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Signalling at heart of Queensland’s ETCS revolution 

ETCS

With Cross River Rail well into construction and a raft of other significant projects in the South Eastern Queensland rail network pipeline, the rollout of the world-class European Train Control System (ETCS) on network has never been more important. 

 TESTING

In the dead of night, a train slowly makes it way between two suburban stations on Brisbane’s Shorncliffe line. 

When the suburban multiple unit (SMU) – a stalwart of the QR’s Citytrain fleet – reaches Sandgate station, it sits at the platform for a while as hi-vis-clad workers conduct their checks. 

It then makes its way just as slowly back to Shorncliffe station. 

The same train repeats the same pattern over eight nights, completing 50 runs in total between the same two stations. 

To the untrained eye, the monotonous back and forth might not seem like anything special at all. 

But to those involved, the exercise was a huge milestone in modernising Queensland’s rail network througah the introduction of world-class European Train Control System (ETCS) digital signalling technology. 

The train in question – an SMU276 – is the first-of-class of a number of SMUs being fitted out with ETCS technology. 

The vital work is being delivered through the Cross River Rail project – the new 10.2 kilometre rail line from Dutton Park to Bowen Hills, which includes 5.9km of twin tunnels under the Brisbane River and CBD. 

As Cross River Rail Delivery Authority chief executive officer Graeme Newton points out, the significance of the testing underway on that stretch of track between Shorncliffe and Sandgate throughout July and August could not be overstated. 

“While Brisbane slept, the future was arriving,” he said. 

“For the first time, an ETCS-equipped train was tested in Level 2, or under ‘full supervision’, on the Queensland Rail network – a huge step in our state becoming the first to use an ETCS Level 2 system on a passenger network anywhere in Australia.” 

Full supervision means ETCS was fully connected using both operational lineside and onboard signalling equipment, without relying on existing signalling conventions such as red or green lights on the side of the track. 

Newton said trains had previously been tested in Level 0, where drivers onboard ETCS-equipped trains had to adhere to existing signalling conventions, but this new phase provided a wealth of new information. 

“The team confirmed the onboard and trackside equipment were communicating with each other, and Queensland Rail’s Rail Management Centre, as expected,” he said. 

“A number of minor issues were picked up during the testing and are being analysed further – which is the whole point of testing to begin with. 

“This testing is continuing over coming months between Sandgate and Shorncliffe, and this will allow us to update the system and ensure any issues are resolved.” 

WHY ETCS IS NEEDED  

Newton, like so many others involved in the project, is excited by what this new technology will bring. 

“ETCS allows the train to know its location precisely, which in turn allows trains to safely be scheduled to travel closer together,” he said. 

“Continuous information is relayed between the Rail Management Centre and trains via trackside equipment. 

“This is crucial for the safe operation of trains within Cross River Rail’s tunnels, where this digital technology will be relied upon rather than conventional trackside signalling equipment such as coloured lights.” 

Queensland Rail’s Head of SEQ, Scott Riedel, said the benefits would extend to the wider network. 

“ETCS is the next step in the modernisation of our network,” he said. 

“It will lead to improved network performance, increased network capacity and improved timetables. 

“In fact, as part of the ETCS project, our Rail Management Centre at Bowen Hills will be modernised with a new rail traffic management system to move trains around the network with greater efficiency and updated train planning systems.” 

Riedel believes one of the biggest ways ETCS will increase safety is by providing an engineering control for signals passed at danger (SPADs) on the network. 

 

A TEAM EFFORT 

About 200 people are helping to make ETCS a reality in Queensland. 

This includes at a specialised facility at Redbank, where the fleet of SMUs are being fitted out with ETCS equipment and undergoing testing; the Systems Integration Lab at Eagle Farm, where software is tested in a lab setting before it’s tested on the track; and along the Shorncliffe line, where trackside equipment including radio masts are being installed. 

Newton said the various partners involved in ETCS works – the Delivery Authority, Queensland Rail, Hitachi Rail and the Department of Transport and Main Roads – recently moved to a new alliance-style contract to deliver the project. 

“The new alliance, known as Sequence, ensures close collaboration between the key partners, and is really the most effective model for delivering this game-changing project,” he said. 

“ETCS is a complex project which has critical deadlines to provide signalling and other technology for Cross River Rail’s tunnels and to integrate with the existing Queensland Rail network. 

“This model, which is successfully used on many large infrastructure projects with complex requirements, gives us the best chance for success.” 

TRACKING FORWARD 

Newton said Shorncliffe line testing remains the team’s key focus for the time being. 

“Testing is a complex, extensive process which needs to be carried out at night and on weekends, when revenue services aren’t running,” he said. 

“We want to make sure we get this right, which is why ETCS will be rolled out in several stages, starting with the rigorous testing program on the Shorncliffe line, where construction work is already well advanced. 

“All parts of the new signalling system will be progressively tested, including equipment installed on and along the track, onboard test trains and within the Rail Management Centre.” 

Newton said focus would then shift to the design requirements and installation for Cross River Rail’s tunnels, which will rely on the new signalling technology to safely operate. 

“This will ensure there is enough time for testing and commissioning and integration with other parts of the project before the twin tunnels open to services,” he said. 

But with ETCS to deliver benefits beyond the transformational Cross River Rail project, exactly where the technology is rolled out next will depend on a number of factors, including network requirements, capacity and the asset life of existing signalling systems across the network. 

The rollout of the new technology comes on the precipice of a huge investment in rail infrastructure in the state. 

Cross River Rail is already well advanced, with tunnels and caverns excavated and new underground stations taking shape. 

But prompting the introduction of ETCS and adding a second river crossing at the core of the rail network, Cross River Rail provides the capacity to increase train services as the population grows. 

And with the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games on the horizon, the megaproject also acts as a fix at the core of the network that makes a number of rail improvements across the whole of SEQ more viable. 

It’s an opportunity not lost on Queensland’s Transport and Main Roads minister Mark Bailey. 

“We’re not just building Cross River Rail, we’re building a new network,” he said. 

“Our latest budget delivered a $6 billion pipeline of rail projects over the forward estimates, over and above Cross River Rail.  

“These include Beerburrum to Nambour Stage One and Kuraby to Beenleigh (also known as Logan and Gold Coast Faster Rail) and Gold Coast light rail stage three. 

“We’re building new or upgrading more than 30 stations across all of Queensland to improve accessibility to the network, and manufacturing 65 new train sets in Maryborough. 

“That’s trains built in Queensland, by Queenslanders for Queenslanders.”  

And at the heart of all of it is the ETCS. 

“Bringing all these projects together is the rollout of ETCS technology – the world-leading system used across much of Europe, which will allow us to run more services, more often, all while improving safety,” Bailey said. 

“This world-class technology is what will help us provide world-class public transport to service a world-class event during Brisbane 2032. 

“It will also help provide the kind of public transport network the growing south east corner needs and deserves.” 

So while that lonely train in the middle of the night might be what ETCS looks like on the surface, the reality of what it will provide, and what it will enable, is so much more. 

Like Cross River Rail itself, ETCS is just the start of Queensland’s rail revolution.