May 23, 2012

Now or never for ERTMS in Europe

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MY prediction in April that last month's International Union of Railways (UIC) world conference on ERTMS in Stockholm would arouse passions and stimulate debate was spot on as speaker after speaker outlined the deficiencies of Europe's grand plan to realise a continent-wide signalling and train control system. But Sweden gave a tantalising glimpse into the future with a demonstration of the world's first ETCS Level 3 system, which I believe has the potential to facilitate ETCS deployment.

Mr Libor Lochman, executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), gave a rallying call to delegates to accelerate the implementation of ERTMS in Europe, warning: "If we go ahead with ERTMS we have to go ahead now, otherwise we should forget it."

Lochman pointed out that only around 4000km of railway is currently equipped with ETCS in Europe. "Is this enough? Definitely not," he said. "We have gaps between lines, almost no cross-border operation, all trackside installations use different baselines, and operators are forced to use legacy systems. These problems must be addressed with utmost urgency. There is no future for ERTMS in Europe if deployment doesn't run in a coordinated and accelerated way with a stable version."

Lochman is also calling for seamless ERTMS supervision on the corridors, standard ERTMS trackside installations, decommissioning plans for current ATP systems, incentives for operators to strengthen the business case for installing onboard equipment, and competitive costs throughout the life of the equipment.

Some of the shortcomings of ETCS were laid bare by Mr Christian Faure, outgoing programme manager with the European Commission's (EC) transport directorate DG Move.

Regarding the difficulty in obtaining certification for ERTMS, Faure said: "We must break the vicious circle of suppliers complaining about the need to do more tests and the national safety authorities seeing lots of bugs in the software. Suppliers need to improve quality. But it's not just about technology; we must ensure we have an economic case for ERTMS."

This was borne out by Mr Björn Westerberg, ERTMS project manager with Sweden's national passenger operator, SJ. "We have a low-margin business, so if we have solutions that work why should we invest in a new system?" he asked. "We have 200 locomotives to retrofit with ERTMS onboard equipment, but we need to sell 200,000 tickets just to equip one locomotive. Where there is a positive business case there will be momentum for implementation."

Both Faure and Lochman believe that ETCS needs to be installed on the infrastructure first as this will make it easier for the operators, many of which are either commercial or private entities, to make a business case. Faure says the EC's first priority is to install ETCS on the European freight corridors, but Lochman is concerned whether the right incentives are in place to get the infrastructure managers to invest. "We must not do anything that makes rail uncompetitive," Lochman said. "The cost of introducing ETCS should not fall on the infrastructure managers but European Union member states."

But there are some positive developments. The release of Baseline 3 for ETCS, which will be backwards compatible with Baseline 2.3.0d, is being hailed as a major step towards achieving stability in the software. Mr Michel van Liefferinge, general manager of Unisig, says Baseline 3 has new functions, some of which are cost-efficient. He also pointed to the new ERTMS memorandum of understanding which he says is designed to cut costs including those related to certification.

The declaration by Trafikverket, Bombardier and Mr Paul Frøsig of the UIC that the Swedish Regional ERTMS project is in fact the first deployment of ETCS Level 3 is of great significance. The commercial operation of Level 3 on the Västerdal freight line is the culmination of 12 years work. The promoters readily acknowledge that a lot more needs to be done to achieve a fully-fledged Level 3 system, such as incorporating an end-of-train detection system for freight trains, testing moving block, and getting other suppliers and railways involved.

Level 3 obviates the need for costly equipment such as track circuits, axle counters, interlockings, and a lot of cabling, while at the same time increasing safety and capacity. Trafikverket says cost savings of up to 50% in infrastructure installation and maintenance are possible, which would help the business case for deploying ETCS no end.

However, the promoters of Level 3 face a lot of opposition from those with a vested interest in getting a return on their considerable investment in Levels 1 and 2, and companies that don't like the idea of supplying considerably less kit. But this is a myopic view, as adopting Level 3 would make resignalling regional lines more affordable, thereby encouraging more projects, and would dramatically enhance the business case for ETCS on main lines. Surely anything which cuts costs, while improving safety and capacity is to be encouraged?

David Briginshaw

David Briginshaw joined IRJ in 1982 as associate editor, and was appointed editor-in-chief in 2001. He has travelled the world extensively interviewing many of the CEOs and senior managers of the world's railways and transit systems which has given him an in-depth knowledge of the global railway industry.

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