When it comes to running railways safely and efficiently, the signalling system is as important as the trains. It must ensure safe working by not allowing one train into a section of track occupied by another, while ensuring that as many trains as possible can share the rails. It must operate reliably in all conditions and when unexpected disruption happens – such as a failed train – it should allow the railway to keep a service running.

Designing and installing signalling is an extremely demanding task, but with many existing signalling systems in the UK, Europe and Asia nearing the end of their design lives, attention is now focusing on how best to replace them to meet future demand for rail travel, which is widely expected to soar over the next two decades. A new independent study commissioned by Invensys Rail, and carried out by UK strategy consultant Credo, sheds light on the total costs of new signalling systems and offers fascinating insight into how they can be reduced without compromising safety or network capacity.

The study examined four similar commuter railways in North America, Europe and Australasia to assess the total cost of ownership (TCO) of signalling, and to develop a model which can be applied to comparable railways around the world. It found the average cost per kilometre to upgrade the signalling on a 30km electrified commuter route with last generation signalling was £1.4m – a figure which remained constant even though there were significant differences in operations and regulation between the railways studied – to the surprise of the study’s authors.

The bulk of the TCO for a signalling system – 60 per cent – occurs in the first year, with design, equipment acquisition, construction and commissioning accounting for most of the costs. After the first year, however, the remaining costs are largely related to operation, planned and reactive maintenance and power consumption of the equipment.

This inevitably places pressure on railways to constrain spending, with the result that too often attention is paid to the first year’s cost, even if TCO is higher than competing offers. Repeated experience has shown that high-quality engineering during the implementation phase is critical in ensuring TCO is reduced, particularly as benefits and return on investment often accrue during the last years of a project’s design life.

Modular approach

It is possible for railways to reduce the TCO of new signalling systems from the outset if they adopt some of the measures employed by the railways involved in the study. One of the biggest complications of railway signalling is that many upgrade schemes involve custom-built configurations, which cost more to design, install, commission and maintain than if they could use standard forms. Adopting a modular approach, which uses multiple standard signalling modules, means components can be fully tested before site delivery and are quicker to commission, as staff have to become familiar with fewer different types of equipment.

Installing and commissioning signalling equipment should also become simpler and cheaper in the years ahead as European Rail Traffi c Management System becomes a global standard – it is in operation or planned for the Middle East, Asia and Australia as well as Europe – and common standards are applied between countries. In addition, equipping engineers with handheld computers, which can do elements of the testing process on lineside equipment, can also save money and reduce the time taken to commission new parts.

Once a signalling system is installed and in operation, attention can then focus on cutting the costs of maintenance. Although there is wide variation in maintenance practices, with some railways carrying out many more periodic inspections of equipment than others, modern signalling equipment can easily be adapted to report the condition of components to a control centre, alerting maintenance staff to impending failures and allowing precise intervention.

Better liaison with maintenance teams by management can also inspire front-line engineers to share best practice and drive failure levels down across an entire network. Both of these philosophies have lead to major cost reductions in railways involved in the study. Their combined effect can make a tangible difference to the reliability and cost of maintaining a signalling system once it is installed.

Viewing a signalling system in terms of the TCO opens up the potential for a completely new way of undertaking route upgrades. By taking a partnership approach with signalling providers, it may be possible to spread the costs more evenly over the lifecycle of the signalling system by using long-term performance-based contracts, with the equipment supplier undertaking maintenance of the system. This would, in turn, allow the railway to concentrate on its core task of running trains, while still gaining the benefi ts of best practice in signalling maintenance from around the world. This methodology has proved particularly successful in the aviation industry and is now being adopted in the rail sector, with some success, by train builders.

A previous study by Credo suggests that upgrading railway signalling is the most effective method of increasing transport capacity in any mode.