Systems such as Atacs in Japan, Positive Train Control (PTC) in the United States, ERTMS/ETCS in Europe, and communications-based train control (CBTC) for metros are all based on software and radio transmission of data.
When developed to their full potential to include cab signalling and moving block, these systems have the ability to reduce costs and increase capacity and safety. The elimination of lineside signalling, which is expensive to install and maintain, will be a huge benefit in itself especially with the current surge in the theft of copper signalling wires.
Many railways are experiencing significant growth in both freight and passenger traffic, and a steady increase in line speeds, while there is potential for greater cross-border operation within continents. But a busier railway puts greater strain on existing infrastructure and safety, and demands a modern solution.
Customers - both passenger and freight - are much more demanding than they used to be. They expect high levels of punctuality and frequency, and accurate and up-to-the-minute information. Railways should no longer accept a situation whereby they don't know where their trains are, or only have a vague idea of their location, because of dark territory. As we report this month, PTC has the ability to eliminate this deficiency of North American railroading.
It is clearly a huge challenge to develop and implement a radically-new train control system and to ensure that it functions efficiently and safely without degrading operations. To be successful, the development of computer-based train control systems requires much greater cooperation between railways and suppliers, which is a challenge in itself.
The technical problems associated with PTC sound very similar to ETCS' difficult and protracted birth. ETCS was originally supposed to be an overlay to existing systems to facilitate interoperability, but it has evolved into a train control system in its own right. PTC is viewed as an overlay but with the primary objective of improving safety.
There is ardent opposition to both systems from some major railways, which cannot see beyond the initially high development costs.
However, other railways have adopted a positive attitude to the new technology. With ETCS, a few railways have simply got on with the implementation to make it work and without the need for fall-back systems, while others have made heavy weather of installing it, encountering huge problems, and consequently lacking the confidence to rely on ETCS alone.
A major difference between the development of PTC and ETCS is that the US Congress has set an arbitrary date of 2015 for the implementation of PTC, which means there is insufficient time to implement advanced PTC architecture which would allow moving or virtual block. Whilst setting deadlines is good for spurring people into action, they must be realistic. Hopefully, Congress will take heed of requests to push the deadline back to allow more time to develop a really-beneficial version of PTC.
The greatest challenge to developing and implementing new technology is not technical but human. There is a natural resistance among many people to change, usually because they do not understand the new technology and therefore fear the unknown. There are also those who subscribe to the philosophy "if it ain't broke don't try to fix it," but this assumes that life remains the same, which it doesn't.
This is why it is so important that everyone in an organisation, from the senior managers down to the people who will install and use the new technology, is fully aware of how it works, what its potential benefits are, and how its implementation will affect the way the railway is run.
The 13-point plan to improve the deployment of PTC, drawn up by Mr Steven Ditmeyer, has some excellent recommendations, many of which can be applied to the implementation of other projects.
Railways have made great strides in pushing the boundaries of railway technology, for example by increasing the axleloads of heavy-haul freight trains and raising the maximum speed of passenger trains. Now is the time to take train control out of the 19th and 20th centuries so that railways can meet the challenges of the 21st century. In years to come we will probably wonder what all the fuss was about.