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Green to go: it's been a long time coming, but the ERTMS train control system is now being tested on a UK line and will be rolled out nationally from this decade.

The rail disaster in New York at the start of this month appears, from the earliest reports, to have been caused by excess speed around a very tight bend. A similar even more disastrous rail accident in Spain this past summer was also caused by excess speed and an apparent disregard for warning signs and signals.

Rail disasters make headline news worldwide in a way that the annual toll of road casualties never does, unaffected by the provable but uncomforting statistic that, in the UK and on most mature railway networks worldwide, you're much safer in a railway carriage than you are even in the "safety" of your own home.

Timekeeping and cost seem to be the UK preoccupations with the rail travelling public currently. But it's only a decade or so since rail safety was very high up the public and political agendas. Accidents first at Southall and then at Ladbroke Grove in the late 1990s seemed to indicate something was going amiss with the safety of train operation in the UK; later accidents such as Hatfield and Potters Bar had different causes, but compounded a view of an industry in difficulty. Something, it was said very widely, had to be done.

Well, something was, and indeed still is. In fact, the grand proposal for integrated safety and signalling systems first adopted alter the two disasters on the Great Western main line before the turn of the millennium is just now getting to the point where real testing is being done, with the roll-out on mainlines to follow.

The proposal is for the adoption on UK mainlines of ERTMS, the European Rail Traffic Management System and it was first put forward as a matter of some urgency of by the joint inquiries into the Southall and Ladbroke Grove accidents by Professor John Uff of King's College London and the leading judge Lord Cullen.

ERTMS in the UK has two major components: a signalling system called the European Train Control System or ETCS and a communications component that conveys messages from the central control. In practice, developments in technology over the past dozen years have blurred the edges of these two systems, but ETCS deals with the trackside provision of information to the train and its driver, while the higher level control messages from the centre about the network as a whole and about other trains come through a railway-ised GSM mobile communications system that is replacing rather outdated radio controls.

More widely, though, the ERTMS concept nowadays is not just about safety: indeed, if it ever was. Devised by the European confederation of railway equipment suppliers and including among its heavyweight members the big names of train supply and railway infrastructure provision, such as Siemens, Thales and Bombardier, ERTMS has a broader aim of squeezing more capacity out of choked rail networks: about optimising speeds and frequencies, not just controlling them.

In addition, there is also a slightly political aim of persuading more freight back to the railways and off the roads by presenting a unified rail network across Europe.

Uff and Cullen concluded more than 10 years ago that the current signalling and communications systems on UK railways were outdated and prone to error and that they should be replaced by an urgent programme of ERTMS installation. And by and large the rail industry agreed with this conclusion from outside its ranks--except that it argued, successfully, to the Health and Safety Commission and the government that the timetable was much too short and that to throw the operational system into more upheaval might cause more problems that it solved. If it was to be done, it argued, it should be done properly.

This is why, a decade later. Network Rail, now in charge of the ERTMS programme with the train operators and the rail safety board, has just started on the second phase of its test programme on a slightly back-roads line in Hertfordshire--though to be fair, the roll-out programme once the testing is concluded is fairly aggressive for UK mainlines over the decade from 2015--see the panel.

To be even fairer, the UK's current schedule for ERTMS is pretty similar to that achieved on other mature rail networks across Europe. France has a few fast lines with Stage 1 or Stage 2 systems in place; Germany likewise. Much of the rest of Europe is further back, and major successes are in non-European places such as the island state of Taiwan where interoperability with other people's networks, seen as a prime benefit of the system as a whole, isn't an issue or in countries where wholly new lines have been built, often using economic development funding.

Equally, the UK rail industry's wish to roll ERTMS out in an orderly programme of system development and test coincided with other pressures on it. Later accidents after the signalling-linked Great Western disasters focused attention on track maintenance and renewal; more recent events have put the spotlight on safety at level crossings.

But ERTMS is coming. From this autumn, a specially adapted Class 313 unit, No 313121, has been testing various manufacturers' ETCS technology on a five-mile stretch of the Hertford to Hitchin line, which is used for normal passenger train operations only in peak hours or as a relief route for the East Coast Main Line during maintenance shutdowns. When the line is used for the tests, control is switched from the usual control centre at Kings Cross in London to a temporary laboratory at Hitchin.

This is the second ERTMS trial on UK railways: a section of line in the Cambrian section of the railway in Wales was equipped with an earlier ERTMS system as a preliminary proof of concept.

No 313121 is itself equipped as a travelling laboratory. ETCS combines information from lineside equipment and the train's own onboard sensors, which know the individual performance characteristics of that train, such as braking and acceleration capabilities, to provide the driver with target speeds on a screen inside the cab, with other operational information coming in from the control centre. In simple terms, what the system does is to transfer the signalling information from outside the train to the inside, and then to combine it with the data about the train itself and with the broader operational needs of the network, beamed in from central control.

Control and test engineers in other parts of the train receive the same information on their screens to check that the system is working properly. Equipment from four different manufacturers is being tested in turn on the line and the tests are scheduled to last for 18 months. A further "testing" phase will see ERTMS and automated train operation tried out on the cross-London Thameslink line between St Pancras and Blackfriars. Then its into the programme proper.

RELATED ARTICLE: Coming into service

On the current schedule, ERTMS moves out of the testing phase and becomes fully operational from 2015 with the incorporation of the current test track between Hitchin and Hertford into an expanded Thameslink programme.

Thereafter, Network Rail starts the roll-out on mainlines from 2016, with the Paddington to Bristol line first, the East Coast Main Line to Doncaster from 2019, the Midland Main Line from St Pancras to Leicester from 2021 and, at the same time, various lines in Scotland.
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Title Annotation:Transport
Author:Pullin, John
Publication:Environmental Engineering
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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