Still no start date for HSL-Zuid

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I promised in A Ride on the Dark Track – part 3 to have a rant about the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). The official ERTMS website bravely announces that,

ETCS is the new control-command system, GSM-R is the new radio system for voice and data communication. Together, they form ERTMS, the new signalling and management system for Europe, enabling interoperability throughout the European Rail Network.

“Wonderful!”, you may think. “Europe is building a new generation of high speed railways and trains and they will all be equipped with the same control and safety system. A real example of the advantages of European cooperation and integration.” Err… wrong! Today’s Railway Gazette International announced that,

Dutch Transport Minister Camiel Eurlings… had confirmed on January 18 that although testing of the upgraded European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 train control system had ‘generally passed without incident, a few problems remain – notably the crossing of the border with Belgium.’ Although he referred to SRS 2.3.0 minus, ProRail confirmed that this is not the same as the Version 2.3.0 specification that was finally signed off by the European Railway Agency in February. HSL-Zuid is essentially equipped with Version 2.2.2, but with ‘a package of additional functionality’, which is ‘slightly more’ than the changes incorporated in the ETCS Level 2 system that is now handling around 100 trains a week on the Betuwe Route.

So cutting out the gobbledygook, ECTS fails the interoperability test and its specification is changing every few months. Information Technology buffs will recall that we were here before. In the 1970s and 1980s the European Commission spent billions on developing and marketing the OSI seven layer model which was supposed to facilitate interoperability between different manufacturers’ computer systems. While the experts jetted all around the world attending meetings and conferences, the real world just got on with the job and developed system interconnections around de facto industry standards such as TCP/IP and Ethernet.

OSI was a layered, abstract description for communications and computer network protocol design, that is a description of what functions computer systems and networks should do when working together, not how they should do them. Most of the work was an expensive irrelevance and in some cases observing the OSI standards, rather than defacto industry standards, made interoperability between different systems more difficult. And ECTS? It’s a specification of what train signalling and management systems should do, not a working system that can be installed straight out of a box. In Britain the attempt to utilise ECTS to introduce 140 mph running and moving block signalling during the West Coast Main Line upgrade turned out an expensive fiasco. In Holland, problems with ECTS have been delaying the opening of HSL-Zuid. The Railway Gazette reports,

Challenged to explain the problems besetting HSL-Zuid, Jeroen van Eijk from the ministry’s project office admitted that the fundamental problem was that ETCS Level 2 had not been developed as far as the government had believed when the decision was taken in 1999 not to install back-up signalling. However, he felt that this had forced all parties to focus on development in order to make progress, rather than simply resorting to the back-up.

So when will HSL-Zuid open for fare paying passengers?

Although no-one will publicly commit to a date, and operator NS Hispeed cannot start its marketing campaign, the latest target is to start with an hourly service between Amsterdam and Rotterdam around the beginning of August.

Click here for the complete Railway Gazette article.

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