THE European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) was conceived to provide a standard train control system for Europe to eventually replace the myriad signalling systems currently in use and overcome one of Europe’s major interoperability hurdles. While the deployment of the GSM-R train radio and data transmission element of ERTMS has been a major success in Europe, there is only one cross-border application of the European Train Control System (ETCS) in Europe so far, and as all other applications are on isolated lines there is little evidence of interoperability.

“GSM-R is in operation on 55,000km and will cover 67% of the European network,” says Mr Norman Frisch of the GSM-R Industry Group. “Today, more than 15 GSM-R networks are interconnected.” Virtually, every European railway will have installed GSM-R by 2015. In addition, GSM-R is already installed in China, and is being deployed in Algeria, India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, ETCS is only operating on about 2500 route-km in Europe, and largely on new lines. Contracts have been awarded to install ETCS on a further 4524km in Europe. But larger ETCS projects are underway outside Europe, and the world’s three largest installations of ETCS will be in China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

As Mr Christian Clausecker, director general of Unife, Europe’s association of railway equipment suppliers, points out: “ERTMS has now become a worldwide standard and a technological success. Overseas railways invest in ERTMS because it is the most modern system available today. As one European Union official said, ‘we only seem to have complaints about ERTMS from countries that haven’t invested in it – those that have seem to be satisfied’.”

Spain now has the largest application of ERTMS in Europe, with 1050km in service, and a further 438km being installed on the new Madrid-Valencia/Albacete high-speed line. Spain will also be the first European country to install ERTMS on commuter lines, starting with the busy Madrid network followed by that in Barcelona.

“The route to ERTMS was far from simple,” says Mr Antonio González Marín, president of Spain’s infrastructure manager, Adif. “None of the specifications were defined and we had to make further adjustments as new versions came along. The project involved Adif, the national operator, Renfe, and the public works and experimentation centre, Cedex. We set up the first interoperability laboratory for ERTMS, and did more than 400,000km of tests without incidents and achieved 100% punctuality.”

Mr Manuel Sanchez Doblado, Adif’s director general of infrastructure development, is keen to see ERTMS laboratories playing a much greater role in testing equipment. “On-track tests were a good solution at the beginning when we didn’t have much traffic on our new lines, but now traffic is too dense to do this, except where it is really necessary,” he says.

González Marín says ETCS is currently operating at Level 1 in Spain with trains running at up to 300km/h, but 350km/h operation will begin soon with Level 2 on the Madrid-Lleida high-speed line, followed soon after by the other high-speed lines. He says that Spain has 99% reliability with ERTMS, but despite this there are no plans yet to do away with conventional signalling which is still being installed on new lines alongside ERTMS regardless of the additional cost.

Some European railway managers, notably the Swiss and Italians, have had the confidence to install ERTMS without a back-up system on their new lines, and seem quite happy with the result, so it is odd that the Spanish do not have the confidence to do the same considering how well ERTMS is performing.

Mr Eduardo Molina Soto, sub-director general of planning and projects for railway infrastructure, with Spain’s Ministry of Public Works (Fomento), points out that the many versions of ETCS are creating a lot of problems. The current ETCS baseline 2.3.0d will be used on all new lines currently under construction, even though Molina Soto says it is not compatible with version 2.2.2 and earlier versions installed in Spain – and to complicate things further, version 3.0.0 should be available by 2012.

“We must have stable and homogeneous specifications,” says Molino Soto. “It will be a major effort to upgrade lines and rolling stock for version 2.3.0d. Version 3.0.0 must be compatible with earlier versions otherwise migration costs will be too high.”

However, Mr Klaus Mindel, director of mainline product strategy with Thales Rail Signalling Solutions, says only very limited changes to hardware are needed to upgrade from one ETCS baseline to the next, unless a railway wants to increase capacity at the same time.

Mr Alfred Pitnik, head of international affairs with Rail Cargo Austria, says one of the problems with ETCS is that an operator has to apply line-by-line rather than country-by-country to operate a train fitted with ETCS because of the different versions in use. This obviously hampers the rapid expansion of ETCS.

Mr Christian Faure, from the European Commission’s (EC) Directorate General for Energy and Transport, says there is now “unanimous commitment to installing ERTMS in Europe,” and there is a requirement to install ERTMS on the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) corridors by 2015 “to create a substantial network.”

The recent TEN-T calls for proposals by the EC includes €240 million for ERTMS. Faure says that ERTMS funding can also come from the €500 million of TEN-T funds that have been brought forward under the European economic recovery plan. Clausecker says the German government has dedicated €250 million to ERTMS as part of the German economic recovery plan, but the money must be spent this year and next. These new sources of finance should give ERTMS a much-needed boost.

Mr Karel Vinck, the EC corridor coordinator, describes the programme to introduce ERTMS on certain corridors by 2012-15 as “very ambitious.” But he says three conditions have to be met to introduce the corridor concept: all bottlenecks must be removed, ERTMS must be installed, and operating rules must be harmonised.

“If we want to make ERTMS a success, we have to make a business case for it, and customers must benefit,” says Vinck. “I am more optimistic today than I was three years ago, but we are now at the stage where we have to make major breakthroughs. We will get there on one condition: that we all work together.”

Dr Frederich Hageneyer, chairman of Unife, believes ERTMS is essential to make the railways more competitive. “Don’t forget that trucks are running from Malaga to Moscow with problems.” Try sending a train that far and see how long it takes by comparison.

There certainly seems to be an ever-increasing commitment to ERTMS in Europe, and more funding is becoming available, but is it enough to achieve real and rapid progress?