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IT in Rail Safety: Far from autopilot

IT in Rail Safety: Far from autopilot

Indian Railways (IR) depends extensively on manual systems to monitor passenger and freight train services, train signalling and communications. Consequently, IR figures among the worst in the world in safety. Automation of rail safety has not figured as priority but if the Railway Vision 2020 is implemented well, the segment is brimming with opportunities for IT companies. A Shivkamal writes.

In the Indian railway system, accidents occurring on account of human errors, mechanical failures and signal malfunctioning abound: Of the 50 major rail­way accidents in the world in 2010, 14 were reported from India.

The introduction of automated systems for rail safety is progressing at a snail's pace, although it has been esta­blished that a combination of state-of-the art comm­uni­cations systems, train traffic management system and advanced signalling is vital to the efficiency of a railway network. On the other hand, countries that started late in laying railway networks have marched ahead of India in modernising their safety and efficiency. Though the signalling system has been automated to some extent by IR, its integration into the overall railway network has not been smooth, thereby forcing regular monitoring and dependence on manual system.

The need for automated systems for safety and relia­bility of the railway network has been under focus over the last two decades. After much delay, the Indian gov­ernment came up with a plan to modernise its aging rail­way network. Consequently, the Indian Railways drew up an ambitious plan to modernise the whole network by 2020 in a phased manner. The impetus to implement the well-drafted Vision 2020 document, aimed at propelling IR to be at par with the most reliable, safe and efficient net­work with technically advanced transportation sys­t­ems, is yet to completely unfold-given that the minister has changed. However, going by the present speed of imp­le­mentation of these goals, the Vision 2002 plan nowhere ap­pears in sight to achieve the target in nine years.

There are three focus areas for any railway network to ensure that automation for rail safety really works. They include a highly efficient and functional communications systems, hassle-free signalling systems, and advanced train traffic management systems. IR has incorporated all the three core aspects and developed an indigenous system, which is a blend of automated and manual operations.


In an effort to evolve standardised communication systems for train traffic management, avert possible dis­asters through alerts and ensure connectivity between the engine train drivers, control room and station man­agers, the International Union for Railways anno­unced the Global System for Mobile – Railways (GSM-R), a radio system that facilitates voice and data comm­uni­cation between trackside and onboard systems.

GSM-R is one of the state-of-the-art systems, which provides signalling information to the computers dep­loyed on the trains. The communication systems pro­vi­des two basic functions – interaction between the train engine parameters and the control room and track eva­luation, which is directly connected to the speed of the train. It enables calculation of the maximum allo­wable speed of the train depending on the condition of the tracks. If required, the system helps regulate the speed without the intervention of the train driver.

GSM-R: Incidentally, this system has the capacity to reduce the accident rate significantly. This proven tec­hnology has been adopted by a majority of the rail com­panies in Europe, North America, China, and coun­tries like Algeria. But India, which is also a member of the International Union for Railways, has lagged behind in incorporating this technology.

Initially, the Indian Railways did show interest in this widely-used digital wireless system. The Indian Railways even started a pilot project in 2008 in the North Central and East Central Railway zones. So far, the GSM-R has been implemented only on a stretch of 270 km between Mathura and Jhansi under the Mobile Train Radio Communication Project. However, this initiative did not see any progress despite yielding posi­tive results for the Indian Railways. The project appears to be almost shelved, as GSM-R was never expanded beyond the two railway zones.

China has gone a step ahead and implemented GSM-R across all major arterial railway lines connecting major cities and provinces. This system is an integral part of the hugely successful Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway.

TETRA: Another useful communication system to ensure railway safety is the Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) widely in vogue among leading rail companies in Russia, Denmark, UK and Germany. It is a mobile radio service with two-way transceiver evolved by the European Telecommunications Standard Institute.

Using TETRA, station managers are able to provide accurate information regarding train arrivals and dep­artures; monitor all radio communications, receive and transmit status updates between users, and track their locations via GPS. The most significant of the advantages of TETRA is that the train engine drivers are connected to the central monitoring system 24×7. In emergency circumstances, the engine drivers can be alerted in a real time basis to avert possible accidents and resultant human tragedies.

Fibre Optics: Smaller countries like Kazakhstan have moved ahead in terms of adopting highly reliable communications systems to enhance automated rail safety. The new network in Kazakhstan improves com­munications between trains and centralised traffic con­trol systems and supports more advanced information systems to improve passenger safety and offer a better overall experience for travellers.

The new fibre-optic network supports advanced on-board and in-station passenger information systems as well as a variety of new broadband services. It increases efficiency and punctuality of the train network, thereby improving the overall customer experience. In the pro­cess, the whole system is automated.

