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Denmark's digital railway

S train city traffic  copenhagen denmark cropped

In the old days, pre-signalling, the train driver was given a stick.

When they reached the station they would hand it over and it would be relayed back and forth down the line. “You could only drive down the track if you had the stick,” says Hanne Nybo Johansen, Atkins’ project director for the Danish signalling programme. “The idea is the same today, that you can only have one train on one section of the track at a time.”

Perhaps one day the existing conventional system of using track circuits and relays will seem as antiquated as the stick system. The Danish signalling programme is the largest re-signalling scheme in Europe, as it is due to cover the entire Banedanmark railway network – around 2,633km. The programme, with its “big bang” rollout in a relatively short space of time, is the first of its kind. And just in time, as Denmark plans to double the number of rail passengers carried on the network by 2030.

Extensive programme

Replacement of Banedanmark signalling is due by the end of 2023 and all signalling on the Copenhagen S-bane with Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) by 2021. Costing around €2.6bn (£2.2bn) it involves implementing the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), the newest European common signalling standard level 2, baseline 3. This includes on-board and trackside equipment on the Fjernbane, a full CBTC-system on the S-bane, all interlocking equipment, countrywide coverage of traffic management systems and the GSM-R data system. It also includes interface management, stakeholder management, project management, safety approvals, design, testing, implementation, training and a series of changes to the internal processes of track operator Banedanmark.

The Danish parliament first approved the project in 2009, with a broad political majority. It was recognised that the existing Danish system was getting old and that maintenance costs would increase. Many of the parts of the signalling system were no longer being produced, but simply replacing them with newer conventional signalling parts would be expensive yet not provide the benefits available from a digital one.

 Across the network, passengers can expect better punctuality, increased line speed, higher capacity on selected lines and shorter journey times on some routes

Replacing sections of signalling with the newer digital system did not seem practical either, as this would have resulted in multiple interfaces between the conventional and digital, introducing even more complexity.

Johansen adds: “It was more cost effective to replace the whole system – otherwise we would have had multiple interfaces between the old and new, which costs money and time.”

But Johansen says the gravity of the situation was underlined during the pre-feasibility studies, where 39% of all the delays on the Danish railway network were identified as being caused by signalling failures as early as 2005. “Ignoring an efficient renewal of the whole signalling system on the Danish railway network would lead to a complete system breakdown in a foreseeable future,” she says.

Between now and 2019, the signalling programme’s training project will train more than 4,700 staff

Even factoring in sunk costs associated with a total renewal strategy – as all existing signalling systems are replaced regardless of age – the study of the cost, risk and benefits of a total replacement showed that total replacement was the better option.

Johansen explains that the new system will remove a whole swathe of equipment from trackside. This means less equipment will be installed out in the elements. And the trackside equipment replacing it under the digital system will be much simpler and more standardised, as most data will be transferred directly to the train.

“When you have less complicated equipment there’s less equipment that can be broken or needs to be fixed and there will be a lower rate of failure into the future,” says Johansen.

Easier to maintain

The new Eurobalise, for example, will be universal and not specific to the section of track, making them easier to maintain. Axle counters used in the new system count the number of wheels on the trains across a section of track as opposed to measuring small currents, which make them much less susceptible to environmental factors such as dust or debris on the lines.

Danish rail network Banedanmark expects an 80% decline in signal-related delays on main and regional lines and 50% on the Copenhagen S-bane as a result of the signalling programme – a huge reduction. In total, the aim is to save a total of almost 1M passenger hours per year.

Johansen adds that, across the network, passengers can expect better punctuality, increased line speed, higher capacity on selected lines and shorter journey times on some routes.

Economical maintenance

Future maintenance will be more economical. And countrywide there will be a higher and more homogenous level of safety. ERTMS level 2, baseline 3, achieves the highest level of safety and should increase passenger confidence in the rail network. The upgrade ensures that the ETCS (European Train Control System) automatic train protection systems is rolled out across the entire network. It does not cover the entire system at present.

