Passenger rail owners and operators in Australia and New Zealand are keen to embrace the digital revolution to enhance the efficiency and capacity of their systems. What lessons can be learned from the European market, and one of its biggest ever projects?
Chris Glaettli is the Technical Solutions Manager for Rail Signalling within Thales’ Ground Transportation Systems business in Australia. Prior to a recent move Down Under, he worked with Thales to deliver signalling solutions for a pair of massive Alpine tunnels: the 35-kilometre Lötschberg Base Tunnel, and the world record, 57-kilometre Gotthard Base Tunnel.
The Gotthard Base Tunnel is the longest railway tunnel on the planet. At a maximum depth of 2,450 metres, it is also the world’s deepest traffic tunnel. Excavation began in 2004, 12 years before the tunnel was finished and opened to passenger and freight services, in June 2016.
As a member of the rail delivery consortium for the project, Thales integrated its ETCS Level 2 technology into the Gotthard Base Tunnel, facilitating the circulation of more than 300 trains per day at operational speeds of 200km/hr in both directions. After designing and testing in its Zurich laboratory, Thales managed the production, installation, integration and homologation of rail signalling for the tunnel, within the overall system.
Glaettli speaks fondly of his eight years working on the delivery team for Gotthard, and is keenly aware of the lessons learned along the way.
“The biggest lesson from the Gotthard experience was the importance of collaboration,” he tells Rail Express, “starting with a collaboration with the railway operator, to determine what the real need was.
“It’s really about understanding each other. More collaboration in the early phases of the project is a big reason we were able to deliver an optimal solution over a year early, despite the scale of the project.
“Collaboration is one of our key strengths at Thales. We’re close to the customer, we’re open to learn what the particular needs are, and we’re also open to share some knowledge about our product and the processes to apply our product. It’s a win-win.
“It’s really important that the operator understands the products of the suppliers, and the suppliers understand the needs of the railway, so when it comes down to tendering there is a much more informed set of requirements to fulfil which leads to a more efficient and targeted tender process.”
Glaettli believes Australian operators could benefit from this same level of collaboration during the early phases of major projects. “Australia has a different way to contract railway suppliers [to Europe],” he notes.
Collaboration and mutual understanding are especially important in the current market in Australia and New Zealand, where operators are keen to embrace the global trend towards the digitalisation of rail systems, to enhance their efficiency, capacity and reliability. Glaettli says he sees a number of opportunities in the region where digitalisation can impact passenger operations from the ground up, helping busy operators get more efficient, and boost their capacity.
“When we look at Australian cities, we see an increasing need for more trains, to move more passengers per corridor, across the whole rail network,” he says. “Just about everywhere we look, key railways are reaching their peak capacity, so they need to find ways to operate more efficiently.”
Glaettli says Thales is ready to work with operators early in the process to understand their needs.
“We have to deliver value for money, so first we need to carefully understand what is the best approach to an optimal outcome for the customer,” he explains. “Often the pressure on the operator comes from legacy systems which are end-of-life, and we will replace them or interface to them, depending on the specific need and operational requirements. Thales assesses the operational procedures of these legacy systems and will configure our systems to help improve them.
“The customer can choose what components they want to focus on, and we can configure for them the needed parts; all the way from the axle counter up to the interlocking, and up to the traffic management system.”
These components are what Glaettli refers to as the ‘building blocks’ of rail digitalisation. Whether the focus is on traffic control, scheduling, planning, routing, signalling or monitoring, there are advantages to be gained from a digital approach.
Digitalising a TMS
Glaettli says his team has developed a specific process when it comes to the digitalisation of a rail operator’s Traffic Management System (TMS). Thales has broken down the process of transitioning from a legacy TMS to a fully digital TMS, in three stages.
“The first stage is just for the TMS to assess the timetable, isolating its different routes and services,” Glaettli explains. “The second stage, interfacing, is where the TMS is allowed to ‘read’ off the network, but not ‘write’ into the system – instead it simply suggests changes when conflicts arise.
“The final stage is a fully integrated TMS, which can not only read the network, but make decisions based on its knowledge of the network, and directly set routes accordingly. We call this automatic conflict resolution.”
Thales’ TMS can be coupled with train control systems at varying levels of automation, looping in with driver advisory systems where applicable.
“That’s where it gets really interesting,” Glaettli says. “We can really make use of the Big Data we gather from the network, and we can go into flow control of the network, meaning every train journey is optimised for energy use and time.”
ETCS vs. CBTC
One discussion during a recent RISSB conference in Melbourne focused on the merits of both ETCS (European Train Control Standard) and CBTC (Communications Based Train Control) as contrasting options for operators seeking a modern signalling solution.
Speaking with Rail Express, Glaettli weighed in, concurring with the general sentiment that neither solution is universally better than the other. Thales offers both in its signalling portfolio, and Glaettli says finding the right option comes down to the precise needs of the customer.
“What we’ve seen is there are really two kinds of networks,” he says. “The first is a metro style network, more suited to CBTC, which is a linewide approach, benefitting from its isolation.”
CBTC is the technology being installed on new standalone metro lines being built in Sydney and Melbourne.
“Then there is mainline, or regional, where ETCS is more appropriate,” Glaettli continues. “Under ETCS there is a standard interface between the unit on the train and the track, so you can have different vendors at both stages.
“ETCS allows for multiple rollingstock types running through the same network, and for mainline use this is a basic need. ETCS is an open standard and is interoperable, because this is a basic requirement in Europe, where we have many countries and operators.”