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Digital rail goes into space

Just over a year ago I wrote an article entitled “Digital innovation looks to the skies*" where I discussed how the launch of a wave of new satellites as part of Europe’s global navigation satellite system, could be used to enhance rail travel. A year on and the first satellite based train control systems are being trialled in Europe.


Successful pilots in Italy, Sardinia and Germany have proved that the system can work, and a roll out programme is being considered by a number of European Rail Network operators. The ERSAT EAV system integrates the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) with the Galileo satellite navigation and geo-location system, and the public telecommunications networks to provide train tracking. This approach could be used to enhance and ultimately to replace unreliable and costly ground based train location systems.

Satellite navigation can pinpoint the geographic location of trains and transmit the information on board or to trackside receivers, in real-time. This has the potential to become a very valuable source of train location information, which is not yet available with current terrestrial based train tracking systems. Location data could be made available to any applications needing positional information, anything from train control centres to smartphones. If this can be done with sufficient accuracy, reliability and security, then it could overcome the need for trackside train detection systems thus saving money and increasing efficiency and flexibility of operation. The technology could be available in a time frame to support the implementation of the new high speed rail line and provide enhanced location information to high speed and busier routes on the national network.

GNSS is already in use for a number of railway applications including management of rolling stock, provision of passenger information, control of door operation, level crossing control and maintenance functions that can automatically direct engineers to sites that may need repair. The “right time timetableing” system being developed by Network Rail uses on-board GPS equipment to monitor and control every train in real-time. The potential in the next decade is for critical railway operations such as signalling and train movement control and monitoring to be satellite based.

Wider benefits come if sat-nav derived train location data is integrated with infrastructure-derived positional data and managed in a “central” database. This centralised approach would deliver improved and more consistently accurate location readings along the route offering higher levels of reliability and integrity. Of course the “centralised” data doesn’t have to be held in one place and doesn’t have to be in a central location. So long as the format and protocols are standardised and an open architecture is used, then any application can make use of the data thus increasing its value to the whole industry. What is needed now is a guiding mind within the industry to define the data formats, manage the processes for storage and maintenance, and specify interfaces and protocols for using the data.

This development does not come without major challenges. Not least is the possibility of cyber-attack on the system through jamming of the satellite signal, hacking of the data and infiltration of the control and command systems to give just three examples. There have already been incidents of jamming devices being operated on-board trains in the UK, and across the world there are many examples of cyber-attacks on rail networks. Worse scenario would be a spoof signal transmitter which could be used to send false signals to a train thus impacting safety. Clearly this is an area where considerable effort needs to be directed if the industry is to reap the benefits without suffering from the results of these cyber-attacks.

The Department for Transport issued its cyber security guidelines to the industry at the beginning of 2016, and at the start of this year the Rail Cyber Strategy was issued after consultation with a wide range of stakeholders and cyber security experts. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is developing the safety and security assurance processes for the Digital Railway Programme.

This programme is already putting in place arrangements to ensure that the potential of a cyber-attack is understood and managed and that the possible effects of any such attack are minimised. To do this a Security Assurance Framework has been proposed which covers the governance, accreditation and engineering lifecycle activities which are required to deliver a secure digital railway.

These include defining cyber security requirements for centralised systems, services, tools and application architectures, specifying cyber security processes for systems development, and performing cyber security risk assessments of baseline architectures designs and system interfaces. In addition the programme has established a Cross-industry Cyber Security Steering Group, with the aim of creating a common understanding and providing cyber security advice and training to sponsors and industry stakeholders.

Steve Denniss, rail technical director at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff

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