Ever since the Midland Railway first introduced an Area Control Office near Sheffield in 1907, the merits of being able to collect operational details that affect the daily running of train services into a single location have been appreciated by railway administrations across the world. Many hundreds of control offices have existed over the course of time and are a major contribution in optimising the decision making needed to run an efficient train service.

Diverse activities such as staff scheduling and rostering of hours, locomotive and wagon availability, train path scheduling, action to be taken during disruption and the planning of engineering works are all tasks that occur on a daily basis and need to be coordinated by a control office.

Initially, this was all achieved by voice technology – telephone calls in essence. Over the years, the advent of firstly teleprinters, then information systems, data bases, and mobile radio communication, have all contributed to the development of complex networks of information acquisition and distribution.

Today, control offices are as important as ever and exist with a vast mix of technology, much of which is incapable of interworking other than by passing information from one individual to another. Controllers’ desks are often cluttered with different screens and telephones for the various data and communication purposes. Not an ideal situation but one that is found in many industries that have a long history.

Impact of rail privatisation

Spearheaded in the UK, rail privatisation has spread to many other countries, generally resulting in initiatives to generate new traffic with consequential pressure on railways to provide the required capacity. Partly driven by EU Regulations that dictate the financial separation of train services from infrastructure, the future role of control offices was at first seen as an opportunity to ‘go it alone’. Train Companies wished to be totally in charge of their own assets and having their own control office became part of that vision.

Sections within the BR control office structure that dealt with train operations were physically removed to a separate location, more often than not the headquarters of the particular train company. Very quickly, the necessary integration for running a complete railway was lost and achieving the vital control for optimum train service efficiency took a turn for the worse. Blame culture set in whenever disruption occurred and, without the presence of a ‘directing mind’, incidents took far too long to recover from.

Slowly it dawned on managers that this was not the best way to run a railway and gradually new control offices have emerged that
house both infrastructure and train company interests on a single site. This has happened in the UK and elsewhere across Europe. Modern communications systems are fine, but there is still no substitute for people talking directly to each other.

Integrating the technology

Having got the people all back into the same room, what can be done to make the man/machine interfaces more consistent and friendly? Frequentis is a Vienna-based company which specialises in doing just that. With a history of air traffic control, the company has expanded into developing control systems for the emergency services and railways. It quickly realised that only rarely were entirely new control systems required; much more likely was the request to upgrade an existing installation including the adaptation of many types of external equipment.

In the rail sector, the typical life cycle of communication systems is 15 years. Many are required to function for much longer than this and it becomes a major challenge to get this diversity of technology to appear as a unified function on the controllers’ screens. The days are long gone when railways specified their own communications and data equipment and the UIC (International Union of Railways) leads the way in focussing on high level user requirements’ specifications.

The use of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) equipment is becoming commonplace although the product life is only seven years at best.

This scenario needs to be understood within the internationally recognised seven-layer communication model with rail service requirements being constructed around the top two layers and then using a transport/ transmission adaptation layer to bring in the lower physical/data/network levels to the application layer. Services thus become available to many user groups and technical evolution can migrate transparently.

Before this can happen, firms such as Frequentis need to understand the technology of the existing systems that are to be integrated. Very often, there will be very few records of what equipment is actually installed such as handbooks or diagrams. It is therefore a back-to-basics exercise to capture the network architecture and to learn how it functions. It sounds difficult but, when it has been achieved for the first time, subsequent systems tend to follow a pattern. Once understood, it becomes relatively easy to design an interface that connects ageing external networks to a standardised control front end.

Irish experience

The Rail Engineer reported in issue 74 (December 2010) the project in Irish Rail to implement a new national control room strategy based at Connolly Station in Dublin. Frequentis were contracted to integrate the terminals of the nationwide UIC 751-3 track- to-train analogue radio network into this single location, with links to local signal centres and boxes to enable them to communicate directly to trains. Added to the integration was the landline telephone based control network such that both radio and landline calls be presented on the same terminal.

The Irish system, consisting of 25 ‘Dicora’ terminals, has run for two years without any faults. The secret of success has been to understand the behaviour of the control operation and to replicate this in the new system. This has entailed some reverse engineering and then to design, install, test and ‘let the customer play’ to ensure the correct functionality. Irish Rail staff did the installation which ensured that the system was fully understood technically before commissioning.

