Train reaction

2 min read

The first UK trials of the next- generation train radio communication system are to start in Scotland in March.

GSM-Railway (GSM-R) is a European standard for a system that allows drivers to talk directly with signallers securely. It will also help keep tabs on the positions of high-speed trains and trigger safety systems if needed.

It promises to aid cargo tracking, CCTV surveillance of trains and stations, and passenger information systems. Most significantly, it will replace a ragged patchwork of communication systems with one that covers Europe and beyond.

Costing £1.2bn, the project involves the construction of 2,000 dedicated masts and their associated cables to create communication cells that are specifically aligned to all the UK's railway lines.

Total coverage

The masts are typically no more than 2.5 miles (4km) apart to give a high degree of redundancy. This will ensure total and continuous coverage, including within tunnels. Users will not need to change channels to stay in touch.

Nortel has already put 80 masts in place in Scotland and 26 in Strathclyde will be switched on in March for the year-long trial.

Network Rail's plans for the trial are scrupulous because they will be run on working vehicles during normal operations, so it is crucial that neither safety nor efficiency is reduced. The workstations of signallers and route controllers in the trial area will be fitted with a fixed terminal to give them access to the communications system. Radios from Siemens, containing technology from Sagem and Kapsch, will be installed in First ScotRail cabs and, later in the year, in EWS freight trains.

The most crucial element of the new sets is the red emergency button that will broadcast an 'all trains stop' message if a driver believes the safety of a line is compromised. The alert will automatically go to all trains, signallers and controllers.

GSM-R is built on the GSM technology familiar in mobile phones. It is a standard that took 10 years to develop and is needed particularly on mainland Europe, where there are more than 30 different cable and analogue radio networks, most of which are incompatible.

Historically, European railways have developed and used their own communications, which has resulted in some trains having four different systems on board, even within a single country. The problem is compounded as trains cross borders. Although this never used to have implications for the UK, the opening of the Channel Tunnel means our railway comms can no longer be regarded as isolated.

The goals of the trial are to demonstrate that the system design meets the specification, that the built system matches the design, that the specification meets needs, and that its introduction will not harm the safe operation of the railway.

It will be run in phases. Initially, only the Drumgelloch to Helensburgh line, along with associated branches, and Glasgow to Kilmarnock will be included.

Teething problems

A relatively small number of trains — eight — will be used at first. Then 75 vehicles will take part and, when any teething problems are sorted out, 82 more will be added. The trial is expected to run for nine months, until December 2007.

'The lessons learned from the Scotland trial will be applied nationally when the project is completed,' said a spokeswoman for Network Rail. 'The object is to have a radio system that is fit for purpose for national roll-out.'

If the new system works well — as it is doing elsewhere in Europe — other users will be added, including maintenance providers, freight operators and other train operating companies. If all goes according to plan, this should lead to a complete national roll-out within the next seven years.

The GSM-R standard has won the support of almost 40 countries, including all the EU member states, China and several in north Africa. Algeria announced recently that it is adopting the standard. GSM-R was originally due to be fully operational in the UK by 2008, but Network Rail now says it will be in place nationally by 2013, just two years before the introduction of the £3.7bn European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).