Tuesday 17th September 2019

Inmarsat supports evolution of European train signalling system

Published on August 31st, 2018

The European Railways Train Management System (ERTMS) manages the trains on high speed, national lines in Europe, but many of the smaller lines are still controlled manually due to a lack of communications infrastructure. Satellite seems the obvious choice to bring them onto the system.

Half of Europe’s rail network is made up of smaller, regional networks which are critical to local economies. The communications infrastructure needed to be upgraded to make these regional networks interoperable and as safe as possible.

Francesco Rispoli is manager of Satellite Technology at Ansaldo STS, which specialises in railway signalling and integrated transport systems. He explains the importance of overcoming these barriers saying, “Train operators in Europe are evaluating plans to upgrade their regional and local railway system primarily to make the infrastructure more efficient, but also to improve the safety where the lines are still manually operated, and in some cases lacking the automatic override capabilities that protect against inevitable cases of human error.

“However, there is a significant cost implicated in the deployment of telecommunications infrastructure, such as GSM-R, along these railway lines. According to a recent study by the transport economics experts, ESA 3InSat team of Bocconi University, 28,000km of European railway lines could benefit from a more efficient ERTMS solution which utilises satellite technology”.

Building an interoperable system

Ansaldo STS and RFI, the state-owned company that manages the Italian railway infrastructure, set up the ERSAT initiative in 2012, backed by the European Global Navigation and Satellite Systems Agency (GSA) and European Space Agency (ESA). The goal was to combine the ERTMS features with satellite positioning and IP-based communications, using satellite connectivity to build an interoperable system at less cost than installing a GSM-R terrestrial communications network.

As the first stage of this process, the ERSAT initiative selected Inmarsat’s satellite-based Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) to connect to trains running on a 50km stretch of line on the island of Sardinia, between Cagliari and San Gavino. BGAN provides an IP-based, real-time connectivity service with 99.9% uptime and here works in conjunction with Vodafone’s M2M Global Cellular Network.

The BGAN terminal can withstand the harsh environment of the railway network: the terminal and satellite communication network enable the control room to communicate with and monitor the location of the train, giving it authorisation to go through junctions.

Rispoli comments, “Satellite technology, combined with cellular networks, is the most effective, lowest cost option to extend the ERTMS to local rail networks, as initiated by the ESA 3InSat project. Inmarsat’s BGAN terminal was installed on an operational train on March 2014, and in the period up to the beginning of 2017, that train travelled roughly 150,000km.

“The terminal, however, showed no-ill effects and was successfully operated and tested for 10,000km between the stations of Cagliari, San Gavino, and Olbia, during this time, in what was the first large-scale roll-out test in Europe.”

He continues, “Through close collaboration with the rail operator, we have been able to verify the technology in real operational conditions, therefore gaining confidence and a convincing business case for satellite technology as a means to extend the ERTMS to regional railway lines. This has enabled us to move on to the next stage of the validation and certification process with a new pilot line under the guidance of RFI and involving the Italian Railways Safety Agency.

“The main goal of this stage is to demonstrate that this solution satisfies all the requirements, without impacting the safety levels of the ERTMS. The expectation is that the new pilot line will contribute to the standardisation process with the ERTMS stakeholders and enable us to begin rolling out the solution across Europe.”

Rispoli concluded, “The train management systems and rail networks of the future will require increasing bandwidth, more resilience, rugged terminals and a global footprint. Rapidly deployable solutions and long-term telecom services are key for backup services to existing terrestrial networks and to increase the throughput for enhancing transport capacity.

“The ultimate goal of the ERTMS is to limit the need for dedicated telecom networks. Autonomous driving technology is just one example of the incoming technologies that train operators are looking to, and Inmarsat’s satellite connectivity in Sardinia is expected to open the way for future large-scale adoption of satellite communications world-wide.”

At a glance…

  • BGAN terminals integrated into each train to transmit data
  • High-speed, reliable connectivity provided by Inmarsat’s satellite network
  • Low-cost solution to extend the ERTMS to regional lines to improve safety and efficiency of rail traffic management
  • Provides capacity for future upgrades and the addition of autonomous technology
  • Verified business case provides platform to roll out solution across Europe

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