European Rail Industry Perspective on GNSS: Francesco Rispoli - Inside GNSS - Global Navigation Satellite Systems Engineering, Policy, and Design

European Rail Industry Perspective on GNSS: Francesco Rispoli

I was sitting on a train recently and a guy said to me, “What does GPS have to do with trains? Trains run on tracks, don’t they? How can they get lost or go the wrong way?”

The fact is trains have all kinds of things to do with GNSS. Most important are safety-related applications, including satellite navigation as a means of precisely determining train position. Being able to anticipate approaching curves and bends is important for tilting trains, for example.

I was sitting on a train recently and a guy said to me, “What does GPS have to do with trains? Trains run on tracks, don’t they? How can they get lost or go the wrong way?”

The fact is trains have all kinds of things to do with GNSS. Most important are safety-related applications, including satellite navigation as a means of precisely determining train position. Being able to anticipate approaching curves and bends is important for tilting trains, for example.

New applications are improving safety not on trains as such but at railway crossings, or ensuring the safety of workers during maintenance operations. There are also non-safety-related applications, such as passenger-information systems and the timing and synchronization of onboard equipment.

So, GNSS has got business opportunities — and more and more of it — in railroads.

That’s no secret to Francesco Rispoli. He’s vice-president of Satellite Projects and Rail Telecommunications, Innovation and Competitivity Unit at Italy’s Ansaldo-STS. A Finmeccanica company, Ansaldo is a leading technology provider, listed on the Milan stock exchange and employing some 3,900 people. In 2012, Ansaldo reported €1.2 billion (US$1.73 billion) in revenues.

A global operator, the company delivers, among other things, transportation solutions and services, including railway and mass transit signaling systems. It also acts as lead contractor and turnkey provider on major projects worldwide. One of those projects involving GNSS is currently getting under way “down under.”

“The signaling solution offered by Ansaldo STS in Australia is technically significant for the global rail industry,” says Rispoli, “because it involves centralized routing and automatic train protection [ATP] with satellite positioning, ensuring accuracy and integrity performance at Safety Integrity Level 4.”

One of the more useful applications for GNSS in rail transport, it would seem, is cost-effective train localization and safety assurance over long stretches of semi-deserted areas, such as those seen in parts of the United States and South America, and much of Russia, China, and Australia.

The “integrity” to which Rispoli refers is essentially a guarantee that the probability of a positioning error beyond a specified confidence range will be less than 10-9 per hour — a pretty small risk. So small, indeed, says Rispoli, “It sets a benchmark for satellite locating systems compared to those developed for the aeronautical sector.”

Ansaldo’s contract to deliver the first two phases of a staged signaling and communications system for the heavy-haul rail line in Western Australia’s Pilbara region is worth €118 million.

Ansaldo isn’t the only European rail company cashing in down in kangaroo country. Australian operator RailCorp awarded several contracts worth $65 million for its new rail signaling system in 2011, with France’s Alstom winning the right to deliver an ATP system tailored specifically to the requirements of Sydney’s CityRail network, based on Level 1 of the European Train Control System (ETCS).

Part of a major upgrade, the Alstom system provides an additional layer of security for Sydney’s rail network, using radio transceivers placed at regular intervals along the track that communicate directly with compatible trains.

In total, 160 trains will be fitted with the equipment, covering over 600 kilometers (372 miles) of track. A nine-year maintenance contract is also part of the agreement, as is a pilot system based on ETCS Level 2. It will be installed on the Cronulla Branch Line and will allow more trains to run per hour with improved safety and reliability.

What’s the Rub?
Back in the GNSS sector, what concerns Rispoli is only what should concern any responsible industry man — keeping ahead of, or at least even with, the competition. American legislation, he believes, is giving U.S. companies a significant boost in international markets.

“PTC [Positive Train Control] is a U.S. Federal law that affects all freight and passenger railroads in the USA,” he explains. “The technology must be installed on all main-line tracks where intercity passenger railroads and commuter railroads operate, as well as on lines carrying toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials.

“America’s government-backed PTC initiative has pushed forward the development and adoption of satellite-navigation technology with the introduction of continuous GPS-based location and speed-tracking systems and more sophisticated on-board wireless technologies.”

The benefit for U.S. industry is real, he says. The cost of implementing the PTC program has been estimated at several billion dollars, and such a huge investment has incentivized the U.S.-based development of new satellite navigation and wireless telecom technologies.

“These technologies allow you to optimize the life-cycle costs of railway signaling systems, making investment more attractive without sacrificing safety,” Rispoli says.

The Ansaldo VP points out that about $50 million in Railroad Safety Technology Program grants, handed out by the Federal Railways Administration, have been set aside for industry to help develop essential PTC technologies. Moreover, some technologies developed for the US defense sector are also becoming available for rail applications.

