AusRAIL, Market Sectors

Metro signalling lag sees capacity at saturation

Outdated signalling systems are constraining passenger rail’s ability to accommodate the surging number of rail commuters in Australia, writes Francis Dwornik*.

Three years ago I predicted that Australia’s passenger rail networks were fast approaching saturation point.

While the obvious solution to increasing demand from commuters is to increase the capacity and efficiency of services by ordering and running more rolling stock, eventually our industry’s reliance on ageing, outdated signalling systems would mean that a capacity limit would be reached. This has now happened.

According to the Australasian Railways Association’s (ARA) 2010 Rail Report, passenger journeys across the country increased by 6% in the past two years to 769.9m journeys.

Figures for 2009-2010 were down slightly on 2008-2009 and according to the report, network capacity constraints were a major reason along with the Global Financial Crisis.

The central cause of our capacity constraints is our urban signalling systems. Inherited from a colonial rail legacy – with different, non-interoperable signalling systems in place across the states – many of our signalling systems remain linked to mid to late 20th Century technology. Any updates have just overlaid the problems of this signalling legacy.

‘Band-aid’ approach
This has also created a mindset where governments and operators have a concept of replacing assets when they are “life-expired” – a band-aid approach – instead of investing in entirely new signalling technologies and networks.

Modern technological options include the European Train Control System (ETCS) with its different levels of sophistication, and Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) systems (including Automated Train Protection models).

Upgrading signalling would not only allow for additional capacity opportunities but would also provide the capability for future automation which holds the potential for further capacity increases, and improvements in safety and operational efficiencies.

In Sydney, there are about 1m daily trips daily on weekdays – with about 320,000 commuters travelling each weekday, but Sydney’s operator, RailCorp, is operating with little margin for error.

In April, RailCorp’s aging signalling system failed when a single switch breakdown led to huge delays across the entire CityRail system putting down 40% of the network. This caused delays to 100,000 commuters, 847 trains, and the cancellation of 240 services.

According to reports that followed this particular mass signalling failure, about 2800 signalling failures are crippling Sydney’s CityRail network each year, resulting in thousands of train delays or cancellations. RailCorp has since replaced three of the problematic signalling switches.

In Melbourne, the city’s passenger rail network recorded more than 200m passenger trips for the 2008-2009 financial year, yet the network continues to run on signalling technology that is 30-years-old.

As a result, Metro Trains Melbourne’s (MTM) April performance reports recorded the Melbourne network as having delivered 98.7% of services with 76.2% punctuality.

In contrast, much of European rail now operates under the European Train Control System (ETCS), with varying levels of sophistication depending on the country.

The most progressive systems are in France, Switzerland and Germany – all operating under different versions of ETCS Level 1 and Level 2.

In ETCS Level 1, a new system can be superimposed on the existing system with trackside (Eurobalise) beacons able to pick up trackside signals and transmit them on-board. The technology can pick up differences in fixed signals from country to country and convert them safely within both countries for a train crossing their borders.

Under ETCS Level 2, communications move on-board with little reliance on trackside components. ETCS Level 3 eliminates fixed trackside signalling equipment altogether and provides radio-based (moving block) spacing.

Some countries such as Switzerland have plans for long term investment in railways information and communications technology (ICT) systems which will lead to full automation (driverless trains).

Benefits of these ICT management systems are fully automated operations, more network capacity, flexibility in operations, more efficient and faster restoration of normal operations (in case of emergency), and lower operational costs.

In Asia, signalling standards are also progressing. There is a movement away from the replacement of life-expired signalling systems following bold decisions by government to support the latest technology and communications based train control (CBTC) systems. These systems rely on data communication links only between train and control centres.

Australia has much to learn from these countries.

The good news
The good news back home is RailCorp is going ahead and implementing ETCS Level 1 across its CityRail network and has contracted Alstom to supply $65m worth of Automatic Train Protection (ATP) equipment.

This announcement represents the first of three stages. As Rail Express reported (27 January 2011), the first of 50 ATP equipped trains is expected to be on the tracks and in passenger service between Wyong and Berowra in 2013, followed by ATP installation on Waratah and Millenium train fleets and the rest of the electrified network. A full rollout is expected by 2021.

This is commendable and no doubt, MTM in Melbourne is investigating its own ATP options.

The Australian Rail and Track Corporation (ARTC) is also developing a national freight network system using its own Advanced Train Management System (ATMS) (see this week’s report), whose next-generation mobile communications focus is innovative and able to adapt to the unique qualities of the Australian interstate freight rail network.

Difficult implementation
The problem facing governments around Australia however, is that implementing these new technologies is not easy. For example, these metropolitan rail upgrades need to occur progressively so that the overall network can keep operating. But the works do require certain sections of the network to be quarantined or closed down so it is important to engage the support of the public.

It is also unfortunate that signalling upgrades are usually procured within larger infrastructure projects. This means construction companies, even if in an alliance, might be responsible for the design of the signalling components.

It also means that a signalling component’s design does not necessarily consider a network’s future needs – only what it is being contracted at that point. There is therefore, a commercial gap between how signalling is now being procured and what is ideally needed.

Until we can overcome these kinds of constraints in the way signalling is being ordered in Australia, we will not get the well-developed technologies that are already implemented and in use around the world.

Australia is on the cusp of a rail revolution but train communications must be carefully coordinated.

We must ensure that investment in signalling systems is not only timely but complementary, or the billions of dollars being spent on new rail infrastructure could end up in another inefficient tangle that could see Australia miss out on the wonderful opportunity that is being presented.

*Francis Dwornik is general manager of Pacific Services Group rail division.