Signalling projects have enjoyed strong and steady growth over the years, benefitting from renewed interest in the rail sector due to its environmental benefits, privatisation and Public-Private financing of rail projects, digitalisation opportunities, urban population growth, etc. Signalling systems are fundamental to operating railways: directing traffic and preventing collisions safely and efficiently by determining where trains are on the network, controlling their direction and telling train drivers when it is safe to proceed. However, they can do so much more. Today signalling faces several challenges: the need to increase capacity, standardisation, interoperability, operational efficiency and automation.
Innovation: the answer to today’s signalling challenges
Signalling systems help increase network capacity, which is currently heavily congested, by allowing more trains to run safely. Historically, trains were running on sight. Later, fixed signals along the tracks would guide drivers. However, signalling is now being digitalised and signalling systems have been integrated. Various technologies such as critical software, radio and/or satellite communication and information systems allow trains to be operated autonomously, be fully automated and be connected to intelligent infrastructure with real-time information for passengers and operators. The result is an increase in capacity (more trains, faster and safer), more availability (punctual and flexible timetables with no interruptions), higher performance (cost-efficient, energy consumption, asset management) and greater accessibility (passenger flow, connectivity, and shared mobility).
Some key milestones will be achieved in the years and decades ahead. By 2030, high-speed rail traffic will be doubled, and automated mobility will be deployed on a large scale. By 2050, high-speed rail traffic will be tripled, and rail freight traffic will be doubled.
New infrastructure will be necessary in certain areas, but mostly it is innovation that will help reduce capital investment by increasing capacity on existing infrastructure.
Maintenance will become more effective at significantly lowering costs and all assets will be monitored in real-time, giving passengers all the information, they require instantly through a mobile app. Schedules will be flexible and cross-border, flexibly adapting to demand variations and with full integration for end-to-end mobility.
Wanted: further collaboration and fresh talent
However, several hurdles will need to be overcome.
First is recruitment. The signalling sector often struggles to attract and retain the right talent with strong digital skills – it takes a while to understand the specifics of signalling.
Secondly, operational and governance models need to be deeply transformed. This will facilitate the huge investment required to implement digital technologies to offer better and more flexible services to rail operators and passengers.
The signalling fragmentation that exists today makes this difficult. Legacy and obsolete systems need to be integrated with new mobility solutions and with other means of transport, making changes complicated, costly, and time-consuming. Ultimately, this can undermine the performance and competitiveness of rail systems over other sectors.
Thirdly, there is a possible risk of lack of coordination between all stakeholders, especially to share the data in a secure and safe way, and to set the new standards. Failing to implement a holistic strategy approach will reduce the benefits of the signalling sector in terms of faster time-to-market, simplified innovation, easier scalability, and reduced risk. Sharing the risks – and benefits – will become the norm.
Expleo: a key role to play in signalling
- Digital ATO (Automated Train Operations) over ETCS (European Train Control Systems), which relies on next generation Automatic Train Control (ATC). This technology requires minimal infrastructure elements and is based on digital topology and cab signalling. This improves integration of the Train Control and Monitoring System (TCMS) at the on-board level.
- TMS (Traffic Management Systems): this eliminates barriers to interoperability and provides flexible solutions for full integration, covering traffic management and demand driven predictions.
- Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS): based on 5G telecommunications and cloud technology, this standard will improve safety, passenger experience and operational efficiency.
- Digital twins: an exact virtual replica of real assets that enhances validation.
- Data Science: to predict the behaviour of critical assets and implement maintenance operations.
- Software Development: for modular system architecture and open communication interfaces.
- DevOps engineering: configuration and virtualisation management in facilitating certification and migration to focus on safety and cybersecurity.
To create this more collaborative paradigm (specifics and digital capabilities), we need to create new business models based on greater user flexibility and adaptability, new solutions much more focused on prototyping and large-scale demonstrations, and delivering impactful results on automation and digitalisation.