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Towards digital and intelligent rail transport

Towards digital and intelligent rail transport

Published 8.4.2020

Finland’s rail transport is undergoing a transformation. The system currently used to ensure the safe running of trains will come to the end of its lifecycle at the end of the 2020s. Alternatives to the outdated train control system were examined in the extensive Digirail study that has just been completed. The parties that implemented the study propose introducing a modern radio-based train control system in Finland.

A new digital train control system would make it possible to increase rail capacity, improve punctuality and increase the number of trains and passengers in the current railway network. The impacts and duration of different disturbances would also decline. The new technology would enable traffic to run more smoothly across the Finnish railway network, especially in areas with large passenger numbers. 

Almost the entire railway network in Finland is equipped with trackside train control equipment. The service life of the system will end at the end of the 2020s, which is why preparations for the introduction of the new technology must start immediately. In addition, EU regulations oblige Finland to transition towards the Single European Railway Area at least with regard to the TEN-T Core Network and to equip the railway sections with the so-called ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System). The study includes an assessment of how Finland should implement this system which is compatible with the other EU countries. The ERTMS system is a key requirement in projects such as Finland Railway and One-hour Train to Turku.

– It is important that we invest in the digitalisation of rail transport. It will both improve the service and make more frequent services possible. A new system is also essential for the implementation of new rail projects, says Timo Harakka, Minister of Transport and Communications.

– We will soon need to decide which system will replace the old system. A modern radio-based system is the solution for the future and its benefits are significant. We are now outlining the future of the railways and ensuring the best possible solution for Finland, says Maija Ahokas, chairman of the project steering group and Director of Unit at the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

The opportunities provided by digitalisation and the ways in which Finnish companies can participate in the development of train control in Europe were also assessed in the study. The study was carried out in close cooperation by the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency, Traffic Management Finland, Finrail Oy, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom, VR Group Ltd and Helsinki Region Transport.

Benefits of a modern radio-based system

1. The future digital platform will create opportunities

Technical solutions in rail transport are long-term investments. A modern radio-based system will enable the deployment of future technologies for several decades to come. A system that is easy to update and the development of interlocking devices to a new level will make dynamic data-based traffic management possible in both passenger and freight transport. Thanks to the data, it will be possible to anticipate the maintenance of the rolling stock and the network, which will bring savings both to the operators and to the owner of the railway infrastructure, the state. A radio-based solution is also the key to the digitalisation of logistics and automated railway transport.

2. Positive impact on climate change mitigation

Finland is committed to halving the emissions of transport by 2030. The market share of rail transport is approximately 6% of passenger transport and 27% of freight transport. Transport accounts for 21% of all CO2 emissions, of which rail transport accounts for less than 1%. 

A better and more punctual provision of trains will support the transition to sustainable modes of transport. A higher market share of rail transport would significantly reduce the emissions of transport. Increasing the proportion of rail transport is also an EU-wide objective that is strongly highlighted in the European Green Deal, the European programme on green development

3. An increase of up to 30% in rail capacity

In the Digirail project, an assessment has been conducted of how the rail capacity can be used more effectively. The capacity of the rail network could be increased through digitalisation by shortening the intervals between trains. An increase in rail capacity would reduce bottlenecks in the rail network, speed up recovery from disruptions, facilitate timetable planning and improve punctuality. It would be possible to significantly increase the number of trains with the existing rail network in some places.

The number of passengers in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area is projected to increase considerably in the coming decades. According to the national transport forecast, the number of journeys between the stations of Pasila and Käpylä, the busiest section for commuter train services, will increase to about 28 million by 2030, compared to about 23 million journeys in 2016. Intelligent technology could increase service frequency during peak hours from 12 trains to at least 16 trains per hour. This capacity increase of more than 30% would enable a significant increase in the number of passengers on the city railway tracks.

4. Safer transport

In a radio-based system, real-time traffic restrictions can be set considerably faster in the rail network, which improves the preconditions for safe rail transport. A radio-based control system will also provide other benefits that increase safety. For example, it can be used to minimise the waiting time of road users at level crossings and to better ensure the safe movement of workers on the track during track work.

5. Improved service level for passengers

With digitalisation, trains will run punctually and at frequent intervals. It will also be easy to continue the travel chain with other means of transport. Remote work can be smoothly carried out on board the train and a variety of digital services provided by third parties will be available. Passengers will receive more information directly related to their journey and disturbances can be better anticipated. 

Costs and funding

According to the preliminary cost estimates presented in the report, the current costs of investing in a modern radio-based control system will be approximately EUR 1.7 billion. There are several funding options. According to the report, different funding models must be examined critically to ensure the continuity and cost-effectiveness of the system.

What next?

The Digirail project will continue until spring 2021. It will be overseen by a steering group appointed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. In the planning phase now under way, EUR 11 million in state funding is sought for the implementation of the test track and the test laboratory.

Finland's first National Transport System Plan is currently under preparation. The results of the Digirail study will be used in the preparation work. The National Transport System Plan is due to be completed in spring 2021 and it will outline how the reform of the train control system will be funded in the coming years.

Inquiries:

Maija Ahokas, Director of Unit, Ministry of Transport and Communications, tel. +358 295 34 2390, maija.ahokas(at)lvm.fi

Janne Hauta, Ministerial Adviser, Ministry of Transport and Communications, tel. +358 295 34 2322, janne.hauta(at)lvm.fi

Mira Karppanen, Senior Officer, Ministry of Transport and Communications, tel. +358 295 34 2094, mira.karppanen(at)lvm.fi

Juha Lehtola, Project Manager, Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency, tel. +358 295 34 3892, juha.lehtola(at)vayla.fi

Jari Pylvänäinen, Project Officer, Finrail Oy, tel. +358 29 4507047, jari.pylvanainen(at)finrail.fi