This is being seriously considered by The Signalling Company, a joint venture created in 2019 between two Belgian companies – ERTMS Solutions and freight operator Lineas. It is developing a new mobile application that will offer the Belgian Class B system (TBL1+) to be downloaded according to the needs of a rail operator. And also an upgrading of ETCS.
In 2020, DG Move highlighted several reasons for the slow pace of ERTMS modernisation in Europe. One of them is the low availability of specific transmission modules (called STMs) and/or Class B systems. Most European countries (with rare exceptions such as Switzerland and Luxembourg) require that the old Class B systems remain installed on vehicles, in addition to ETCS, in order to be allowed to operate on the national rail network. The main reason for this is also that there are still many non-ETCS equipped lines in Europe, which requires the retention of STMs on trains.
Costly and uncompetitive
The fact that the STMs of the various countries are still unavoidable poses problems for international operators, whether for freight or for passenger services.This makes rail freight uncompetitive while hundreds of thousands of trucks cross the border without such technical problems. An operator like Thalys has to equip part of its trains with seven STMs to operate in France and the Benelux: KVB, TVM430, TBL1+, TBL2, ETCS N2, ATB and LZB/PZB. All this leads to higher production costs.
But the big challenge is the locomotives. Many of them are leased, which also means that at the end of the contract they are back to the owner. Hirers (Rosco – Rolling Stock Company) who find themselves with locomotives suitable for Germany and the Benelux countries, for example, will find it very difficult to hire them in Denmark or the Czech Republic. The reason for this is that the STMs in these countries have to be added, and perhaps those in the Benelux countries removed. This barrier to entry could be solved if the STMs were made available as a downloadable application.
Opening a very closed market
But there is yet another barrier: the supply of some – sometimes old – Class B VTS is a very closed market. New manufacturers trying to sell Class B solutions independently face high barriers to entry themselves, as the system specifications and source codes are not public, so there is no market for Class B products in the secondary market.
The Signalling Company explains that no matter how many locomotives are needed, it is currently impossible to get a clear timetable from a manufacturer for the necessary upgrade of rolling stock and Class B systems. « From a budgetary point of view, there is no option for the new entrant but to accept the offer it will receive as the technology platforms of the current suppliers are entirely proprietary, » explains the company. The challenge is to be able to quickly install and de-install Class B systems on any locomotive across Europe. And at the same time, to open up the market and its source codes.
Monitoring the development of the ETCS
Another concern is that the ERTMS software is constantly evolving and being updated over time, which annoys many operators. Rolling stock that has to be reconfigured is an asset that does not run because it is in the workshop. All this is a source of additional costs and a big waste of resources.
The rail sector agreed following the publication of Baseline 3 Release 2 in 2016 to ‘freeze’ the specifications until at least 2022. However, that has already delayed the introduction of the ‘game changer’ enhancements such as ATO. Stanilas Pinte, CEO of The Signalling Company, says the policy of specification freezes ‘simply cannot work’ in the longer term. The answer would be in a wider trend towards ‘software as a service’, that means that ERTMS Baseline updates must be delivered without the need for a product redesign, or any significant investment. ‘They should be as easy as updating your smartphone, and almost invisible to the end-user’, explains Stanislas Pinte.
« Like a smartphone » is indeed the concept of The Signalling Company, as a wink, of course. The challenge is to be able to quickly install and uninstall Class B systems on any locomotive throughout Europe and to upgrade a new ETCS version quickly, a bit like a railway AppStore. The company plans to eventually offer a wide range of functional, safety-critical applications from different countries that can be downloaded to any locomotive overnight. The platform would host other applications providing functionalities such as ATO, DAC (automatic coupling) or other technologies, contributing to the deployment of ERTMS in Europe. Obviously, downloading an STM as an app does not mean the end of multiple antennas under the locomotive as explained above. Hence the urgency of sticking to ETCS to unify all physical apparatus.
Enabling trains to circulate across Europe as easily as lorries or buses currently do is essential to boosting the competitiveness of rail and reducing the environmental impact of transport in the wider battle against climate change. This means removing this kind of barrier.
29/08/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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