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Brexit – Signalling implications for the UK

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With Britain on a course to leave the EU, how might the plans for signalling (control and communications) be affected? In short, nobody really knows, but a number of factors might now change the policy that had existed hitherto. Not having to comply with EU rules on interoperability, the non-inclusion of TEN routes and the advertising of large contracts in the European Journal might all lead to a different (or modified) approach.

Some might regard this easing of the rules as a heaven-sent opportunity, others will argue that deviating from the European norm would amount to a business disaster. So what are the issues and how can the pros and cons be assessed?


ERTMS, and its constituent parts of ETCS and GSM-R, has been a corner stone of European signalling policy for over two decades. Both have taken far too long to come to maturity, with ETCS Level 2 just about at a stable level and GSM-R, whilst rolled out throughout the UK, facing an obsolescence crisis within the next ten years. A third element – ETML (European Traffic Management Layer) – has never properly been started and has effectively been overtaken by proprietary Traffic Management Systems (TMS).

The current EU Directive requires all lines due for re-signalling to be fitted with ETCS and to not do so requires a special exemption. The business case for implementing ETCS is questionable. Expert opinion differs on the financial viability, some reckoning that there is no real financial return for the Level 2 technology that retains traditional train detection devices such as track circuits or axle counters, with its attendant lineside infrastructure. Most countries within the EU seem to have accepted that an EU Directive has to be obeyed and the cost will have to be absorbed.

Some smaller countries have committed to nationwide roll out, notably Denmark and now Norway (the latter, oddly, not in the EU but with an invitation to tender now launched) and many others are adopting ETCS on a gradual basis, especially on high speed lines. It should achieve interoperability, but the demands of some countries for special adaptation to ensure conformance with national operating rules has made the task more difficult.

In Britain, we have the Cambrian line equipped as a learning exercise, a commitment to ETCS on the central section of Thameslink (including an ATO overlay) and on the southern section of the ECML. The roll out on other routes looks likely to be on an extended timescale despite some comments to the contrary from the Network Rail Digital Railway team.

What are the ETCS Benefits?

The claims are twofold: it will bring extra safety and it will increase line capacity. Both need scrutiny. Since the introduction of TPWS, the number of dangerous SPADs has decreased significantly and it is questionable whether there is sufficient scope for further improvement to the safety statistics in this area.

Claims that capacity can be dramatically improved may have been wildly exaggerated as capacity will depend on many other factors –  train service patterns, station stops, rolling stock performance, track layouts and others. However, with the right kind of railway, and a busy one at that, then yes – ETCS can deliver a greater throughput since movement authorities replace the traditional block sections.

Is there an alternative?

There are people who say that ERTMS is going to be the only show in town but is this true? In terms of cab-based signalling, it probably is, but the UK signalling industry has spent a lot of time developing a more efficient and easier way to implement traditional ‘lights on sticks’ systems, particularly for secondary routes.

Starting with Ely-Norwich and Crewe- Shrewsbury, ‘modular’ signalling has made a conventional upgrade much easier and cheaper, with standardised components, more testing being done in the factory, plug-coupled cables and without the complication of having to fit rolling stock.

Whilst the Cambrian line system has proved useful in testing out ETCS technology, it revealed some significant difficult issues, the retro fitting of trains perhaps being the major one. Is ETCS really the right system for this kind of rural line?

Certainly the Scots looked at it for their lines in the north of the country and decided that a much better bet would be a re-design of the RETB system, and this has now been implemented. Are there other rural lines that could benefit from this revamped technology?

Then there is CBTC. Now a common technology for metros, it suffers from having a number of proprietary suppliers without any real thought to standardisation, but this has had the advantage of moving the technology forward at a much quicker pace than has been seen with ETCS.

The endless committees to discuss and agree how the standards will be implemented do not get in the way. Whilst not suitable for main line usage (at least in the foreseeable future), there could be suburban routes around cities (for example Merseyrail) that could benefit from CBTC deployment.

Other factors

Britain’s railway has long been in the forefront of digital technology and it has implemented a nationwide fibre network and associated huge digital transmission capacity (FTN and FTNx) courtesy of Network Rail Telecoms, that passes the Heineken test – it reaches all parts of the network. Thus, there for the taking is a distribution system to get commands out from a signalling centre to trackside points and signals without the large expenditure on dedicated lineside cabling. This yields huge cost reductions and has already been put to good use on the modular signalling projects.

Equally, the GSM-R radio network is complete and all trains are fitted, so bolting on an RETB cab display and control unit (or indeed a portable ETCS unit) becomes almost a minor task. Sure, at some time in the future, GSM-R will have to be replaced with something else, but this could be less constrained if a European dictate were not to be there and would have to be carried out whether or not Britain is in or out of the EU.

Network Rail’s Digital Railway initiative has made ETCS a major part of its thrust, but is this where the effort should be expended and would it be better to concentrate on some other elements of the Digital Railway plan?

Getting more capacity is a challenge for all European railways, so improving the running and regulation of trains will significantly help this. Enter TMS, which takes an overall picture of train operations across a wide area and makes intelligent decisions on routing priorities and train speed. Couple this with DAS (Driver Advisory System) and you achieve a minute-by-minute optimisation of train running performance. A big plus is that this can be fitted to existing power box technology, thus potentially giving a much faster deployment than an ETCS programme.

So what will happen?

As indicated earlier, the implications of Brexit on rail signalling are far from clear. Yes, ETCS will happen on the busiest main lines with capacity constraints and maybe on busy city commuter routes as well. A welcome initiative would be the development and introduction of ETCS Level 3 as this does away with traditional train detection equipment, thus dramatically improving the business case. Freed from the bureaucracy of European decision-making, the UK might just lead the way with this and the signs are already there that this is happening. It would be ironic if, in, 10 years time, Britain is acknowledged as the pioneer of Level 3 technology and operation.

On secondary and rural routes, the way forward is more difficult to predict. The high cost of ETCS Level 2 makes it an unattractive proposition for such lines, where capacity constraints rarely exist. If, and it is a big if, Level 3 comes to fruition, then this might be a more cost-effective solution than conventional signalling, always provided that the rolling stock fitment is carried out as new trains are introduced. For the remotest of rural lines, the continuation of RETB technology may well find favour.

It’s going to be interesting to watch what happens. One thing is certain, finance and the cost of achieving modern and effective control and communication will be a big factor and not having to obey EU Directives could make a significant difference. The country is likely to have a smaller chequebook so value for money will be all important.

Photo: shutterstock.com


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