How uniform are the European train systems

ETCS: The European Train Control System

Everyone knows the big signals on the tracks. They are just as much a part of the familiar image of the rail as train stations, sleepers and stops. In the course of technical developments, however, they could soon be a thing of the past on most of the main routes. Instead of the form signals or the light signals on the track, what is known as the driver's cab signaling is used. All over Europe, states and railway companies have agreed on a uniform standard for this system.

ETCS - the autopilot for rail

The European Train Control System, or ETCS for short, enables driving without main and distant signals and at the same time increases safety. The system is comparable to an autopilot, which has been used in commercial aviation for decades.

Using information from the route atlas, precise position determination and specified reference variables, the system monitors the train and can therefore make the right decisions in good time to secure the train journey even at high speeds. As in the aircraft cockpit, however, the engine driver has the final say - he can also drive and control the train if the system fails or other unforeseen events occur.

Erfurt-Leipzig is the first controlled line with ETCS

How the ETCS system works in real operation can be experienced by passengers on the high-speed route between the Thuringian capital Erfurt and the Saxon metropolis of Leipzig. The ICE-T trains have been using the ETCS on this route since December 2015, in Level 2 - without any signals.

The trains are monitored by the ETCS route control centers (Radio Block Center = RBC). There is also a constant connection between the RBC and the train via GSM-R (Global System for Mobile Communications - Rail). This radio system can be compared to the mobile radio system in cell phones, but is optimized for operation along railway lines. In addition, so-called balises, a type of transponder, are used to determine positions on the route at regular intervals. These balises are located between the rails on the sleepers. If a train drives over it, the required railway operating information is transmitted and both the on-board computer and the RBC know exactly where the vehicle is. In addition, a Doppler radar monitors the position and speed of the train. This ensures that the position of the train is always reliably recorded.

The train then receives the travel commands from the ETCS line control center. She knows that the track is free and that the conditions for using it are in place. The automatically issued movement authority (MA) then ensures that the train can move safely on the route even without signals. Thanks to the sophisticated safety technology, this is possible between Erfurt and Leipzig at speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour.

And then what is the engine driver for?

The entire system has several fallback levels. In some cases, failures within the systems can also be compensated. Pure driving without a train driver would now be technically possible, but in practice it is the train driver who checks the safety of the systems on the line. He is still responsible for the train and its passengers or its freight. He observes the route and makes sure that there are no damages or obstacles and is the last and most important backup instance in the system. In addition, only a few routes have so far been equipped with the technically demanding and cost-intensive system. As soon as the train is to continue on other sections of the route, the engine driver is also indispensable.

The long way to the ETCS

Research and facilities for the emergency braking of trains and for influencing locomotives go back to the 1930s. Since the early 1970s, the so-called line train control systems have been tested on various West German routes. But it was not until December 1989 that the representatives of all EU countries met to decide on the creation of a uniform train protection system.

The planners were primarily concerned with cross-border traffic. With the uniform ETCS, an internationally valid standard should be established that other countries and railway companies can then adopt. So far, the European Commission has primarily pushed ahead with equipping international corridors, which the ETCS should be able to use continuously until the mid-2020s. In addition, new locomotives should generally be equipped with this system, but until further notice they should also be able to run with conventional signals without the system.

At the end of January, the Verband Region Stuttgart (VRS) and the state of Baden-Württemberg decided to use the opportunities offered by ETCS in connection with digital interlocking technology and to make Stuttgart a pilot project for ETCS in regional traffic. This includes equipping the entire regional fleet and all S-Bahn trains for ETCS Level 2 as part of the “Digital Rail Germany” project. The aim is to increase the transport offer by around one million train kilometers annually, which is only possible through digital upgrading.

The achievements of the ETCS are remarkable and show the direction in which European rail traffic will go in the future. At the same time, the introduction of the complex and technically highly developed systems is associated with enormous investments.


[Update on March 19, 2019: Verband Region Stuttgart and Baden-Württemberg want to invest in ETCS.]