There are many digitalization projects in rail transport. But for a country to set out to centrally and digitally control its entire rail transport network is unique. Lars Johan Andresen, Chief Executive Officer of Siemens Mobility AS Norway and Sverre Kjenne, Chief Operating Officer of the railway operator Bane NOR, report on how Norway is currently planning and implementing the most modern railway network in Europe in the current episode of the Siemens Mobility Podcast "Moving beyond". The clear message: The safety, efficiency, comfort and punctuality of the existing rail network can be significantly increased digitally.
Unlike many other European countries, high population growth is forecast for Norway in the coming years. Instead of 5.1 million (2015), around 6.3 million people are expected to live in Norway by 2040. Because growth is mainly expected in urban areas, rail passenger transport is even more important. The National Transport Plan therefore not envisages massive route expansion over the next twelve years. Instead, the existing rail traffic with 4,200 kilometres of track and 350 stations is to become significantly more efficient, punctual and comfortable thanks to a digital upgrade. This upgrade will make Norway the most modern railway system in Europe within 17 years, with an investment of more than 2.5 billion Euros.
The project has already been awarded the European Railway Prize 2022. The basic idea is to control the train traffic for all of Norway via a single data centre. In today's structure there are numerous interlockings with different signaling systems. The approach for the future European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) is above all a massive standardization programme with a completely new technology.
All data communication between the signaling systems, the radio block centre and the trains' ETCS computers will take place via digital GSM radio. Central signalling systems and field elements communicate with each other via a fibre optic network. Bane NOR uses the European EULYNX standard interfaces because they did not want to develop a separate system for Norway, but instead want to be compatible with the systems used in future throughout Europe. The country's entire interlocking control system will be reduced from 350 interlockings to two redundant data centres. At the same time, the operating data of the IP infrastructure can be used in real time to protect it from unauthorized access in order to detect problems or wear and tear on e.g. point operating systems, level crossings, axle counters, etc.at an early stage. The data should also be available to the customers of Bane NOR in order to use highly innovative applications for the public transport of the future.
For the entire project, Siemens Mobility is supplying around 6,000 point operating systems, more than 8,000 axle counters and around 15,000 balises – information points in the railway track that store operational information and transmit it to rail vehicles. The modernization of all lines should be completed by 2034. The first sections were originally scheduled to go into operation as early as October 2022. However, global supply bottlenecks have meant that the conversion of the first of a total of 400 Bane NOR trains has been delayed and the date has been postponed to 2023. The maintenance and service contract, through which Siemens Mobility is supporting the programme until at least 2059, also comes into effect with the start of operations of the first line.
The transition from a decentralized, analogue to a centralized, digital system requires completely new skills from the Bane NOR employees. Around 5,000 employees have to be trained in the new technology, for which a training centre is specifically built. Important here: The changeover does not take place on day X, but continuously. Because until the complete conversion, the old system continues to be kept in operation. Necessary construction work can only be carried outsidethe Norwegian winter. A lot of snow and temperatures which are often at least minus 20 degrees, do in a lot of areas not allow outside works in winter time.
The test centres, on the other hand, are available all year round – one in Norway and one in Germany. They have been in operation since October 2019 and house the central ETCS interlocking and all system components. In the medium term, the goal is a complete digital twin of the entire railway system, which reduces the need for on-site tests, where operations must continue. The digital twin makes it possible to play through individual changes in the simulation and to observe their effects on the overall system. The parallel architecture of both test centres proved to be a big plus during the pandemic, when tests continued to be carried out remotely in both Germany and Norway.
But what are the main benefits from the perspective of Norwegian rail customers? Because all signals on the main tracks will be dismantled, they are no longer sources of interference - their susceptibility to trouble is a frequent problem, and lead to delays or train cancellations. With more punctuality, the capacity on the existing routes also increases, the range of rail connections becomes denser and the attractiveness of rail transport increases. The automation of stations and crossings as well as the standardization of training content and processes also increase the level of safety, although Norway is already one of the European role models here. Rail operators, in particular, are pleased about lower maintenance costs and longer life cycles thanks to “predictive maintenance”.
So it’s no wonder that Lars Johan Andresen and Sverre Kjenne are talking about a new era for Norway’s railways. An era whose development is being watched by the whole of Europe.
The answers to questions such as how far standardization can go, whether control with a single data centre and a single interlocking system is possible, and whether all trains can be converted with the same equipment will influence the expansion plans of all European railway nations.Sverre Kjenne
Finland is planning a similar national solution as Norway, but will not start before 2028. It may be that the Bane NOR project becomes a blueprint for the digitalization of railways in general.Lars Johan Andresen