Rail automation: Is flying really better?

When timetables were updated in December 2015, the newly constructed high-speed line between Halle/Leipzig and Erfurt went into operation. Now, high-speed trains can run on the 123-kilometer route at up to 300 km/h. The train control system ETCS from Siemens not only allows for shorter headways, it also ensures maximum safety – with no need for the usual trackside light signals.

Seldom has a rail route attracted so much attention in Germany over a period of 15 years as the new ICE route between Erfurt and Halle/Leipzig, which went into operation when the timetables were updated in mid-December 2015. The 123-kilometer concrete track, costing around €2.9 billion, is a central part of the most elaborate German Unity Transport Project, the 500-kilometer VDE 8 high-speed route between Nuremberg and Berlin.


Siemens and its consortium partner Kapsch CarrierCom are equipping the entire new line with railway control, safety and communication technology. The system being installed is ETCS (European Train Control System) Level 2, which, aside from the actual track, is the most crucial requirement for running at speeds of over 160 km/h on this ultra-modern high-speed railway line.

VDE 8 – an ambitious rail project

The VDE 8 rail project is one of 17 nationwide infrastructure projects that were decided on by the German government in 1991, directly after the unification of East and West Germany. The project aims to reduce the journey time between Munich and Berlin to around four hours, and it involves the construction and upgrading of three sections along this route. The new section VDE 8.1 between Nuremberg and Erfurt, for example, will be completed in 2017. The upgraded section VDE 8.3 Leipzig/Halle–Berlin, on the other hand, has been in operation since 2006. This north-south line, designed for speeds of up to 200 km/h, has reduced the journey time for this section by approximately half an hour.


The new sprint section Erfurt–Leipzig/Halle (VDE 8.2) is now raising the tempo of east-west travel. High-speed trains tear along the 123 kilometers of newly constructed track at 300 km/h, cutting the journey time from Erfurt, capital of the state of Thuringia, and Leipzig, also known as the trade fair city, to 40 minutes and shaving up to half an hour off the journey from Dresden to Frankfurt.

A high-speed route entirely without signals

VDE 8.2 is a demanding section that features some unique engineering. For example, the 6,465-meter-long Saale-Elster Viaduct south of Halle (Saale) is considered Europe’s longest intercity rail bridge – and the only one where the line branches off at such a height: as part of the bridge structure, a smaller line towards Halle forks off the main line toward Leipzig. A 110-meter suspended deck arch bridge forms the overpass structure, running over the main line at a height of 21 meters and continuing for a further 2,112 meters. And that is not all: VDE 8.2 is Germany’s first newly built route without visible external signals for train safety. This is made possible by the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS) installed by Siemens and its consortium partner Kapsch CarrierCom. ERTMS features ETCS Level 2 train safety technology with the GSM-R wireless communications standard.

ETCS – the European Train Control System

The ETCS (European Train Control System) is designed to replace the over 20 national train control and safety systems on the European continent – with the goal of achieving interoperable, economical and highly automated rail transport throughout Europe. Siemens played a significant role in determining the system specifications and is also a pioneer of ETCS technology: in 2005, Siemens and Thales equipped the Jüterbog–Halle–Leipzig route as the first ETCS route in regular operation. Today, with over 200 million operational kilometers, Siemens is the most experienced provider of this technology. This is winning over customers from outside of Europe, too: Siemens has already equipped its first ETCS routes in China and Saudi Arabia.


In technical terms, ETCS monitors the movement of trains and other rail vehicles on the basis of sound route information and vehicle characteristics. For instance, among others whether the locally permitted speed and the train’s permitted top speed are being observed, whether the train is sticking to its authorized route and direction of travel, and whether the operational procedures are being observed. This is all achieved using special equipment on the vehicles and the track.

Yellow Eurobalises deliver the data

Balises, bright yellow boxes between the rails, deliver certain data to the train’s ETCS on-board computer. The balises are similar to the kinds of transponders found in chip cards and RFID labels. As the train rushes over them, a high-frequency electro-magnetic field from an antenna beneath the locomotive powers the Eurobalises via induction, allowing them to send a dataset to the on-board unit. The unit performs tasks such as monitoring the train speed, comparing it with the permitted speed and, in an emergency – for example, if the train driver does not react to warning signals – initiating emergency braking. In order to allow for the particular concerns of the national rail authorities and the variations in trackside equipment from the existing train control and safety systems, several ETCS Levels have been defined with different functional requirements. At every level, ETCS offers the maximum degree of safety.

ETCS Level 2 is in constant contact

The new high-speed route VDE 8.2, for example, is equipped with ETCS Level 2. This involves the use of the GSM-R standard (Global System for Mobile Communication – Railways), which establishes a connection between the track and the locomotive, like a cell phone call but using the special Euroradio protocol. Whereas the Eurobalises are the primary transmission medium during operation for ETCS Level 1, for Level 2 almost all necessary data – such as the settings of the points and signals and the track-free indications – are transmitted via GSM-R using the Euroradio protocol from the Radio Block Center (RBC) to the driver’s cabin of the train. This information is exchanged constantly, even while the train is at a standstill, which is why stationary track signals are no longer required. This also ensures that the train can accelerate as soon as it receives the signal to go, rather than having to continue braking up to the next stationary transmission point. Put simply, ETCS Level 2 cuts infrastructure costs, allows trains to run at over 300 km/h and increases the line capacity.

The chain will be completed in 2017

Siemens will also deliver the technology for the last remaining new and upgraded section, VDE 8.1 between Erfurt and Nuremberg. From 2017 onward, a journey from Berlin to Munich at speeds of up to 300 km/h will take only four hours, rather than over six. Not only will this make the train journey significantly quicker and more convenient than driving, it will pose even greater competition to flights between the cities.


Eberhard Buhl

Picture credits: Deutsche Bahn AG, Siemens AG


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