Value for Money in Railway Signalling

Dutch infrastructure manager Prorail has spent years devising its Mistral programme, aimed at renewal of life expired signalling equipment, mostly relay based interlockings more than 50 years old, that account for about 17% of the signalling installations on its network. At the same time it has been developing an ERTMS implementation programme, expected to roll our ERTMS on 75% of its core network. Recently ProRail has informed the market that it is cancelling the tendering for the first Mistral projects. The reasons are quite sobering and should lead to some soul searching for our profession.

The reasons given are that whilst a positive business case for ERTMS had not been produced yet, the indications for Mistral showed that capital expenditure for the replacement of ageing interlocking with their electronic modern day successors would be disproportionate and, contrary to earlier expectations life cycle costs, were showing no sign of decreasing at all.

In fact by sticking with conventional technology in locations where ERTMS is not mandated, thus avoiding the need for new interfaces and functions only computer based interlocking can provide and by seeking economies of scale, several studies have shown that a saving of some 300 million euros (roughly equivalent to 25% of projected investment) should be possible. Needless to say that in these difficult economic times ProRail management has decided to reconsider its plans.

It is expected that this will result in ERTMS deployment only on lines where this is mandated by (EU) legislation and a few others where a positive cost benefit ratio, taking into account public or societal cost and benefits as well (social cost benefit analysis), can be shown. Expectations are that this will only occur where required capacity increases on the network would be feasible through smart solutions based on ERTMS obviating the need for expensive additional physical infrastructure. For the Mistral programme this means a more conservative approach towards “technology renewal” and preparing for ERTMS, in favor of a lowest possible cost approach. More studies by taskforces and consultation with the railway sector and the government should lead to revised and agreed programmes by the end of 2010.

It is indeed a sobering thought for our profession that after decades of innovation in technology, modern signalling today apparently still cannot match the value for money of 1960’s bespoke relay based interlocking and conventional ATP, even if we do try to factor in life cycle costing and societal cost benefits. In this respect, as in many others, again we find that the Signalling industry is unique. Unique, but not sustainable.

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4 Responses to Value for Money in Railway Signalling

  1. Jörn Pachl says:

    There is one really strange thing with railway signalling. In all fields of technology, the introduction of computer controlled systems has led to a remarkable gain in productivity. Performance increased significantly while costs dropped to a level much below the costs of traditional technology. In some areas, e.g., telecommunications, old technologies almost disappeared overnight. However, there is one big exception, which is railway signalling. Our latest electronic interlocking systems are not just more expensive, their operational capabilities are also still below the last developments in relay technology. A couple of years ago, experienced signalling developers of Siemens confirmed me that the in its operational capabilities most highly developed German interlocking system was the relay interlocking system of the type GS III 8030 developed by East German supplier WSSB (now a part of Siemens) in the 1980s. A lot of very useful operational standard features of that interlocking type (e.g., stacked routes, advanced approach locking, shared overlaps, etc.) are still missing in our current electronic systems. While this is just one example of a specific system in a individual country, it’s typical for the rest of the world. The operational performance of computer based interlocking systems hardly beats relay technology of the 1960s. Same is true with ETCS. While the costs are much higher, the operational performance is even lower than in some traditional Class B ATP systems. The only benefit is interoperability for cross-border operations. No wonder, railways are loosing interest. I often asked myself what is wrong in our industry. Why is rail traffic control so different from all other control systems? I’ve not yet found an answer, however.

    • signalling says:

      Part of the answer must be in the nature of the railway signalling market. In essence it is an oligopoly of suppliers combined with monopolistic clients. Mostly society pays for the cost of the railway on the basis of its socio-economic benefits. This removes a lot of the normal economic incentives, even post privatisation that is still true in most countries. Rather like the defense systems market actually, which are also not known for lowering costs…. That analogy even holds if you look at where some of the the signalling suppliers used to be located in some of their parent companies. Or vice versa if you look at the interest some defense suppliers sometimes take in the railway markets when peace brakes out.

      Another part of the downward trend in price/performance ratio of interlockings and atp systems you observe might be explained by complexity, market fragmentation and cost of system acceptance. It is interesting to note that although the supposed benefits of a larger harmonised market have been “advertised” by the ERTMS lobby for as long as the project has been in existence, all that really happened until now is that ETCS equipment and unit prices have levelled out on the level of the most expensive class B systems. Coincidence? Paranoia?

      The Social Cost Benefit Analysis report on the cost of implementation strategies for ERTMS in the Netherlands I referred to can be downloaded from the website of the Dutch government. That report is in English. Interesting reading! will take you to the download link

  2. What should a system like Indian railways do with ETCS? we are a self contained system without the issue of national borders. So interoperability is not an issue for us, but safety and capacity are. We do not have a proven ATP as yet for Indian Railways. ETCS looks like a possible candidate due to support from multiple vendors but costs are prohibitive at present.

    • signalling says:

      It might be that the cost of any proven ATP system is “prohibitive”. If so, I have no answer. Developing your own is hardly going to be cheaper? We are all waiting for the much praised mechanisms of the market economy and competition to kick in and drive down the prices of ETCS. So far in vain. Perhaps wait for the Chinese variant on ETCS to become proven and exported …….

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