The answer lies in the digital railway

Urban populations are growing. According to predictions by the Statistical Office of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein, the Hanseatic City alone will have more than two million inhabitants by 2040. Will the urban transport system be able to keep pace? Yes, says Siemens Mobility, and the Digital S-Bahn Hamburg pilot project shows how. The new ‘Digital Rail Germany’ initiative is a blueprint for future mainline and regional railway operations – and not just in terms of the technology.

The main question for traffic planners today is, “How can we transport even more people and goods in the same time period – and do it as efficiently and ecologically as possible?” Siemens Mobility is sure that the answer lies in the railway. Expansion of the rail network is necessary in many places, but it’s time-consuming and costly, and in some places it’s simply not possible. So a better way to put it might be: “The answer lies in the digital railway.”

New initiative: Digital Rail for Germany

Like Denmark and Norway, Germany has made a commitment to digitalize its railway. At the end of September 2019, Deutsche Bahn (DB) and the German Railway Industry Association (VDB) agreed to collaborate on the rollout of digital technologies on Germany’s rails and established the sector-wide initiative ‘Digital Rail for Germany’ (DSD). Their goal is to convert German railways from conventional signaling technology to radio-controlled railway operations, which will allow the expansion of the European Train Control System (ETCS) and digital interlocking technology (DSTW). Along with this expansion of the network and deployment of innovative technologies, the most important way to make the railway system more efficient and future-ready is digitalization. Siemens Mobility is demonstrating exactly what this means and how tracks and vehicles can be digitalized in a project involving Hamburg’s longest-standing means of public transportation, the S-Bahn. Today more than 750,000 passengers board and deboard at 68 Hamburg S-Bahn stations every day. (To learn more about the DSD initiative, see the info box.)

The key: Highly automated rail operations

As early as July 2018, the Hanseatic City entered into a groundbreaking partnership with DB subsidiary S-Bahn Hamburg GmbH and Siemens Mobility. Starting with just four trains, the three partners are collaborating on the Digital S-Bahn Hamburg project, which involves the development and testing of highly automated S-Bahn operations on the 23-kilometer-long section between the Berliner Tor and Bergedorf/Aumuehle stations on S-Bahn Line 21. The project is part of the DSD initiative.


When the partnership was founded, Ronald Pofalla, Member of the Deutsche Bahn Management Board for Infrastructure, said, “In Hamburg, we’re starting to digitalize operations in a major German S-Bahn network. This is a milestone in our future-oriented Digital Rail for Germany program because it marks the launch of the greatest technological change in years.” Highly automated rail operations are the key to mastering the future increase in traffic at Siemens Mobility as well.

For shorter headways: ATO over ETCS

“Highly automated” means that a driver will continue to be on board on all future runs but will intervene only if there are disturbances or irregularities. The technological basis of this is the future European standard “ATO over ETCS”: ATO (Automatic Train Operation) over the radio based ETCS (European Train Control System) Level 2. The four trains will be controlled by radio signals, and data will be transmitted between the trains and the block control center. Following the Thameslink Project in London, Siemens Mobility is now supplying S-Bahn Hamburg with the technology necessary for rail and vehicle traffic – based on the latest European standards and as a pilot project for highly automated mainline and regional rail traffic at Deutsche Bahn.

One of the main advantages of ATO over ETCS (see info boxes) is the increase in rail network efficiency due to shorter headways. Information on the current traffic situation is continuously transmitted to the trains by radio. By adapting to this information, a train can travel more efficiently, with an optimal speed profile and fewer braking operations. The result is more punctual trains, a more stable timetable, and greater travel comfort. In addition, the new technology can optimize boarding and deboarding times and therefore shorten stop time. It’s also expected to reduce energy consumption and mechanical stress on the vehicles, which will lower the customer’s operating costs.

An extraordinary partnership: Development collaboration with Deutsche Bahn

But it’s not just the technology that’s groundbreaking: There’s also the excellent collaborative partnership within the project team. “Throughout my long career, I’ve never experienced such an open and trusting atmosphere,” said one employee on a visit to the project office. “During our normal workday, we sometimes forget who’s working for which company.”

This is possible because from the very beginning, the project was set up as a joint development cooperation between Deutsche Bahn AG, S-Bahn Hamburg GmbH, and Siemens Mobility – with a project office on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin that was established specifically for this purpose. The project team works together across companies to implement automated rail operations for S-Bahn Hamburg, which means that problems can be solved much more quickly, and decisions made more rapidly. In an industry and at a time characterized by extreme change, this type of collaboration where company boundaries are blurred can be the key to a project’s success and therefore the success of the participating companies.

What’s next?

In October 2021, when Hamburg hosts the World Congress for Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), the first highly automated trains will enter regular passenger service. In addition to highly automated operation, the trains running between the siding and the Bergedorf platform – without passengers – will also be fully automated. This means that trains will travel over 1,000 meters with no personnel on board, and plans are already being developed for extending the technology to the pilot section of the Hamburg S-Bahn network.

This is Siemens Mobility’s vision of the future and thanks to its intelligent solutions, the vision is gradually becoming achievable. Hamburg’s S-Bahn serves not only as a showcase but also as a blueprint for future passenger and freight traffic, and it’s an important intermediate goal on the path to digitalizing the German railway system.

Deutsche Bahn (DB) wants to partner with the German railway industry to promote the digitalization of the rail network and rail operations. The new Gesellschaft Digitale Schiene Deutschland GmbH, which will begin coordinating the first digitalization projects and bundling future technologies in January 2020, will be a major contributor. The new organization was first introduced on September 23, 2019, to some 190 industry representatives at the Forum Digitale Schiene Deutschland 2019 in Berlin. DB and the German Railway Industry Association (VDB) also agreed to closely collaborate on advancing digitalization.


Over the next few years, the rail network will be equipped with the European Train Control System (ETCS) and digital interlocking technology. The new technologies promise up to 30 percent higher capacities in the network, higher quality, increased punctuality, and reduced maintenance and operating costs thanks to the modern, standardized system architecture, system interoperability throughout Europe, and improved energy efficiency.


The starter package for 2020 includes three projects:

  • ETCS capability of the trans-european Scandinavian-Mediterranean corridor
  • Cologne-Rhine/Main high-speed line
  • S-Bahn Stuttgart urban rail project

According to a feasibility study conducted by the German government, investments of about €4.7 billion will be required by 2030. The initial plan is to invest €570 million in the three starter projects by 2023.


For more information on Digital Rail for Germany, visit:



The Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system developed by Siemens Mobility works closely with the European Train Control System (ETCS). ETCS ensures safe adherence to headways and monitors speed. ATO controls the train’s traction system and brakes, which enables railway operators to automate the starting, acceleration, cruising, coasting, braking, and stopping of trains. 

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