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Driving innovation in signalling

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Innovation seems to be the latest buzz word. Recent conferences and seminars, as reported in Rail Engineer, have focussed very much on this theme, often coupling it with ‘The Digital Railway’. Having listened to a recent offering by Peloton, I did just wonder how much real innovation is actually taking place and in what areas?

Two speakers, Toufic Machnouk from Network Rail and John Doughty from LNER, explained how the deployment of ERTMS (more succinctly ETCS) would take place on the ECML. One wondered, however, just what the innovative elements are for this project, as compared with rolling out a developed system in a new environment and thinking through the likely problems that will emerge along the way.

Let’s look at what was said.

The infrastructure view

Route programme director Toufic Machnouk had given an overview of the ECML project at the recent RIA conference on the digital railway (issue 185, July/August 2020). As well as the phased approach for the implementation, starting with the Finsbury Park to Moorgate section and finishing at Stoke tunnel, just short of Grantham, he described many other factors that are going to be part of the project.

Network Rail sees six critical factors for ensuring success, of which three were explained in detail. Quite what the other three are will need to be investigated some other time.

The usual claims of ETCS being a higher performance, greater capacity and lower whole-life cost railway were trotted out, but system integration in all its aspects is the one key element where the success criteria will be judged.

Firstly, the partnership with industry needs to be changed and improved. The calculations indicate that 13 organisations will be involved in the ECML project. These include Network Rail itself, with its different groups of management, projects and maintenance; the various train operators that use the line, including passenger, freight, heritage and charter; the supply chain companies, which will include subcontract suppliers; the safety and acceptance authorities and, of course, the government as the overall paymaster.

Industry is not currently set up to enable all of this and it requires some sort of overarching structure to bring industry together. This is recognised as not being easy and it is taking many years to get in place. Lessons are being learned from what has happened with ETCS rollouts in Europe, helped by many of the companies operating on an international perspective. Every participant will need to act differently, which requires a fundamental mindset change. Companies must step out of their traditional shell of business boundaries and short-term financial results.

Secondly, there is the need for technology centricity. Each of the suppliers need to adopt a long-term stake in the programme. This will include the capability of introducing change as technology and rail infrastructure layouts change, without the need to renegotiate contracts and variation clauses. A framework relationship, including design, build, commission and maintain, will be a required commitment from each supplier. Part of this will be a better understanding between engineers/technologists and the people who operate the railway.

Thirdly, the railway needs to recognise that actions must be orientated to outcomes. The individual capabilities of infrastructure engineers and rolling stock engineers are reasonably well known, but this is not sufficient. They must become aligned with the total change needed on how to run a railway.

The benefits of the ECML project have to be progressive. New ways of operating the route have to be devised and rolled out as ETCS makes its way northwards. It is recognised that disruption is possible, but the aim must be to make the transition seamless in the way that the railway is run. One example would be to capitalise early on the bi-directional working that will be made possible. A study has been made of the Cambrian line ETCS conversion (now 10 years old), which struggled in its early stages but which eventually came together. Operations and not technology were the key part of this.

The train operator’s view

Although many operators use the ECML, it is LNER that is the dominant operator on the line and so it will have the lead role in determining the maximum opportunities that can be gained from introducing ETCS to the route. John Doughty, as the engineering director for LNER, indicated that the new technologies being made possible will go way beyond the introduction of just the ETCS element.

Some things are a given: safety and performance must be maintained or enhanced, financial sustainability must be ensured, a legendary customer experience must result, the business must continue to act responsibly and in partnership with others. Traffic Management Systems (TMS), Connected Driver Advisory Systems (C-DAS) and reduced energy consumption are recognised as complementary systems to ETCS. Less obvious are smart ticketing, phone catering, a simpler fare structure and, probably, no paper tickets – all things that LNER would like to see happen in parallel with ETCS introduction.

Within the company, there is an air of excitement that ETCS is coming, but no illusion exists as to some of the challenges. Other major projects like King’s Cross remodelling and the Werrington dive under will be completed, and these and possible similar route enhancements will lead to a more reliable railway. However, a rewrite of the operating rules, an understanding of the system interfaces, the switching in and out of ETCS areas, developing the TMS and C-DAS interfaces and working in an acceptable degraded mode when failures occur, are all major considerations.

