HomeDigital RailwayTesting! Testing! One Two Three… National ETCS Test Laboratory

Testing! Testing! One Two Three… National ETCS Test Laboratory

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UK Rail is undertaking an unprecedented period of digital innovation and revitalisation. Infrastructure dating back to the era of the steam engine (and steam trains themselves) are being upgraded to create a modern, higher capacity network. It’s an exciting time of progress and digitalisation is accelerating. Yet novelty requires a focus on integrity to maintain and improve safety standards, requiring effective collaboration to efficiently deploy and test new technology. This rigour is essential to realising the potential of digitalisation – moving people and goods even more sustainably as we strive to deliver Net Zero.

Our railway constantly needs to evolve. From lowering cost and carbon to increasing capacity, safety and reliability, we’re being challenged to improve almost every aspect of rail. But our infrastructure is built on aging technology, especially the signalling system. To meet this growing demand to improve capacity and reliability, the UK rail industry has embarked on a journey to digitalise the railway, including the transition from lineside signalling renewals to digital signalling through the European Train Control System (ETCS). Pioneering the latest generation of this digital signalling technology across the route on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), one of the UK’s busiest rail routes, is revealing both the challenges and benefits of the digital signalling rollout. By validating and optimising it on a high-speed, mixed-use railway involving all operator sectors, ECML’s digitalisation establishes the pattern for other lines to follow.

Network Rail’s Long Term National ETCS Masterplan, supported by government and industry, will enable digital signalling across the network. But effective independent testing is required to ensure multiple suppliers’ equipment compliance and compatibility. The UK Railway needs a common, repeatable testing capability and acceptance process to ensure these new products, and their software upgrades, are certified rigorously and efficiently – to enable and expedite the national ETCS rollout.

That’s why Atkins has worked with Network Rail to commission the National ETCS Test Lab, where products from different suppliers can be tested for compliance with the GB Reference Design. Signalling equipment suppliers have each developed their own on-board and trackside ETCS solutions, and while these all accord with the European Railways Agency mandatory specifications, they must now be configured to the latest standards and UK specific requirements. Otherwise, we risk incompatibility, safety issues, and costly delays.
The lab opened in June 2022 and is available to provide testing services for ETCS Programmes, Signalling OEMs, and ETCS retrofit programmes for ROSCOs, TOCs, FOCs, Inspection Fleets, On Track Machines and Heritage & Charter.

“As Head of Train Control Systems at the ORR I am delighted to see the introduction of these test facilities. They will undoubtedly accelerate the production of evidence that supports the authorisation of ETCS products for use on the GB network.”


One track mind
Deploying ETCS demands a high level of confidence in novel technologies and how they integrate into the existing railway. Misalignments could threaten the integrity of the whole system and are more costly to resolve once commissioning is underway. Innovation alone is no silver bullet. Without an integrated and interconnected framework to assure innovation, there is a real risk of integration failure, increased costs, and disruption to passengers. Network Rail has recognised the value of an impartial testing regime. To ensure consistent and seamless interoperability, and mitigate the dangers of incompatibilities, the path to progress must be paved with effective integration – and assurance that all technologies meet high standards.

Atkins is perfectly placed to guide and manage this process. Atkins’ Technical Investigation Centre (TIC), renowned historically for its excellence in independent forensic testing, specialises in investigating safety-critical signalling equipment failures that occur in operation. As the UK’s signalling systems integrator and the Rail System Integration Partner on the East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP), Atkins has long been at the forefront of new approaches in digitalisation, collaboration, and innovation. With the opening of the National ETCS Test Lab at Egham, in partnership with Multitel, we have extended our test capability to provide national product acceptance services prior to entry into service.

Together, the National ETCS Test Lab and the TIC offer the ability to test across the lifecycle – from R&D concepts, through to product acceptance testing and into in-service system level fault finding. In turn, this lab can support Defect Recording and Corrective Action System (DRACAS) investigations, helping to uphold high standards of safety and reliability. The lab includes a GB Reference virtual onboard and trackside system for carrying out operational compliance and interoperability test scenarios. This forms the central component of the National ETCS Test Lab facility that has delivered an end-to-end solution to navigate the complexities of ensuring ERTMS/ETCS compatibility.

