The Digital Railway: the major project

  • Lucy Prior

The Digital Railway: the major project

Lucy Prior explains why the complex but necessary shift in signalling technology is of particular interest to the Rail Alliance and its members

Innovations in signalling

To over simplify, the concept of a digital railway refers to the shift from trackside to onboard signalling systems that in turn will increase capacity and thus enable more vehicles to move more people and goods.

To go deep into the depths of the digitalised railway, the theory behind and the practicality in its rollout requires us to step out of our local or direct supply chain and recognise that this is an international opportunity. An opportunity that is about much more than running a greater number of trains; the digitalised railway has the potential to impact upon all of our lives with far reaching socioeconomic impact.

A major project

At the international level the digital railway is a pan-European project and opportunity and is also already well established internationally with scope to be a genuinely global project in time. The UIC (The Worldwide Railway Association / Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer) sets it out beautifully: ‘European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) is an EU major European industrial project to enhance cross-border interoperability and signalling procurement by creating a single Europe-wide standard for railway signalling with the final aim of improving the competitiveness of the rail sector.’

The rail sector is awash with acronyms and it is far too easy to interchange and thus confuse one abbreviation for another – for those of you reading this that are not fluent with signalling jargon the relationship between ‘layers’ of ERTMS, according to the UIC, is as follows:

  • GSM-R: Global System for Mobiles – Railway. The shift from analogue to digital driver/signaller communications
  • ETCS: European Train Control System. Shifting trackside signalling into the driver cabin, this is the train-control element of ERTMS and includes Automatic Train Protection (ATP), a key benefit being that the driver can concentrate on core tasks
  • ETML: European Traffic Management Layer – the operation management level intended to optimise train movements by the ‘intelligent’ interpretation of timetables and train running data, helping us truly achieve ‘smart mobility’.

Safety in signalling

The importance of this to us in our everyday lives is the intrinsic link between signalling and human safety. Network Rail is rightly proud of the fact that we in the UK have the safest railway in Europe, and to fully adopt and adapt to ERTMS will arguably only bolster our safety records further. In June 2017 at the Single European Rail Area (SERA) Convention in Brussels the EU Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc emphasized that: ‘ERTMS is a cornerstone of digitalising the rail sector and essential for achieving a single and safe European Railway Area.’

At a recent Rail Alliance networking event that I chaired I was honoured to speak alongside senior experts from across the UK rail signalling market. One of the keynote presentations was given by Stuart Calvert, Group Digital Railway’s Technical Services and Supply Chain Director, at Network Rail.

We delved in to the need and technology of ERTMS and Digital Railway but what struck me was the human benefit of the technology. Stuart explained that: ‘Not only will digital train control improve safety for passengers, it will make working conditions safer for operational and maintenance staff too. Removing much of the maintenance heavy lineside infrastructure will reduce the amount of time workers spend trackside in all weathers, often in dangerous conditions.’

The diagram below, delivered at the same event by Digital Railway, perfectly illustrates the symbiotic relationship between technology and human safety and capability. Digital Railway and the three sub-layers of ERTMS are all represented in their individual capacities and the importance of skills and capability enabled by telecoms and data provide irrefutable evidence that ERTMS is about much more than ‘just’ capacity.

Even without listing statistical evidence (of which there is plenty at and it is evident that the benefits of digital railway control within ERTMS is far reaching in terms of the safety of passengers and railway workers, but that the digital railway also offers many direct and indirect socio-economic benefits.

Rail Alliance benefit diagram

The wider opportunity

To reinforce the above assertion is the simple fact that ERTMS is deployed well outside the geopolitical boundaries of the EU. This ‘major project’ has the potential to drive economic growth through improved freight journeys and enhanced connectivity between regions and cities, supporting the drive for better social mobility regionally and internationally.

The Rail Alliance recognises that as well as capacity and connectivity that safety is a crucial element and immediate benefit of digital railway control. We are therefore working closely with Network Rail’s Signalling Innovation Group (SIG) again to demonstrate the latest technology and collaborations in the UK signalling supply chain at Rail Live in June (20-21). With over thirty key companies, listed below, from across the international railway signalling supply chain Rail Live will enable the wider rail community to engage with and learn first-hand about the need for and capability of the digital railway.

Rail Live and the SIG are keen to welcome all interested parties to come and learn more about the step change that is happening in our railways right now. For more details please visit

About the Rail Alliance

The Rail Alliance is the UK rail sector’s largest dedicated business to business networking organisation and it excels in and thrives upon bringing customers, suppliers and supply chain opportunities together.

Its broad spectrum of membership extends way beyond pure rail and positions the Rail Alliance as the go-to membership organisation in the UK to nurture diversity, ingenuity and innovation across the rail sector and cross-sector.

2018-05-25T16:00:08+00:00May 25th, 2018|June 2018|