been rolling along the path to rail harmonisation for 20 years, with the occasional delay en route.
Trains that ply their trade across the European rail network today are equipped with up to seven different navigational systems.
Each is extremely costly and takes up space on-board. A train crossing from one European country to another must switch the operating standards as it crosses the border. All this adds to travel time and operational and maintenance costs.
Together with other technical differences such as rail gauge, electricity voltage and rolling stock design, the existence of more than 20 train control systems in Europe has always been a major obstacle to the development of international rail transport. For this reason, the development of a common European system started to be discussed as early as the late 1980s.
Each system is stand-alone and non-interoperable, and therefore requires extensive integration and engineering effort, raising total delivery costs for cross-border traffic. This restricts competition and hampers the competitiveness of the European rail sector vis-à-vis road transport by creating technical barriers to international journeys.
For instance, the Thalys train sets running between Paris-Brussels-Cologne and Amsterdam have to be equipped with seven different types of train control systems, which brings considerable costs.
The European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS) is a major industrial project developed by six companies - Alstom Transport, Ansaldo STS, Bombardier Transportation, Invensys Rail Group, Siemens Mobility and Thales - working closely with the European Union (EU), railway stakeholders and the GSM-R (Global System for Mobile Communication) industry.
There are two major components to ERTMS. First there is the European Train Control System (ETCS), an Automatic Train Protection System (ATP) to replace the existing national ATP-systems and GSM-R, a radio system for providing voice and data communication between the track and the train, based on standard GSM using frequencies specifically reserved for rail application with certain specific and advanced functions.
ERTMS aims at replacing the different national train control and command systems in Europe. Its deployment will enable the creation of a seamless European railway system and increase European railway's competitiveness.
For 20 years the EU has been treading the path to rail harmonisation, with many a stumble along the way. The specifications currently in force are contained in the EU legislation SRS 2.3.0d, which was adopted by the European Commission in April 2008. To ensure that ERTMS is constantly adapted to the railway's needs, technical specifications are maintained under the lead of the European Railway Agency in cooperation with the signalling industry and railway stakeholders.
However, interoperability is far from being the only advantage brought by ERTMS.
Increased capacity on existing lines and a greater ability to respond to growing transport demands will be tackled. As a continuous communication-based signalling system, ERTMS reduces the headway between trains enabling up to 40 per cent more capacity on currently existing infrastructure. Trains can also travel at a higher speed, up to 500km/h (311mph).
"The entire journey to change the railways in Europe and make them more competitive started in the early 90s with two main initiatives from the European commission," ERTMS director-general Michael Clausecker says. "The first, to liberalise the railway market: to grant free access to all kinds of operators on the railway network that already existed. And the second initiative was to technically harmonise the European railway market.
"At that time, and still to a large extent today, railways used to be national systems. That means that the operational rules are national. The electrification systems are national; the gauges of the railways are different in some countries, but not in all of them. The track gauges are different in Spain and Portugal from the rest of Europe, the tunnel gauges differ to some extent from country to country; the most popular example is the UK with a very small tunnel profile."
Once the European Commission started to dig deeper into this, it became obvious that some things could not be changed. There was no way to change the tunnel profile in the UK. There was also no way to implement a common electrification system in Europe, because clearly that would have involved too much cost.
The answer to that particular dilemma was multi-system trains or multi-system locomotives; trains that can cope with different electrification systems, which means 1.5kV, 15kV, 25kV and 50kV systems.
But top of the agenda for European rail harmonisation must be the signalling systems. "In the particular question of signalling systems, the idea came up to develop a new unique European signalling system so that when the railways in each European country develop further they would have to implement the next generation of signalling system, they would change to ERTMS," Clausecker adds. "That is when the ERTMS journey started.
"I think that also gives the impression of why we no longer talk of unifying the European railway system, but rather making it interoperable - developing the technologies implemented in the railway system, developing the standards, the way trains can be operated between different countries under a single signalling system. The leading idea today is interoperability."
Corridors of deployment
The deployment of ERTMS currently takes place in six corridors that span from the north of Sweden down through Europe to the Spanish Costa and Naples in southern Italy, and from the Channel ports across central Europe to Belarus and the Ukraine. "These are the main ERTMS corridors," Clausecker says. "For each of these corridors there is a corridor management scheme set up.
"There is a memorandum of understanding being developed between the member states that are involved in these corridors. Part of this memorandum of understanding is such points as when ERTMS will be operational at each section of the line so that at a certain point in time the entire line will be operational under ERTMS."
To the untrained eye, these corridors appear to miss out some of the big urban centres such as Paris and Madrid but, as Clausecker explains, the focus is very much on freight rail at present. "It was clear from early on that the main interest for ERTMS would come from freight operations," he says. "Our liberalisation has been developed much more in freight than in passenger operations and international transport from a number of operators is much more demanded in freight operations than in passenger operations.
"That's why the development of these ERTMS corridors has been more subject to freight operation considerations than passenger operations. If you look at the lines as they are established now, you see that these are really the most congested freight routes throughout Europe."
There are three stages of ERTMS technology that are intended to take the network through from its current legacy state of a disjointed national network into a truly harmonised European rail network. But the utopia of level three is still some way off. "Level 1 is different to some other legacy systems," Clausecker explains. "It is a continuous line-based communication train protection system, comparable to some other systems that already exist.
"By continuous we mean that you will have cable between the tracks and continuous communication about the position.
"Level 2 means that no more line side signalling is necessary because all information that is required by the train driver is provided on his screen. That is huge progress in terms of cost savings.
"Level 3 is far more advanced because it includes a so-called moving block operation."
The concept of 'moving block' is a very simple one. You have blocks of railway tracks of a fixed distance, say 2km, and the safety train protection system makes sure that in every block there is only one train. As long as train A has not left the block, the following train B cannot enter into this block. These blocks are fixed. Level 3 will remove this concept of fixed blocks and switch to moving blocks, where the train protection system will make sure that there is a safe guard of a safe distance between trains.
This means that a level 3 system will make sure that trains will have a safe distance, say 60 or 90 seconds for example, between them, but the actual distance would be calculated by speed, conditions and train performance, allowing for much denser traffic on existing train lines.
ERTMS is rapidly becoming the major global standard not just in Europe but around the globe, according to statistics on ERTMS deployment by UNIFE, the European Rail Industry.
The statistics show that non-European countries account for nearly 50 per cent of the total ERTMS investments worldwide.
"This trend demonstrates that ERTMS has now become the accepted global ATP standard and is trusted by the railways worldwide, thanks to the considerable advantages it brings in terms of capacity and multi-supplier capabilities," Clausecker explains.
The statistics show that three non-EU countries - China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey - are among the top five investors of ERTMS trackside equipment. Spain, where ERTMS is running on many lines including the highly successful Madrid-Barcelona line, is the largest investor in Europe.
Globally, there are more than 33,000km of track (20,000km of routes) and 4,600 vehicles (6,000 onboard units) contracted to be equipped or already operating with ERTMS in the world.
While a major share of these contracts are to enter service by the end of the decade, 4,500km of track are already in operation in Europe and more than 3,000km outside Europe, in Taiwan and South Korea in particular.
"It is high-time for European countries to seriously invest into ERTMS, and allow the European railways not only to benefit from the performance of the system, but also from interoperability," Clausecker says.
"If the sector's ambition is truly to compete with trucks, ERTMS investments should be considered as a matter of urgency. Strong cooperation under the continuing leadership of the EU will be necessary to ensure that there are no 'gaps' in the ERTMS network."