The National ETCS Test Lab solution is unique in being the UK’s independent test facility for ETCS product and integration testing, providing Network Rail System Authority, ORR and OEMs with a dependable and repeatable reference point for future testing. From additional capacity adaptations to software upgrades to systems integration testing to cyber security testing, there’s a clear need moving forward for a trusted and consistent evaluation process, and for providing objective unbiased diagnoses of problems and incompatibility issues. The independence of the lab enables a trusted diagnosis and fault finding when multiple OEM’s equipment are collaborating in the railway.

Mutual assurance and trust in the testing operation, therefore, are critical to providing trusted evaluation and compliance assessments.
Providing a standard repeatable testing service benefits ETCS Programmes, suppliers, infrastructure managers and railway undertakings by offering a trusted and predictable process for approvals, de-risking potential retesting.

“We are delighted to have delivered yet another of the key enabling projects that pave the way for National ETCS transformation. This facility expands our capability through life – from R&D, through product acceptance, to in-operation fault diagnosis. The project has been a tremendously successful collaboration with Network Rail and our partner Multitel – delivering to schedule despite the challenges that Covid presented. We look forward to welcoming clients to the National ETCS Lab in 2023.”

Mark Fielding-Smith, National and Digital Services Director, Atkins

In rail we trust
The benefits of a trusted testing system are many and varied. On-site testing is expensive and time-consuming. Any time interaction is required with the live system, there is potential for disruption to live signalling systems and the trains that depend on them. Although the rail industry has an exceptional safety record, there are clear safety benefits to minimising on-site exposure to workers. Moreover, at the forefront of digitalisation, the National ETCS Test Lab is setting a precedent, establishing a blueprint for the continued national roll-out of digital signalling that will inform and guide the future of safety assurance and signalling acceptance.

As the digitalisation of the UK’s railways continues at pace, it’s important to keep these projects on track. The industry must continue to champion continuous, iterative improvement, whilst ensuring that the systems remain resilient. That’s why, alongside the National ETCS Test Laboratory, Atkins has created a technical innovation hub, uniting conventional signalling and ETCS/ERTMS technology to test signalling systems and focus on the challenges of successfully bringing UK rail into the digital age.

This age will be defined by the gains of greater connectivity and centralised control of assets. So too will it need to address increasing concerns, such as data integrity and cyber security. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and so cybersecurity testing will be a cornerstone of the national ETCS delivery and will form a key part of the work done at the National ETCS Test Laboratory. Atkins is also collaborating with the National Cyber Security Centre in the delivery of the Defect Recording and Corrective Action System (DRACAS), a system designed to manage, investigate, and solve systemic ETCS faults. These, and several other schemes, are vital to keeping progress on both track and secure.

“The National ETCS Test Lab allows Network Rail to test changes to the GB Reference Design in a realistic application prior to being formally issued for use on live projects. Being able to test the changes before implementation on a live project minimises the project delivery risk and provides us with the confidence that the changes deliver what we need to operate the railway safely.”

Jonathan Hayes, Head of Programme Engineering
and Systems Management, Network Rail

All aboard
Digitalisation is the direction of travel. The journey to transform the rail industry requires continued focus and orientation, to navigate the obstacles and opportunities ahead. The national ETCS Test Lab facility is a foundation that will support the transition to digital, underpinning and reinforcing that progress. As the first of its kind, it’s ushering in new standards and mode vital to unlocking the full potential of digital technology. By 2050, we’ll look back on this shift as momentous and ground-breaking. Yet to get there, we need to work together to propound and execute a clear, integrated vision, safely. That’s what impartial and independent testing is all about.

If you would like to learn more about the National ETCS Test Lab or explore booking testing services, please contact George Walker, digital rail director at Atkins, at [email protected].

“This facility is a key game changer for the roll-out of ETCS in the UK, building on the lessons from ETCS National Integration Facility (ENIF), Thameslink, and ETCS roll-outs in Europe. The facility allows supplier products to be tested to confirm that it complies with the GB Reference Design and can deliver the functionality and performance needed for the rollout of ETCS in the UK. The capability to test both onboard and trackside system in the ETCS test lab reduces the risk of issues being found during testing and commissioning and reduces the amount of disruption to passengers as it minimises the site testing required.”

Andrew Simmons, Head of Systems Authority, Network Rail
Rail Engineer is the leading independent quality monthly magazine for engineers, project managers, directors and leading rail executive decision makers. Head to www.railsubs.com to make a free subscription to RailEngineer magazine or one of its sister publications.


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