“The system will also provide an unprecedented foundation for a better centralised traffic control, energy optimisation and on-time passenger information,” Johansen adds. “A complete renewal of the signalling systems will bring major changes to a number of the organisational units in Rail Net Denmark. The changes will vary in form and impact but include changes in technical skills, competences, working processes, and organisational structures as well as changes to physical environment and location.”

Instead of having many signal centres around the country, for example, there will be just two centralised control centres.

This will improve efficiency and simplicity, and reduce the number of people required to operate them. However, Johansen, argues that realisation of the expected benefits from renewal of the signalling system will depend heavily on successful implementation and anchoring these changes within the organisational units in Banedanmark.

New operational rules

The signalling will operate under new operational rules, based on the common European rules, known as TSI Operation and Traffic Management.

Johansen says that between now and 2019, the signalling programme’s training project will train more than 4,700 staff to enable them to operate the digital signalling equipment within the new operational rules. All in all, this amounts to well over 50,000 hours of training spread across a range of training activities ranging from a few hours to 30 days.

With any large infrastructure project there are often many huge challenges. Carrying out major upgrades while retaining an operational railway is a significant factor as is delivering on time.

The projected 12 year project is currently two years behind schedule, but this in itself is not a complete surprise: as it is the first project of its kind, which means there are no benchmarks.

Economies of scale

“The contracts are therefore based on a number of assumptions about economies of scale, learning curves, own performance, collaboration with clients, and so on which has proved to be too optimistic,” says Johansen.

She adds that the major suppliers appear to have underestimated the task in terms of complexity and staffing and have fallen behind. And Banedanmark has also had difficulties adapting its own organisation to such a big task.

“Furthermore, the development and approval of certain subsystems on the infrastructure side are delayed, including interfaces between the new and the old system and level crossings,” she adds.

Unforeseen delays

Banedanmark also expects delays on train installations. This includes the supplier’s ability to develop software and install on time in the different types of train, including difficulties in agreeing with Railway Undertakings on the design of the installation of ETCS in First Class.

Additional, unforeseen safety and functional tests that were not specified in the contract have also been required. This has resulted in additional software updates – and subsequent development and validation of revised material and a new safety process – being needed.

“We have identified a number of errors, which appeared in the general operating situation.

“These take a longer time to repair than anticipated” says Johansen. The issues are addressed in the first instance by a number of temporary solutions such as, for example, resetting the trains at terminals. Errors are sought and corrected continuously in the form of software updates.

Danish ’first’

Johansen adds that this is the first time that the Communication Safety Method for Risk Evaluation (CSM-RA) regulation has been applied in such a large and complex Danish project as the signalling programme. And implementation of this European safety legislation in Banedanmark has introduced new processes for installation approvals.

It was originally assumed, for example, that the suppliers were responsible for getting the safety approvals.

But the CSM-RA process has been a significant challenge for them. Banedanmark has had to take on a larger part of the job than expected and it has been necessary to put more time into the approval process on all lines. And the internal resources in the signalling programme have not been sufficient to address these challenges.

The same applies to internal approval processes across Banedanmark, says Johansen, including approval of the design and location of components at the track. These processes have been underestimated by Banedanmark and its suppliers.

If there are any lessons to be learned, she adds, they are all based on not underestimating a number of key areas.

Firstly, do not underestimate the advantages of making new operational rules, and secondly, do not underestimate the amount of training needed. Lastly do not underestimate the importance of organisational implementation in the parent organisation.


Hanne Nybo Johansen

Johansen has 20 years’ experience of consultancy, line management and project management, with responsibility for the completing large signalling projects and  IT projects.



She is Atkins’ project director for the Danish Signalling Programme – the largest re-signalling scheme in Europe. Johansen sits on the board of a joint venture with Rambøll, Parsons and Emch & Berger, providing client advisory services to the signalling programme.

Johansen has been involved in various signalling projects as project manager and technical project manager for the completion and implementation of changes in connection with interlocking systems and train control systems.

As Danish Railway Association chair Johansen has participated in the planning of the yearly Danish Rail CPH Conference. She has collaborated closely with the Technical University of Denmark on the development of railway technologies and a new centre RailTech DTU for education and development.



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