ERTMS – What lies ahead?

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The recent fatal train crash in Belgium has re-focused attention on the merits of deploying ERTMS, the single European Rail Traffic Management System which would create a safer and seamless European railway system. In practice however we have learnt that there are huge challenges to be resolved, primarily relating to funding, the complexity of new communications technologies and the difficulties in standardising the requisite signalling and train control legislation.

In preparation for next week’s ‘Signalling & Train Control World Summit 2010’ (in Madrid from 22-24 March), Terrapin recently questioned 237 railway industry executives. Worryingly, the most common answer to the question “What is the biggest issue affecting the way in which your company operates?” was the financial constraint resulting from the global economic slowdown and consequently not being able to afford expensive new technology such as ERTMS.

Another major issue is the expected lack of suitably skilled Signalling, Telecoms, Train Controls & Systems Engineers, since it is understood that the introduction of ERTMS could potentially lead to another skills shortage as seen during the implementation of TPWS in the UK. This was previously overcome by using freelance experts, bringing skilled resource from overseas and sub-contracting design packages to smaller design houses with which we partnered.

The summary comment published in the NCE article regarding the report by the British Chambers of Commerce, reinforces the need for major infrastructure projects to remain a priority following the general election. If ERTMS becomes part of these infrastructure plans, will the same resource problems become an issue once again? Having been hiring rail specialists into the GSM-R programme (the principal sub-system of ERTMS), for the past couple of years, we have heard on many occasions from managers wary of the projected skills shortfall that lie ahead.

Does the industry need to give some further thought as to how the resource challenges may be met, or will it rely again on the freelance and overseas signalling design community to step up to the challenge?

To pre-empt and begin to address these issues, Mick Hughes, who heads our Railways Division, has recently established a networking group on the LinkedIn website for UK Signalling Design Engineers. We would be delighted to accept all suitably qualified / experienced signalling engineers into this group, which we hope will act as an effective forum to network freely with your peers in other organisations and foster intelligent discussion on a wide range of industry issues.