The recent announcement that Invensys Rail was to merge with Siemens may have caused a few raised eyebrows, but in fact this event had been likely for many years. It almost happened in 1992, when Siemens sought to take over from then owners Hawker Siddeley but were outsmarted by BTR (British Tyre and Rubber), an industrial conglomerate which was seeking new areas of business. The company became Invensys Rail in 1999 after BTR merged with Siebe.

Well-established in the UK with associated companies in Australia, America (Safetran) and Spain (Dimetronic), with a good order book and many projects underway across the world, why should the acquisition have happened and what are the anticipated benefits?

The Rail Engineer travelled to Chippenham to meet Nick Crossfield, recently announced as managing director of Siemens Rail Automation in the UK and also spoke with Jürgen Brandes, CEO of the global Rail Automation business, to find out more.

Company history

Westinghouse had been a bedrock of the signalling supply industry for decades and many people still referred to this name even after the change to Invensys Rail. Regarded as a ‘safe bet’ in terms of delivery and performance on both projects and product integrity, it has an impressive number of projects currently being undertaken for Network Rail and others. Westinghouse had been one of the three partners who collaborated to develop the world-beating
Solid State Interlocking (SSI) in the 1980s, the others being GEC and BR Research. Although newer systems have since been brought out, SSI is still produced today, which says something for its status. The Invensys Rail influence is strong in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and South America especially Brazil, as well as in its home territories.

Siemens equally has a long history for producing signalling equipment and systems for the German, Swiss and Austrian home markets and has developed this into a worldwide signalling business. As with Invensys, it is regarded as a reputable and competent supplier giving reliable customer support. Siemens briefly entered the UK market in the last decade with its SIMIS interlocking product and a project team was established at its existing Poole premises.

So what was the rationale behind the acquisition? Debate continues as to how many large companies the signalling business can support on a worldwide scale. Answers vary from three to around six.

The high cost of research and the need to develop products that are increasingly sophisticated but have a much shorter lifespan than those produced hitherto make combining into bigger more cost effective units almost essential for a successful ongoing business. In addition, the UK market is seen as big within Europe and being able to offer a wider range of proven products will be conducive to a larger element of this.

Siemens is, of course, already well established as a rolling stock supplier to the UK. With a future that puts an increasing percentage of signalling equipment on board the train, having a presence on both sides of the wheel-rail divide is viewed as advantageous.

Siemens Rail Automation

This will be the name of the new company and its headquarters will be in Berlin where overall policy and strategy will be formulated. However, the company has decided upon a matrix structure with four main business areas – Main Line, Mass Transit, Rail IT and Freight Products – complemented by autonomous regional business units. Each of the latter will have its own financial responsibility with design, implementation and maintenance capabilities plus an R&D team to support global development activities and fulfil local specific initiatives.

The UK HQ will be at the former Invensys base in Chippenham but the signalling offices in Glasgow, York, Birmingham, Croydon and London will be retained. Partly this is to align the business structure with the new Network Rail devolved regions and thus encourage local relationships to flourish. The UK arm will also include the existing Siemens companies at Ashby de la Zouch and Poole as part of the overall rail automation thrust. The official language of the new company will be English so compulsory German lessons for Invensys employees will not be needed!

Product portfolio and development

With its existing customer base well established, Siemens knows that it must maintain continuity on its wide range of equipment for many years to come. It also knows that the many countries it does business in have different operating philosophies that customise products within a home market. The last thing the new company wants is to upset this arrangement in the short term although, with the advent of newer technology, harmonisation will gradually emerge.

An obvious example is ERTMS / ETCS, where both Siemens and Invensys have developed products and worked hard to get orders won and systems implemented. Both products will continue for the time being and existing contract commitments will be fulfilled. Invensys Rail is preferred bidder on the Thameslink high capacity infrastructure contract and, with the order for the new fleet of trains won by Siemens, this could lead to a useful partnership. Invensys Rail will be one of the four suppliers for the ETCS National Integration Facility on the Hertford Loop deployment trial where its offering will be tested for interoperability with products from other companies.