Going ahead the new communications system supp­orts the introduction of high-speed passenger trains onto the same rail lines as well as freight trains. Intelligent sensors, alarms and centralised traffic control systems have enhanced the railway signalling system to ensure safety across the network.

RailTel, set up by the Ministry of Railways, has huge bandwidth along the entire network, but the Indian Railways have not used the resource to its own advantage, be it in deploying next generation communi­cation system or track monitoring system for safety and reliability.


The worst of all the accidents because of poor sig­nalling systems in India occur at unmanned level crossings. The railway tracks cut across the hinterland of the country with dangerously unmanned level crossings. Accidents at these unmanned level crossings have run into thousands so far. As on 1 April 2010, there were 15,993 unmanned level crossings in India leading to a number of accidents across the country. In the Railway Budget 2010-11, it was proposed to eliminate all unm­anned level crossings in the next five years through a combination of providing manned railway crossings, road under bridges and limited height subways. Unfortunately, apart from road underbridges, automated level crossings have not yet become a reality in India.

Several safety systems are on offer. For example, the modular safety system, PNOZmulti from German auto­mation provider Pilz, offers control of level crossings with flashing light signals or barrier drives, as it has been tested and proven in the absence of manual systems. Unlike the Indian scenario where a guard is required to monitor the level crossings, this tool, which relies on IT infrastructure, automates opening and closing of the gates. The system's features include simple connection to the level crossing control system and easy configur­ation with the PNOZmulti Configurator, thereby redu­cing wiring and engineering effort.

Pilz solutions claim to provide economical safety for level crossings and protection systems and reduce time spent on designing and building traditional protection systems and increases operational safety and availability, even under rugged environmental conditions, ideal for railway networks in India.

UK-based Invensis Rail has deployed IT-enabled applications to alert and warn vehicles and other users of unmanned level crossing. Invensis' level crossing pre­dictor system provides bi-directional train detection, but at significantly reduced cost compared to conven­tional technology. By calculating the speed of the train, the Invensis product provides constant crossing warning times, minimising disruption to highway users and signi­ficantly reducing the risk of crossing abuse.

The product has the potential to bring about par­adigm shift to Indian Railways, which is besieged with problems relating to manned and unmanned level crossings.

Train Safety: Signalling systems has an important role in train safety. Some of the important tools include:

Automatic Train Stop System (ATS) generates an alarm in the engine cab when the train approaches a stop signal, warning the driver to stop. If the driver fails to apply the brakes, the ATS stops the train automati­cally without any manual intervention.

Automatic Train Control (ATC) system is for high-speed trains to assist drivers to respond to trackside signals. The ATC system transmits signals carrying infor­mation about the speed limit for the specific track sec­tion along the track circuit. Consequently, the train's current speed is compared with the speed limit and the brakes are applied automatically if the train is travelling too fast. The brakes are released as soon as the train slows below the speed limit. This system offers a higher degree of safety, preventing collisions that might be caused by driver error.

IR has experimented and piloted several of the above, but not one has been implemented across its network.


An efficient train traffic management system should include a centralised traffic control system; automatic route setting; train describer system; and high capacity for storing and registering alarms and events for log and future replay. Though Indian Railways at present has a si­milar system, it is not fully automated. Even now, it is co­m­mon to see train drivers to exchange the leg­endry 'iron ball' with station masters for freeway to the next station.

A centralised traffic control system allows traffic con­trol and supervision of the trains and traffic on the tracks to be combined in a common operations centre. Traffic, routing and timetables are all managed from one single location, thus reducing the burden on the entire grid. In all, a CTC enables improved punctuality and track usage without additional investments.

Automatic Route Setting is another latest inno­va­tion, which allows operators to have interactive and dir­ect access to train routing functions, which relieves them from performing repetitious tasks. This is the key to the success of ensuring that the trains are moving on the right tracks.

Train Describer System identifies the train at a par­ticular location and keeps track of its progress. This ide­ntification allows the operators to foll­ow the progress of trains and enables them to detect the origin, des­tination and characteristics of trains. Train describer systems are important tools for efficient traffic man­agement and pro­vide the essential backbone for traffic supervision, auto­mated train routing and passenger information systems.

The traffic management system also provides both the operator and the system maintainers with visual and audible indications of fault and warning con­ditions of the tracks. This helps the rail com­pany in further identi­fy­ing the potential pro­blems. The railway traffic man­age­ment system ena­bles generating extensive co­mpre­hen­sive statistical reports. Any faults are quickly identified and available for future oper­ations analysis.

Leading res­earch institutes of India, such as Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and the Research Designs and Standards Organisation of the Indian Railways have been developing the Technology Mission for Rail Safety programmes, which were initiated in 2005. Though most of the objectives were met in 2008, including track-side monitoring and derailment dete­ction and on-board dia­gnostics, the implementation has not taken off.


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