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Norway’s ERTMS Inauguration Delayed

posted on 6th Feb 2023 15:56

In 2018 the Norwegian infrastructure manager Bane NOR has launched a project to switch the entire railway network to ERTMS. From an infrastructure perspective, this means replacing many generations of station and track signalling equipment with a centralised Siemens digital interlocking together with digital track-side elements (crossings, points, etc.), as well as covering the railway lines with GSM-R radio and installing Trainguard 200 radio block centres (RBCs). The technologies are set at ETCS Level 2, Baseline 3, Release 2, SRS System Requirements Specification 3.6.0. 

All vehicles must of course be fitted with the on-board ETCS. In Norway retrofits are facilitated by Bane NOR, which has provided ETCS OBUs for all domestic operators. Alstom won the tender to supply them, offering its Atlas system and carrying out the retrofitting at Bane NOR's works. The Norway state, through Bane NOR, compensates operators for up to 50 % of the eligible costs of the retrofitting (remember that Norway is not a member of the EU, therefore no EU funding). Due to the size of the 4,200 km network with 350 stations and the 467 vehicles of 55 different types, the transition to ERTMS has been divided into several phases with a planned completion in 2034.

The first lines that were to be opened at very tight time schedules at the end of 2022 were:

  • the 509 km long northern part of the Nordlandsbanen between Grong and Bodø, a challenging and remote line stretching all the way to the Arctic Circle, where the deadline for inauguration the service under ETCS Level 2 was set for 31 October 2022 (at 14.30 h),
  • the 66 km long Gjøvikbanen in the Roa - Gjøvik section (north of Oslo), which was scheduled for launch in December 2022.

In Norway, all these sections are subject to exclusive operation under ETCS supervision. ERTMS and the new electronic interlocking (from Siemens) are replacing the original track and station signalling equipment of many different generations and designs, so that the lines will be no longer equipped with signals (except for shunting signals) and thus the normal operation of trains without ETCS OBUs will not be possible.

In the second half of September 2022, the vision of meeting the ambitious deadlines mentioned above fell apart once Bane NOR published information that ERTMS on Gjøvikbanen would not start in December. The main reason given was a lack of approved trains with ETCS OBUs, with Alstom informing that they had only two trains (of an unspecified type) ready for exclusive ETCS supervised operation, but that at least 12 vehicles were needed.

The reason for the delay is said to be the impact of the supply chain crisis with known shortage of chips and other wiring materials, a problem that has been faced by all electronics and equipment manufacturers recently. However, Alstom was already running behind schedule before this crisis, subsequently struck by a covid pandemic. Nevertheless, at the end of 2020, the manufacturer assured us that it would get everything done in the expected timeframe: at that time, prototype conversions of the FLIRTs and the LTR 17 vehicle were underway, and tests were being carried out on the Di8 locomotive following the ETCS retrofit.

The Gjøvikbanen track side is prepared better than thevehicles, with 27 hours of ETCS-monitored train test runs taking place on the weekend of 22 - 23 October 2022. Both the Di 8 locomotive of Norske Tog (the state-owned vehicle owner) and operated by the passenger operator Vy (formerly NSB) participated, which ran on the 43 km Roa - Eina section, together with Cargonet's electric El 16.2208, which ran in the 23 km long Eina - Gjøvik section with a 210 m long timber-laden freight train.

At that time of this trial, new level crossings had not yet been approved and incorporated into the system, so the trains crossed them by running slow on sight. The ETCS functions were tested, but also the transitions to the ATC-2 national ATP, provided by the national ETCS STM module, which will be necessary during the transition period when the neighbouring sections will still be without ETCS. However, the test results were found not to be fully satisfactory and a number of modifications were found to be necessary.

These are functions that could not be fully simulated under laboratory conditions (the ERTMS laboratory is at the Nyland Campus in Oslo). In response to our query, Bane NOR specified that on the track side, the interface between ERTMS and a various neighbouring interlocking is not fully implemented in the ERTMS lab, so they had to perform field testing to explore issues in this part of the system and find way for improvement. On the ETCS on-board side, Bane NOR noted already in the lab testing, and later explored in the field testing, that the standard UNISIG (Union Industry of Signalling) braking curves seemed to be challenging to drive with and need particular focus on driver inputs.

Bane NOR, after evaluating the information from all three main suppliers - Alstom, Siemens and Thales - decided to postpone the deadline for the transition to ERTMS/ETCS at Gjøvikbanen by one year, to November 2023, to give them sufficient time to fine-tune the systems. The main objective of the ERTMS installation in Norway is to improve the reliability of the train operation, both passenger and freight, and this delay fits in with the railways' strategy despite the project delay. At the same time, the approval of the infrastructure change 'Authorisation for placing into service (APIS)' is underway and is expected to be completed for this track in 4th quarter of 2023.

The same problem with the lack of ETCS retrofitted vehicles applies to Nordlandsbanen as well, for which at least 44 vehicles (both freight and passenger) are needed. The fact that there will not be enough vehicles until the inauguration date, at the end of October 2022, became definitively clear in early 2022, when Bane NOR admitted possibility delaying the project.

In October 2022, three LTR 17 vehicles returned to Nordlandsbanen from the Grorud workshop, after their modifications were approved by the Norwegian Rail Authority Statens jernbanetilsyn; they are based at Fauske and Mo i Rana stations and operated using the ETCS STM module. Although there also were test runs on Nordlandsbanen, its readiness is worse. Therefore, from autumn 2022 onwards, the full efforts are focused to tests on Gjøvikbanen, probably continuing throughout the first half of 2023, before resuming trial runs on Nordlandsbanen.

The resulting delays will also affect subsequent sections of Norway rail infrastructure such as Bergensbanen, where ERTMS was scheduled to be operational in 2023 on several sections totalling 330 km, namely Myrdal - Arna - Hønefoss, Ål - Myrdal and (branch line) Myrdal - Flåm. Also affected are the Rørosbanen (Kongsvinger/Hamar - Støren, 384 km) and the northern parts of Vestfoldbanen (Drammen - Tønsberg and Drammen - Hokksund, 90 km in total), both planned to switch to ERTMS in 2024; this date is now postponed to 2025 at least.

Bane NOR states that it does not plan to change the order of the ERTMS programme or to move resources to other lines. The introduction of ETCS on Nordlandsbanen and Gjøvikbanen is still a priority, the first one because of its outdated signalling technology and lack of remote traffic control, the latter because it is a line with relatively light traffic, which will allow to eliminate teething problems before the introduction of ERTMS on busy lines and at important junctions.

The National Signalling Plan (NSP) is to be updated during 2023 to reflect the situation. The infrastructure manager still believes in the target date for converting the entire Norwegian rail network to ERTMS is 2034. The positive on the whole situation is that Bane NOR is publicly informing about the project delays on its website and that it is still maintaining a very proactive approach to moving this complex project forward. Bane NOR has also confirmed that the contracts with the suppliers contain both bonuses and maluses depending on the contractor's performance and contract conditions will be used to determine potential financial penalties.

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