Whilst national ERTMS implementation is the longer term goal of many countries, it will take many years to achieve. In the meantime, more conventional signalling systems have to be developed and implemented. The drive to reduce the cost of signalling is important and one UK initiative to achieve this is Modular Signalling for secondary routes. The Invensys Rail system has been installed on the Crewe to Shrewsbury route and will be commissioned this year. Its components have already been tried out in the signalling system for the newly built Reading train depot, a useful way of proving the technology.

The concept is to produce standard signalling elements, manufacture these on a production basis, assemble the system as far as possible in the factory and ship to site for installation as complete units. Invensys Rail sees this modular approach as something that can be developed for use elsewhere and Siemens sees it as a product that can be exploited. The big plus point is that the system has no implications for rolling stock fitting and can thus be deployed in quick time on routes with old signalling systems. The risk as always is that railway organisations will seek to change the configuration (sometimes called customisation) that will cause the standardised advantages to be lost and the cost benefits diminished. Modular is of course fully compatible with ETCS, as the RBCs (Radio Block Centres) can be connected to the same network as the signalling system.

Traditional signalling with relay technology will continue to exist for years to come and producing new relays or servicing existing relays is a business that must continue. Commitments will be given to customers in the many countries which use British relay technology that this supply line will be maintained.

Metros and mass transit

The growing number of Metros worldwide, and the increasing levels of automation, make this an important business opportunity for any control system supplier. Both Siemens and Invensys Rail have established products. Invensys Rail has the ‘distance to go’ radio system as deployed on the Victoria Line of London Underground and also adopted by the Taipei Metro. This is a fixed block system but with very short block lengths such that a capacity of 33 trains per hour (tph) has been achieved and is timetabled during peak hours today.

At the same time, Invensys also developed the SIRIUS CBTC moving block system used in Singapore, Sao Paulo, Caracas and Istanbul.

Siemens has its Trainguard MT system which is also CBTC moving block technology and is deployed in several cities including Copenhagen, Hong Kong and in Paris RATP Line 1 where it was a key element for the upgrade to UTO (Unattended Train Operation). It has also been chosen for the metro element of the Crossrail project in London.

In time, these systems will be rationalised, but the strong message coming across is that the present product lines will be maintained for at least the expected life of the systems. The opportunity for migrating to a single product will happen probably by integrating the best features of the existing systems and introducing updated technology at the same time.

Future predictions

Siemens is an industrial giant with a turnover of €80 billion worldwide. This is larger than the economies of the seven smallest countries within the EU. The Rail Automation element is only part of this but the acquisition makes it the biggest signalling control system supplier in the world. It is the Siemens view that train control engineering will eventually follow the telecom sector and undergo a degree of liberalisation. As and when this happens, the company must be ready for it and part of the success criteria will be a deep understanding of localised markets. Whilst the short-term focus will be on maintaining the existing systems installed in the many infrastructure organisations, getting new products developed that use emerging technology in an agile and flexible way, probably with a distributed architecture, is seen as vital to secure ongoing business.

Siemens is keen to offer all or most technologies that make up a turnkey solution for future UK rail business. Already well established in rolling stock and telecommunications, gaining a signalling capability is an important part of this. Increasing rail capacity and improving energy consumption are already crucial requirements for the modern day railway with automation and IT being seen as key drivers.

Whilst neither Siemens nor Invensys Rail were chosen as one of the nominated organisations to develop a traffic management capability for Network Rail, a pragmatic view is taken to see what develops and to participate at a later date using technology deployed elsewhere. Indeed, a traffic management element is already included within the Invensys Rail signalling contract for Thameslink.

Similarly, having technologies that enhance the efficiency of the rail freight business will be required to ensure effective competition with road transport. Real time train and wagon tracking systems are part of this process.

The worldwide critical shortage of skilled engineers and technicians in rail engineering generally, and signal engineering specifically, is a problem. Strenuous efforts are being made to attract younger people into the profession but better use must be made of the resources currently available, which means avoidance of duplication wherever possible.

Many people will be watching how the new company fares in this highly competitive and cost sensitive world, but the omens are good. Has Britain sold the family silver yet again? Maybe, but if this is the price of being part of industry dominance, then so be it.