The publication of the Cullen report into the fatal rail crashes at Ladbroke Grove and Southall will add to European-wide pressure for a sophisticated train protection system to be fitted to high-speed railways.
A European directive issued in 1996 requires that all routes which form part of the Trans European Network, which basically runs from Scotland through to Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, should be fitted with the European Train Control System, to prevent trains passing a red light.
The UK and many other member states have missed the April 1999 deadline to adopt the directive. However, the report by Lord Cullen and Professor John Uff sets strict deadlines for fitting ETCS, posing not only a challenge for Railtrack, the government and the train operating companies, but also the engineering firms which will manufacture the equipment.
Railtrack has suggested that the lack of available equipment and the capacity of the supply chain could delay the installation of ETCS on some UK lines.
An easy answer to the problem might be sourcing equipment from other European countries, but ETCS is still only being tested on a relatively small scale in Germany and Italy where the system has been developed by the UK-based firm Alstom. The largest planned implementation of ETCS is on the UK’s West Coast Main Line, where Alstom is developing a package with Railtrack to cover 650km of track carrying 2,000 trains per day.
There are three variants of ETCS. The most sophisticated, or Level 3, which Railtrack initially decided to install on the West Coast Main Line, dispenses with conventional lineside signals. It uses the GSM-R radio communications technology which sends signals direct to the driver’s cab. The train transmits its exact position to a control centre, which responds with messages giving speed and stopping distance. This allows trains to be run closer together, increasing track capacity.
Level 3 does not yet exist as a working system, but trials are in progress in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Spain on Levels 1 and Level 2. While Level 1 does not include in-cab signalling, Level 2 does. The main difference between these and Level 3 is that the train’s position is still plotted on fixed-track blocks.
Railtrack opted for Levels 1 and 2 on the West Coast Main Line, which has resulted in a costly refurbishment programme of its lineside signals, estimated at £600m, which is still on-going.
The Cullen/Uff report notes that Railtrack is planning the fitment of the system to the East Coast Main Line by 2005 but says that the available capacity of the supply industry raises doubts whether this is possible.
The report, published last week, now calls for the ETCS to be fitted to all trains that run at over 100mph by 2010. Within this timetable ETCS should be fitted to the West Coast Main Line by 2005 and to the East Coast Main Line and Great Western Main Line by 2006. All lines carrying trains at over 100mph should be fitted with the system by 2008.
The report said that regulations should also have the power to require the fitting of ETCS progressively to routes with line speed above 75mph and above 60mph if justified on safety grounds.
The industry estimates the cost of fitting ETCS over the next 10 years could be in the region of £3bn, a figure which could increase as prices rise during the period. The Cullen/Uff report expects the work, which is likely to support hundreds of engineering jobs, to be funded by the government.
‘At the time of privatisation it was foreseen that the railway industry would itself promote and fund major safety improvements through the regulation system. It is now accepted the bulk of the cost of the next generation of train protection systems will be met by public funding,’ said the report.
The government has confirmed that its £180bn, 10-year transport plan will cover most of the report’s recommendations.The call for swift action on ETCS is to be backed up by a second EU directive, which is due to mandate the installation of the protection system to a large proportion of UK conventional lines.
Rail technology companies working on the advanced signalling and protection systems in the UK include AEA Technology and Alstom.
Charles Burch, managing director of Alstom signalling, said the industry would be capable of meeting the demands of the Cullen/Uff report.
‘The timescales are challenging but achievable if funding is agreed quickly and a sustained commitment is made by Railtrack, the train operating companies and the SRA to implement a rolling programme.’