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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.

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. Ronald Pofalla, Member of the Management Board for Infrastructure, presented the program at the Symposium on Competition and Regulation in the Rail Sector held in Berlin on January 25, 2018: "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

Some 250 experts from Europe's transport sector, policy making and associations discussed the project at the symposium. Expansion of new radio-controlled ETCS (European Train Control System) signaling equipment and introduction of digital signal towers are at the program's core. "First off, it will take a major effort on the part of the public sector, railroads and industry to expand ETCS and digital signaling equipment," Pofalla said. "But it's a worthy investment because everyone will benefit. This major innovative push will benefit customers of all rail companies in Germany, Germany as location for business, and the climate. A higher performing rail sector means less traffic on the roads, less congestion, less particulate matter and much lower CO2 emissions," he continued. Initial plans have some 80% of Germany's rail network being operated digitally (without signals) by 2030.

Five 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.

5. Are digital applications already used in practice?

Fiber optic sensing

DB has been testing a fiber optic sensing system since 2014 to help detect cables are currently installed along around 50% of all routes and are already beanimals on tracks, landslides and stolen cables more quickly. Fiber optic ing used to transfer data quickly and to transmit signals from control-command and signaling equipment. But the high-tech lines cables can do even more.

The fiber optic sensor system works like radar. Light pulses are emitted and then reflected back at different strengths based on outside influences. The type and intensity of reflection can be recorded and evaluated. Tests are under way in three locations. A 13 kilometer long section of an S-Bahn line in Berlin is being used to develop technology to geolocate cable theft. Landslides, falling rocks and flat spots on freight train wheels are the focus along the right bank of the Rhine. Train tracking (continuous transmission of the exact position of trains) and track bed and track monitoring are being tested on the high-speed line between Halle/Leipzig and Erfurt.

Switch EKG for remote diagnostics

DB uses a digital remote diagnostic system, which can detect potential malfunctions before they occur, to optimize switch availability. Sensors "report" to the system if something's not right when switches are set. A change in electricity consumption can indicate a problem. If the data curve differs from what is expected, maintenance technicians can see deviations at an early stage on their mobile or stationary devices and begin maintenance even before a malfunction occurs. The aim is for the system to reduce switch drive malfunctions by up to 50%.

By 2020, 30,000 switches will be equipped with switch drive diagnostics and connected to DIANA. Some 15,700 switches had already been equipped with throw force diagnostic systems by the end of 2017. Predictive maintenance using the DIANA diagnostic platform is gradually being expanded to other components.

Wayside monitoring

Wayside monitoring makes it possible for rail vehicles to essentially be given a drive-by health check-up while they're in service. Microphones on the track pick up the noise generated by trains passing by, which is then compared to a previously recorded acoustic "fingerprint." If the result deviates from the standard value, the train is proactively serviced – long before damage to the train or tracks can occur. The advantages are fewer delays for passengers and optimized predictive maintenance.

A video-based system for diagnosing railcars online has already been tested. DB is testing a laser-based system to measure wheelsets during operation in 2018.