Value for Money in Railway Signalling

Dutch infrastructure manager Prorail has spent years devising its Mistral programme, aimed at renewal of life expired signalling equipment, mostly relay based interlockings more than 50 years old, that account for about 17% of the signalling installations on its network. At the same time it has been developing an ERTMS implementation programme, expected to roll our ERTMS on 75% of its core network. Recently ProRail has informed the market that it is cancelling the tendering for the first Mistral projects. The reasons are quite sobering and should lead to some soul searching for our profession.

The reasons given are that whilst a positive business case for ERTMS had not been produced yet, the indications for Mistral showed that capital expenditure for the replacement of ageing interlocking with their electronic modern day successors would be disproportionate and, contrary to earlier expectations life cycle costs, were showing no sign of decreasing at all.

In fact by sticking with conventional technology in locations where ERTMS is not mandated, thus avoiding the need for new interfaces and functions only computer based interlocking can provide and by seeking economies of scale, several studies have shown that a saving of some 300 million euros (roughly equivalent to 25% of projected investment) should be possible. Needless to say that in these difficult economic times ProRail management has decided to reconsider its plans.

It is expected that this will result in ERTMS deployment only on lines where this is mandated by (EU) legislation and a few others where a positive cost benefit ratio, taking into account public or societal cost and benefits as well (social cost benefit analysis), can be shown. Expectations are that this will only occur where required capacity increases on the network would be feasible through smart solutions based on ERTMS obviating the need for expensive additional physical infrastructure. For the Mistral programme this means a more conservative approach towards “technology renewal” and preparing for ERTMS, in favor of a lowest possible cost approach. More studies by taskforces and consultation with the railway sector and the government should lead to revised and agreed programmes by the end of 2010.

It is indeed a sobering thought for our profession that after decades of innovation in technology, modern signalling today apparently still cannot match the value for money of 1960’s bespoke relay based interlocking and conventional ATP, even if we do try to factor in life cycle costing and societal cost benefits. In this respect, as in many others, again we find that the Signalling industry is unique. Unique, but not sustainable.

Wim Coenraad 2019