Then there is the training of thousands of staff – not just drivers and other train crew, but all the backroom jobs of timetabling, train and crew rostering, platform and station staff and, importantly, the management team.

The Azuma experience

LNER is fortunate in that it has a brand-new train fleet, the Azumas, where many of the processes for a major system upgrade have already been faced. The new trains and their complex systems have impacted on signalling and infrastructure. An example is the auto changeover from electric to diesel by the use of track balises. This has proved a real challenge, but is successful now.

Train crew training was geared around recruiting drivers in advance of the main training programme, so they could then train the others. A similar opportunity has been taken for some drivers to have been trained on the Cambrian line, so that a full feel of ETCS operation can be gained, after which these drivers will become champions for the training of others on the ECML in 2022/3.

The Azumas already have ETCS fitted, so the cab layout and associated displays will be familiar. The use of simulators and rehearsal trains has helped enormously (issue 145, November 2016), as has developing a critical relationship with the train builder.

A hard lesson is to make sure everything is right before bringing it into service. Often the temptation is to commission something, knowing that niggles still exist, and to put these right in service, which then makes the problems more difficult and adversely affects reliability. Engineering-out risk is important with any emerging requirements, as is the separation of commercial discussions from the operating control room.

Above all, operators must share their experiences, to avoid repetition of common problems and situations. For ETCS, the knowledge gained from Cambrian has been mentioned, but also learning from the Thameslink central core is proving important.

Questions and observations

ETCS will, unfortunately, have to be introduced as an overlay to the existing signalling, as it is logistically impossible to introduce the system over a weekend or even an extended blockade. This situation will exist until 2024, when signals will begin to be removed. Does this mean ETCS having to have the same block sections as the conventional signalling? Or will ETCS-fitted trains have movement authorities allowing closer separation?

Often taken for granted in the ETCS debate is the provision of the radio link between control centre and train. Currently this is GSM-R, which is a 2G system and will need replacement within the next 10 years. It was admitted that this link is crucial and without it, the whole system is undermined, with both control room and train equipment becoming, effectively, useless.

The replacement is seen as an ‘evolutionary process’, which is tantamount to saying that the problem has not really been thought about. This could be a future embarrassment when the new radio network is introduced if a seamless transfer of ETCS operation is not fully understood and tested.

Whilst interoperability is mandated for different suppliers’ ETCS products, interchangeability is not, so it begs the question as to whether different types of train equipment could be used as maintenance replacements for any failed units? This is not regarded as a priority currently, but is recognised as a desirable feature for the future.

With ETCS likely to be rolled out on other routes during the period of the ECML project (it is already being tested as an overlay system on the Great Western main line between Paddington and Heathrow), what standards will be put in place to ensure interworking with multiple TOC fleets? And will a uniform deployment plan be put in place?

It seems that the RSSB will have a major role here, both to dictate and police the standards required. As to deployment, a catalyst will need to emerge for every route, with the first section being seen as difficult after which it will get much easier as knowledge is built up.

So where is the innovation?

In all of this, it is difficult to see where the actual innovation is. Certainly, it is not in the technology, as both the infrastructure and train equipment is well developed across Europe and beyond.

The deployment will need to be carefully thought through and the subsequent operation will need some new rules to be devised. Again, this is hardly innovation, much more a development of existing procedures and processes that will require a hefty training programme.

Similarly, for drivers, much improved information regarding the state of the line ahead will be available on the in-cab displays, and that should permit optimised driving techniques, with consequent time savings and less pronounced acceleration and braking.

As to the associated technologies of TMS and C-DAS, these, too, are well developed, but the LNER aspiration to do away with paper tickets is much more of a challenge. Remember the crinkly brigade who might have a mobile phone but very likely not of the smart variety. Getting round this constraint could well require innovation.

Maybe we just need to redefine what the word innovation actually means, and so avoid using it in the wrong circumstances.


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