As in America, Why Not in Europe?
Rispoli says Europe was a pioneer in the early 2000s in the study and development of satellite localization solutions for train control systems. “Most of this effort was driven by the interest of the space community in making EGNOS and Galileo available for the rail sector.”

But the rail community at that time was focused on the fledgling European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) for high-speed lines. “Satellite technologies were not considered a priority,” he says.

That is to say Europe fell behind. Sound familiar? But wait, all may not be lost.

“Now, the situation has changed,” Rispoli says, “mainly as a result of increasing international market pressure.” European railway stakeholders have finally recognized that EGNOS and Galileo could play a key role in increasing the reliability and reducing the cost of the ERTMS platform, and that would be good for business.

This better-late-than-never recognition is spelled out in the New ERTMS Memorandum of Understanding “concerning the strengthening of cooperation for speeding up the deployment of ERTMS,” signed by the European Commission and the European Railway Associations in March 2012.

Rispoli is just getting started: “Europe has developed the ERTMS system that is de facto a world standard and meanwhile is investing more than €6 billion for deploying the Galileo system. The rail sector could become the first user of the safety-of-life satellite navigation services in Europe, because of the potential demand related to the modernization of local and regional lines, which represent 50 percent of the overall rail network and transport 20 times more passengers than airplanes.”

But, he cautions, the adoption of GNSS for safety-related applications in the rail domain cannot be left to market forces alone. For one thing, manufacturers need to comply with standards to enable full interoperability among satellite assets, such as on board localizer and augmentation networks, and the ERTMS platform. This means regulations are needed. Government needs to step in.

Also, adoption of GNSS as a key component in the modernization of local and regional European lines will require a smooth transition from today’s operational, but costly, ground-based technologies to more efficient GNSS-based systems.

“The two technologies will have to coexist for a certain period of time,” Rispoli says, “to allow train operators, who have to equip the trains, and railway administrators, who are responsible for train circulation, to implement the new systems.”

For his part, Rispoli says the European Commission has to act as a catalyst for promoting and accelerating this process, since ERTMS and Galileo are key assets of the European industrial policy. Government needs to step in! The most urgent action needed?

“The setting up of a roadmap for the adoption of GNSS within the ERTMS platform,” suggests Rispoli. Which would, logically, lead to new funding initiatives, and go a long way towards incentivizing new GNSS-for-rail technology development in Europe, much as the PTC legislation has done in America.

A Global Market
But competition isn’t just coming from the United States. Europe’s other international competitors are moving right along, as usual.

In Russia, for example, RZD, the state-owned train operator, has already recognized GNSS as one of the breakthrough technologies in their strategic plan for railway infrastructure renewal.

The need for interoperability along EU-Russia rail corridors remains an impetus for a common standard for Galileo and GLONASS in train control systems.

“In China, some rail lines are already operating with a GPS localization system,” says Rispoli. “And following our discussions with representatives of the BeiDou system, we believe the entry into operation of BeiDou will contribute to the wider-scale deployment of such solutions, and not only in the Chinese market.”

Will Europe act in time? Or will it stand by watching as its slice of the pie gets thinner and thinner? Rispoli believes now is not the time for pessimism.

“From the rail industry perspective, we have to face the facts — our market competitors, mainly in the USA, are already using GNSS for rail applications, thanks to the PTC initiative. The EU has to recognize that the adoption of GNSS in rail control systems cannot be left to the initiative of individual companies.” Ansaldo-STS is already investing in satellite technologies to make our core products more competitive on the market, he says, but a full migration to a satellite-based train control system, such the ERTMS Level 3, will require a joint effort between both rail and satellite stakeholders.

“The rail industry in Europe may not be seen historically as a first adopter of satellite technologies, but these technologies are now mature and the time has come for an innovation step-change in the rail sector,” Rispolie says. (And we don’t want to miss that train.)

Europe, with its ERTMS, is still leading in the high-speed rail control system market. But with the adoption of GNSS, Rispoli argues, the ERTMS could become that much more attractive for other rail market segments, such as local, regional, and heavy-haul freight lines.

Since the signature of the new ERTMS MOU, the Union Industry of Signaling (UNISIG) group, an industrial consortium created to develop ERTMS/ETCS technical specifications, has set up a working group for the adoption of satellite localization. Cooperation between this UNISIG working group and the European GNSS Agency (GSA) has been established recently, and Rispoli says he is confident that the European rail community will be able to work with the satellite community.

Rispoli’s message, as we read it, seems clear. Like many forward-thinking hommes d’affairs, he does not like to see Europe having to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, not when there are contracts to be won and money to be made.

The GSA and the European Commission have the wherewithal to step up and provide support for GNSS in the rail transport sector. Many are now hoping they also have the will.