Common signalling makes rail travel smoother

Connected society 9 May 2016 Peter I. Koch

The European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) is the most efficient tool to make the European railway network interoperable. Denmark is the first country in Europe to upgrade its entire signalling system, and Ramboll is heading the complicated work.

12 min

The first efforts to establish a community of European nations came in the wake of World War II, and over the subsequent decades thousands of rules, systems and standards have since become harmonised in what is now the European Union.

Nonetheless, in 2016 European rail operators are usually still compelled to switch locomotives when they want to drive a train from one European country to another – unless several parallel signalling systems are installed in the rolling stock.

Europe has more than 20 signalling and speed control systems as well as differing forms of radio communications equipment operating at any given time. This is about to change, however. The EU directive on the Trans-European Rail network states that there must be interoperability between trains, signals and other rail structures in the core sections of the network by 2030 at the latest.

Denmark is the first country to start upgrading its entire signalling system to the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) – the largest signalling replacement project in Europe to date. The project will ultimately improve connectivity between European cities and enable seamless travel within the EU.

An international consortium led by Ramboll is assisting Banedanmark in the national rollout of the new system. The project is one of the biggest Danish consultancy contracts to date, and Ramboll is involved in many aspects of the highly complex assignment, including the interface, scope management and system integration of the signalling technology, design of traffic management buildings, environmental and IT aspects as well as organisational implementation and contract management.

Technology predating World War II

Although changing signalling systems is not exactly cheap, the political decision-making process was less protracted than usual for huge infrastructure projects.

“Large sections of the Danish signalling system were so outdated that its continued maintenance and repair had become difficult. Still, implementing a nationwide system instead of continuing with a variety of local solutions with high maintenance costs is visionary,” says Otto Anker Nielsen, a professor in traffic modelling at the Technical University of Denmark.

Most of the signalling equipment was based on 1950s-60s relay technology, and some even predated World War II. At the same time, the engineers, designers and rail workers with the required expertise were nearing retirement, and specific local standards and specifications meant minimal competition, with only a few companies to supply spare parts and other equipment.

Comparative studies of different strategies showed that totally replacing all existing equipment – regardless of age or level of technology – is the best and most economical solution. Three factors make total replacement the most efficient solution at the lowest investment.

First, it is cheaper to buy materials in bulk. Second, rolling out similar stock at the same time takes only one safety approval instead of 50. Finally, total replacement enables a standardised approach – thus making it much simpler to introduce new lines as needed.

Traditionally, railways have adapted existing equipment, but in this case almost all indicators showed that halting the continuous stopgap repairs and opting for a big once-and-for-all makeover was the best way to future-proof the system.

80% decline in signal-related delays

When the upgrade is finished, Danish train passengers can expect better punctuality, faster speeds plus higher capacity – more and/or longer trains – on selected lines and shorter journey times on some routes.

“We anticipate an 80% decline in signal-related delays on main and regional lines and 50% on the local Copenhagen S-bane. Countrywide safety will be greater and more homogenous,” says Jan Schneider-Tilli, Programme Director at Banedanmark.

What is more, future maintenance will be more economical, and the system will provide an unprecedented foundation for more centralised traffic control, energy optimisation and on-time passenger information.

“We are changing not only track structures but also societal structures – because commuting, travelling and freighting goods by train will be easier, especially across borders,” says Peter Koch, Senior Market Director at Ramboll Transport.

The most efficient tool

He points out that rail passengers are not the only ones to gain advantages. All taxpayers benefit. When the tender bids came in, prices were lower than expected, and Banedanmark could return a significant sum to the Danish state.

“Among the ERTMS system’s biggest advantages are the savings you get when train suppliers and operators can relate to the same universal system rather than having to tailor local solutions. It promotes greater competition rather than local monopolies,” says Professor Otto Anker Nielsen.

The European Commission’s ERTMS coordinator, Karel Vinck of DG Mobility and Transport, says that the system is “the most efficient tool to make the European railway network interoperable”.

“Its implementation significantly improves the competitive positioning of rail transport and stimulates the single market for signalling equipment. The European Commission welcomes the decision of member states to switch completely to ERTMS in the next couple of years. Denmark is definitely one of the frontrunners and will have a positive and stimulating effect on other member states,” says Karel Vinck.

Other countries are already showing a growing interest in Denmark’s implementation of ERTMS. “The cost-effective completion, coupled with the modern tender and contract strategies, has sparked inquiries and visits from countries such as Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. Even Australia has shown interest in the lessons learned from the Danish signalling programme,” says Peter Koch from Ramboll Transport.

Norway will probably be the next country to roll out the system nationwide.

What is ERTMS?

  • The main physical changes to the tracks include removing the red-green signal posts and upgrading the technology installed in the tracks, so it can communicate with the ERTMS computer inside the train – with no human involvement needed.
  • Originally, ERTMS was developed for the French TGV and other high-speed trains, but Ramboll and its consortium partners are building a more modern version into the first two test tracks in southern Zealand and northern Jutland.
  • Concurrently with the physical implementation process, the consortium also sent several thousands of rail employees on training and skills-upgrading courses.

Written by Michael Rothenborg.