Radio on the rails

By Jonathan Nally
Tuesday, 16 June, 2015

Radio on the rails

Access to a dedicated radio communications band is revolutionising the Australian rail network.

The federal government has allocated $15.5 million as the first tranche of funding for the national Advanced Train Management System (ATMS) project.

Presently, train control in Australia (and in pretty much all other countries) uses a very ancient trackside signalling system - and those systems date back to not the last century but the century before. The ATMS will use broadband communications, GPS navigation and state-of-the-art computer technology to locate and route trains in real time, enabling trains to operate more safely and closer together.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Regional Development Warren Truss said the system will become the accredited standard for train management across the national rail network managed by the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC).

“ATMS will further improve the reliability of our national rail network, increasing on-time performance and safety. It will also increase capacity for the movement of freight across the nation, boosting the productivity of our industries,” Truss said.

“The Australian Government has committed $50 million to start the roll-out of ATMS across Australia and trains operating between Whyalla and Port Augusta in South Australia will be the first to implement ATMS as part of Stage 1, with the technology later able to be extended across Australia.”

In addition to the federal government’s commitment, the ARTC is contributing funding to the estimated $65 million project.

ARTC Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director John Fullerton said ATMS will transform Australia’s rail industry by increasing the cost effectiveness of the network and reducing reliance on expensive signalling and other physical trackside infrastructure.

“ATMS will be gradually scaled up in a live but safe operational environment so the system’s full capabilities can be tested,” said Fullerton. “Initial trials commenced in January 2015 and, so far, two locomotives that travel between Port Augusta and Whyalla have been fitted with in-cab ATMS equipment.

“Planning is already underway for the next set of trials, which will involve further consultation with the end users of the system - rail operators. These trials are expected to commence later this year. The system is custom-engineered technology and will transform the way freight rail infrastructure is managed and monitored across the country.”

This initial stage of the ATMS implementation is being jointly delivered by ARTC and Lockheed Martin Australia.

“ATMS is designed to improve rail network capacity and reliability through a communication-based train management system that allows network controllers and the train drivers to operate trains in closer proximity than ever before and to be assured that they are doing it safely,” said Australasian Railway Association (ARA) CEO Bryan Nye.

“It also minimises the need to construct new or upgraded track infrastructure and increases capacity on the existing single-track network that meets industry’s need for greater rail capacity on a network which is enormously geographically extensive.

“ATMS is the cornerstone technology that will boost improved communications and digitalisation in the rail industry. It is incredibly important as it allows for a safer, more cost- and time-efficient and ultimately more productive system that will benefit not only the Australian rail industry but also the nation’s economy, given the forecasted increasing freight task.”

Spectrum is the key

“One of the things we’ve achieved is getting a common frequency for the whole of Australia, which has not been done anywhere else in the world,” said Nye. “Getting the 1800 MHz spectrum, the same spectrum, means a freight train going through from Sydney to Perth will go from one control centre to another, but they’ll be compatible, and so you’ll be removing a lot of redundant communications.

“We had a ding-dong battle with the federal government to get control of that 1800 MHz, because obviously all the telcos wanted it as well. We’d actually purchased the OneTel spectrum when they went bankrupt, and [we’ve] got that for 15 years.

“One of the [reasons why] owning that spectrum is going to be incredibly important for us [is that] we’re going to get high-speed rail eventually and, if you think about it, borders and jurisdictions are irrelevant to the transport sector, so we needed national coverage,” said Nye.

Presumably there are lots of controls centres dotted around the country? “Under digital train control, you don’t need that many,” said Nye. “[We’re taking] the technology being used by air traffic control [and putting it] into the railways.

“Obviously the challenge of every budget cycle is getting the funding through overall. You can’t [do it] all at once; you have to keep the redundancy of the current signalling system and upgrade bit by bit. You’re replacing old with new.

“ATMS is the country network, and that’s using the 4G network. But within the cities themselves, we’re adopting GSMR where the industry has its own spectrum in the 1800 MHz band to do exactly the same [thing as ATMS].”

The railways “had to put up our [their] poles and everything else, because we need the redundancy because [train operations are] much closer and much tighter”, noted Nye.

The ATMS is expected to bring about a 20% increase in capacity, as well as improving the safety of operations. Fitting more trains into the same system is “not as sexy as building more railway tracks, but it’s far more beneficial to the operation of the network”, said Nye.

“To me, it’s the most quantum leap forward for the rail industry,” said Nye. “This is fundamentally going to take us to the next level.”

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