To fight, every day. Recently, interesting tests of autonomous trains have been undertaken, with success, such as on a very short railway section in Hamburg. If the intelligent train is the future, this does not mean that the modernisation of the infrastructure and the construction of new lines should be overlooked.
Over the last five decades, railways around the world have been hit by significant government budget cuts, limiting their ability to invest in infrastructure or maintain high service standards. Stiff competition from roads, which have the door-to-door delivery advantage have offered added pain.
Do without infrastructures?
Rail infrastructure has always received special attention because of its costs. One example is the Dutch government, which explains that mobility problems will be tackled where this has the most economic value. Investments must also be ‘smart’: expanding infrastructure isn’t the only way to improve mobility. Making better use of existing main roads, railways and waterways can also increase transport capacity.
In the UK, the Department for Transports Dft explains that any bid for funding should focus on making the strategic and economic case for the scheme, as well as setting out any recognised challenges. This includes demonstrating the socio-economic benefits of railway works, a description of proposed services and an estimate of operating costs.
In Sweden, chambers of commerce note that ‘a unique societal transformation is underway, but a lack of infrastructure threatens to disrupt development‘. The focus is not just on the smart train, but on the need for infrastructure. ‘At the moment we see a very worrying situation where permitting and planning processes threaten to stop the green transformation. Trafikverket itself finds it difficult to respond to today’s rapid developments with its usual working methods.‘
In these examples, any construction or reconstruction of railway infrastructure sometimes comes up against budgetary or even ideological reservations. The new philosophy of ecological radicalism suggests stopping all forms of construction and making do with what already exists. The idea behind this is that investment should be better focused on the intelligent train rather than on infrastructure. This is a mistaken viewpoint: there can be no intelligent trains without a minimum of work, and sometimes even new construction. The end of concrete is not for tomorrow…
Some people want to prove that the railway infrastructure to be built also emits a lot of CO2. This may be true, but rail infrastructure is built to last. Often for a very long time, which mitigates the carbon footprint of the construction when you calculate the number of trains that benefit over 50 years. The temptation is then to push the debate towards new types of propulsion, reputed to emit less CO2.
Keeping the train at the centre of the debate
The best evidence is the craze for hydrogen: according to its promoters, it would make it possible to avoid costly electrification of lines with catenaries in the future. This may be the case on lines with average traffic, but it will never replace the need to electrify the rail network even more. Hydrogen is currently the subject of consensus, mainly due to government plans and subsidies, but it is somewhat forgotten that this hydrogen must be accompanied by a distribution network. Itsn’t a railway topics, but what would the hydrogen train be without this costly distribution network?
The electrification of entire sectors of mobility, notably the automotive sector, by thousands of wind turbines or hectares of photovoltaic will also require colossal investments in electrical infrastructure. The current network is insufficient for our future decarbonisation dreams, but there are not many people talking about it. There is a great risk that governments will focus their investments on this aspect, which largely encourages the decarbonised car sector, rather than rail.
Railway intelligence, it’s also a good infrastructure
Nor should we believe that the intelligent rail vehicle will quickly solve all rail problems. Many of the new technologies that will enhance future railway operation such as 5G, AI and autonomous vehicles are being studied with billions of dollars and developed by the railways’ direct competitors. Rail, as it has done traditionally, will cherry pick the best and adapt them. The notable fact is that other transport is much more creative and could lobby intensively to shift public policies and subsidies in their favour, to the detriment of rail.
Despite its many promises, the digitization of rail comes with a number of challenges, ranging from concerns over privacy and security to regulation, issues related to the ownership of data and proprietary systems, public acceptability, the impact on jobs, and the fear of investing in stranded assets.
Capacity allocation, for example, is a very important issue which implies a revision of the block traffic management to a “moving-block” traffic management. However, this would mean completely rebuilding the signalling system and equipping all the rolling stock, which most operators refuse to do because the benefits of such a system are so far theoretical. It seems also that the industry sold this future signalling equipment at very high prices, which has caused reluctance among many operators. As a result, we are still using class B design systems today.
Italy has used ERTMS since 2005 on high-speed lines. For the last four years, infrastructure manager RFI started a programme of ERTMS overlapping the existing class B system. However, they had “extreme difficulty in using the systems in parallel and have double certification”, says Fabio Senesi, Head of RFI’s ERTMS National Programme. “We opened an ERTMS line 3 years ago, but no ETCS trains run on it. Because you have two systems, there is no incentive to use the new technology.” The intelligent train that nobody wants, even though the infrastructure is already ready! Matthias Ruete, European Coordinator ERTMS says at a digital event organised by UNIFE that for a full ERTMS strategy, at least 30.000 vehicles by 2030 with ETCS.
It is true that it is not always necessary to build luxurious facilities to improve the flow of rail traffic. The European programme TimeTable Redesign (TTR) for Smart Capacity Management holds a solution in hand: a digitised view on the full European network so infrastructure managers can reduce bottlenecks through smart data management, put more trains on the existing infrastructure, make them run fluidly, better plan their maintenance works, and harmonise interoperable freight and passenger trains.
However, neither ERTMS nor TTR will be able to improve traffic if they do not have enough tracks and switches available. Bringing trains closer together is a nice idea, but it quickly reaches its limit when the network is not fluid enough and capacity is lacking. At some point, trains have to stop and be parked. This also requires physical capacities if you want to increase the rate on lines with ETCS level 3 (mobile block).
Fortunately, there are reasons for hope. A lot of work is underway to rebuild railway sections to new sustainability standards. Stations are also being rebuilt to better separate traffic flows, which is a demand imposed by the punctuality requirements of passenger traffic, what no intelligent train could undertake without sufficient infrastructure.
In addition, great progress is being made in eliminating hundreds of small signal boxes and concentrating train management in large traffic control centres that have a much broader view of train traffic. These cots a lot of money, digitalisation and civil works take time, but it demonstrates that a modern infrastructure is essential for the smooth operation of future intelligent trains.
When a bridge is rusty, a track underlay is waterlogged or an electrical substation is obsolete, you have no alternative: you have to replace everything and put a lot of money on the table…
07/11/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter
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