The most comprehensive automatic train protection system in Europe started operating on passenger services in Switzerland this week, undermining UK government claims that the technology is not yet ready.
A joint rail industry and government report said last month that the UK would have to wait until 2008-2015 for the European Rail Traffic Management System level two to be installed on all its main lines.
It said the UK should wait for a more advanced but as yet unproven version of ERTMS level two, and that lower levels of ERTMS would reduce capacity on the railways.
But the Swiss system, which covers a 35km stretch of track between Olten and Luzern, incorporates all the safety features recommended for the UK in the Cullen report following the Paddington disaster.
It automatically prevents trains from passing red lights and continuously monitors train speed to shorten intervals between trains from four minutes to two, enabling a massive capacity jump and revenue increases.
Supplied by Canadian rail firm Bombardier Transportation, the Olten to Luzern ERTMS sends instructions for the driver directly to a monitor in the cab using GSM radio communication. The traditional trackside signalling is not needed. It also uses 200 radio beacons, situated on the track for train position monitoring.
The Olten to Luzern system has cost around £1.8m a kilometre to install. Applied to the UK’s three main high-speed rail lines the total bill would be £3.4bn.
The Swiss system is designed to the earliest specification of ERTMS level two agreed in 1998. A new specification was agreed in 2001 to include features such as shunting and manual driver control. It is this that the UK says it wants to wait for before beginning to install the technology.
The Swiss expect to have the more advanced specification ERTMS in operation on its Bern to Olten line by 2004, at least four years before it will appear in the UK at the earliest.
A spokesman for the Swiss Federal Railways said upgrading the lower specification ERTMS would be relatively simple.
Rather than an expensive overhaul of the track infrastructure, all that is required is a software upgrade. This raises further questions over the UK’s decision not to press ahead sooner with the ERTMS level two system.
A contributor to last month’s Strategic Rail Authority’s report on ERTMS, Ian Hale of Alstom, said the delay was due to the fact that the installation of ERTMS represented a ‘bigger’ jump for the UK than other European countries.
‘We have to write all the new operational procedures for how it is to be used here. There will be pilot schemes but there is no firm idea about where they will go.’ Pilot scheme locations for ERTMS had previously been identified as the Chiltern and Thames lines. But Hale admits they are no longer front-runners.
The only line that will have ERTMS level two ‘early’ is the West Coast Main Line. Its upgrade, decided on three and a half years ago, is installing the less sophisticated level two technical specification.
But this will cover only half the line. The London to Crewe section will have level two, while the Crewe to Glasgow section will have level one. This is due to be completed by 2005.