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Bringing higher performance and better quality to rail

DB aims to use digital technologies to increase the rail network's capacity, making room for thousands of additional trains each day. First highly automated S-Bahn to start operating in Hamburg in 2021.

The core components of the Digital Rail for Germany program for the future are the European Train Control System (ETCS) and digital signal towers. These sophisticated digital technologies are creating brand new opportunities for increasing railway reliability and rail network capacity by up to 20 percent. According to Ronald Pofalla, member of the Management Board for Infrastructure at Deutsche Bahn, the program has far-reaching potential for the railway sector:  "We are giving development a boost like we've never seen before, and the result will be more trains that have a better on-time rate and are even greener. This is a key building block in achieving the transport policy objective of shifting more traffic to rail."

Digital Rail for Germany

The primary goal of the program is to generate the greatest possible profit for all railway customers that use the rail network. Innovations in digital rail operations will also serve to reinforce Germany's position as a business location and promote climate protection. A higher performing rail sector means less traffic on the roads, less congestion, less particulate matter and much lower CO2 emissions.

First pilot route for the Hamburg S-Bahn

Preparations are underway in Hamburg to launch the first highly automated S-Bahn in Germany. A cooperation agreement for the "Digital S-Bahn Hamburg" was signed on July 12, 2018 by Deutsche Bahn, Siemens and the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. By October 2021, four trains and a 23-kilometer-long section of the S-Bahn Line 21 between the Berliner Tor and Bergedorf/Aumühle stations will be equipped with the required technology. The technical basis for highly automated operation on this route section will be provided by the ETCS (European Train Control System) Level 2 digital control-command and signaling system. The four trains will be controlled by radio signals and data will be transmitted between the trains, track and radio block center.

A driver will continue to be on board each train but will intervene only in the event of malfunctions or irregularities. The four specially equipped trains will run between the siding and the Bergedorf platform completely automatically and without any personnel on board.

The rail network in large cities and densely populated metropolitan regions is already operating at almost full capacity and the increase in demand is particularly rapid in these areas. The benefits of digitalization will be particularly noticeable on S-Bahn networks with higher-frequency services. Following a successful pilot phase, it is planned to digitalize the entire Hamburg S-Bahn network. The Hanseatic city will provide a blueprint for exploiting the potential of digitalization to boost the development of the railway system throughout Germany.


Four questions and answers about the Digital Rail for Germany program:

1. What can digital rail do?

Digital technologies will create groundbreaking new opportunities to take rail operations into the future, along with all of rail's unique characteristics – its ability to move tremendous volumes of people and goods at the same time, to handle high-capacity transport, to be climate-friendly and energy-efficient, and to offer sophisticated electromobility while requiring little space. We intend to increase the existing network's capacity by up to 20% without building additional routes. That means thousands more trains each day – with a high on-time rate and better quality.

Digital technologies have already created attractive new possibilities in many areas of business and services. Now is the time to systematically take advantage of this potential when it comes to digitalizing the rail infrastructure.

Digital signal towers and ETCS technology will lay the groundwork for much more efficient rail operations and will improve quality, reliability and punctuality. Delay minutes stemming from current control-command and signaling equipment will be reduced. Innovative technology will replace the countless models of older signal towers found throughout Germany, which are increasingly prone to failure.

This will cut millions in costs and reduce operating and maintenance expenses. 

2. Who will benefit?
  • Customers of all rail companies operating in passenger and freight transport will benefit from much better services, with better punctuality, service frequency, convenience and comfort.
  • The climate will benefit because rail will be much better equipped to take more traffic off the roads.
  • The economy, policy makers and associations will benefit from lower costs and higher revenues. This will enable more contracts and financial leeway in publicly financed regional and local transport and a number of other industries.
  • Companies in the commercial sector will create attractive new jobs.
  • The transport sector will benefit from the opportunity to develop cutting-edge technology and use it internationally. Germany's rail industry will have greater export potential.
  • Rail in Europe will be given a boost by greater interoperability – trains will no longer need to stop at borders. Travel and transport times will be reduced.
  • The infrastructure expansion will create an unrivaled broadband network in Germany, the performance and benefits of which will extend far beyond rail operations.     
3. What is ETCS?

ETCS stands for European Train Control System. The most important job that ETCS has to do – like all of its predecessor systems – is to ensure that only one train is in a specific section of track at all times and that the following train always has enough time to brake. The ETCS transmits route data, the maximum permissible speed and the train's next stopping point to the radio block center. The train's on-board computer compares the actual speed with the maximum permissible speed transmitted by balises and the distance to the destination and automatically brakes the train if it is exceeding the speed limit. The purpose of balises is to transmit information from the route to the train.

In ETCS Level 2, the on-board computer also uses infrastructure data transmitted via a continuous radio link to seamlessly make adjustments. The train driver can see all of the necessary information on a display.

4. How do digital signal towers differ from previous signal towers?

Digital signal towers are the latest generation of signal towers and are the technological successor to electronic signal towers. The two differ primarily in the way switches, signals and routes are operated. In both types of signal towers, redundant computer systems check and process commands from dispatchers. Commands from computers in electronic signal towers are transmitted to switches, signals and railroad crossings using cable harnesses and conventional electronic switching technology.

Digital signal towers transmit commands to switches and signals digitally. The advantage is that signal towers can be placed at a much greater distance because of the data link. In digital signal technology, signal towers do not need to be connected to each individual component, i.e. switches, signals, rail contacts and railroad crossings.

This enables components to be standardized, simplifies maintenance, creates more stable data lines and enables larger operating ranges.