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Advice on how to spend a $300bn global budget for Rail

23/04/2010

An estimated $US 300 billion will be spent globally on rail upgrades, network extensions and building new infrastructure between 2008 and 2013 (2008 Morgan Stanley).

This massive investment is a result of the predicted increase in demand for freight and passenger networks. Rail freight in the US alone is predicted to increase by 88 per cent by 2035 and it is estimated the European passenger rail market will increase by 19.3 per cent from 2007 to 2012.

While the world-wide spend is very substantial, it is not sufficient to build all the infrastructure to solve the world’s rail problems. Therefore, it demands a strategic approach to spending in order to deliver the maximum benefit.

This means finding ways to increase existing freight and passenger network capacities through technology, innovation and new processes.

Signalling systems are central to maximising efficiency and increasing capacity of rail networks, however the current approach is haphazard and new signalling measures are often introduced specifically following an incident or accident to do with safety issues.

What is often overlooked is that improved signalling offers the best opportunity to increase the capacity of existing networks.

Both the European Railways Transport Management System (ERTMS) (radio control) or European Train Control System (ETCS) (non-radio controlled) can deliver the required efficiencies.

These improved systems are gradually being installed to networks overseas. Where they co-exist with aging signalling infrastructure there is a significant cost, so at some stage rail operators and owners will have to start planning and preparing for complete migration into the new technologies.

The decision to move across to the new signalling will also require new rolling stock to be fitted with ERTMS/ETCS technology or retrofitted at a later date when these systems are introduced.

In the EU, there is currently just 1777 kilometres operating at Level 1 ERTMS and some of that is in the process of being upgraded to Level 2, while ETCS accounts for 790 kilometres. Outside of Europe there is only 405 kilometres of it, and that is mostly in Chinese networks.

As signalling is the main cause of infrastructure-related train delays, owners will need to decide if the changeover will be a progressive migration or a total renewal of the signalling system.

Denmark provides an instructive example of what to do. Faced with 60 per cent of its signalling system expiring within the next 15 years and its automatic train control system (ATC) due to expire by 2020, the country chose to renew its entire 3000 km system to ERTMS Level 2.

It was decided that complete renewal would be the best option because it was ultimately the cheapest and fastest. Works began in 2009 and the final rollout is expected between 2018 and 2021.

When fully operational, the new signalling system is expected to cut signal related train delays by 80 per cent, saving expenditure on operations and maintenance as well as delivering simpler safety regulations.

To introduce a Level 1 system in Australia of any kind will require a massive investment of funds over 10-20 years. It will require all levels of government and industry to work together but time is of the essence.

The longer the decision is delayed, the less efficient our rail system will become due to ageing infrastructure and the more difficult it will be to win back the commuters and freight business required for its revitalisation.

So far this as been recognised in many of the metropolitan commuter networks and the freight issues are now starting to be addressed. It all bodes well for rail in the future and there is much we can learn from what is occurring overseas.

Francis Dwornik is Rail Engineering Director of O’Donnell Griffin Rail. O’Donnell Griffin is part of the Norfolk Group (ASX:NFK) of companies and is a leading engineering company nationally with involvement also in major infrastructure projects.

 

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