More recently, the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) route from Malahide to Howth has changed over to GSM-R, primarily to free up UIC radio equipment for future spares but also as a precursor for the eventual conversion of the whole network. The new digital radio network has been integrated into the same terminal devices so that call handling is similar to the UIC analogue system.

Austrian developments

Austrian Railways (ÖBB ) is busy modernising its entire network that will eventually include nationwide ERTMS Level 2 and full GSM-R coverage. A new control philosophy was considered necessary to embrace this technology rather than continue with the old fragmented regional controls. Much of the initiative has centred around the building of a new Central Station in Vienna near to where the old South Main Station (Südbahnhof) once stood. Eventually all long distance mainline train services will operate from this station.

Having centralised the train service, the logical next step was to centralise the control regime which resulted in an impressive new control organisation being built adjacent to the station. Divided into two parts, it has a signalling element to control the trains in
the extended Vienna area which will expand outward as older signalling systems are replaced and a national traffic management centre to monitor operational and information management across the country with links to five operational control centres at Innsbruck, Salzburg, Linz, Villach and Vienna, the latter also located in the same complex.

High performance data networks are the foundation for both efficient and secure operations as well as providing information and technical services to both passenger and freight customers. The room is segregated into infrastructure, passenger operations, freight interests plus the control of customer information and media bulletins. As the ERTMS network is rolled out, Frequentis has been asked to partner ÖBB in verifying the suitability and integrity of the network and to manage the process of gaining safety approval with a notified body including the supply of independent documentation.

French incident control

Réseau Ferré de France (RFF) is the French equivalent to Network Rail and has the responsibility of managing network performance on a minute-by-minute basis. The associated telecommunications network is huge with many different types of technology in systems installed over the years. It was recognised that a National Rail Operations Control (NROC) would be needed to co-ordinate the diversifying operations that are happening in France and this was duly set up in 2009, located in a former rail building close to Gare du Nord.

The centre works in conjunction with 21 regional control offices but allows RFF and SNCF (the French train operator) to manage the national network jointly from a single site. Day to day running and minor problems are handled at the regional centres but, if anything occurs on a significant scale, an NROC team moves from a monitoring to an active management role. Such incidents might be something that affects long distance trains, a major infrastructure failure or something that is attracting media attention. If a real crisis occurs, then a major incident room is established on site with the National Operations Director in charge.

To achieve all this needs high quality voice and data links to stations, trains and passengers to both receive data on what is happening at ground level and to disseminate information to staff, customers and the media. A journalist is employed at the centre to give out details to the press, radio and television.

Rail Emergency Management

Dealing with operational incidents ranging from delays to sick passengers and all kinds of other emergencies has always been a function of the control office. Handling such incidents means having to respond to a number of complex demands. These include making available reliable data concerning the incident location and identifying responsible staff within all internal and external organisations who will be involved, including blue light organisations or any auxiliary forces. Effective incident communication, for the efficient alerting and ongoing incident management, must be provided while ensuring non- discriminatory information provisioning and the lawful recording of all activities and communications.

Working with ÖBB, Frequentis has developed the REM system as an integrated approach to embrace all these aspects of incident handling. It makes all the necessary information available to managers, controllers and staff via user friendly interfaces and was introduced into service in 2009.

Future Predictions

Having been around for over 100 years, it seems a fair assumption that traffic control offices will be needed for as long as railways exist. The case studies show that integration between infrastructure and train operations is as necessary nowadays as it was in earlier times. Two of the main UK centres are at the Mailbox in Birmingham and at York.

Controlling operations has, however, generally remained separate from signalling control centres or electrification power control. Certainly the activity is different but there is, and always has been, need for close co-operation. Signalling and power control areas are usually smaller than the span of traffic control offices but recent pronouncements in the UK to have only 14 centres for the dispatching (the European word for signalling) of trains may test this assumption. It is possible to foresee that all day to day operational activities could be located in combined centres with ever greater scope for integration. Whatever the future outcome, commercial barriers must not be allowed to interfere with running trains.