European Train Control System (ETCS)

Europe's railways are characterised by a historically evolved diversity of very different operational regulations and signalling systems. Since standardisation is not expected in the foreseeable future, the creation of a uniform interface between track and vehicle is a priority objective as a prerequisite for interoperability. This would make cross-border vehicle use possible as a prerequisite for the free network access required by EU directives. The result of the work to date is the European Train Control System (ETCS). The ETCS is part of the operational control system of the European railways ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System).

ETCS Roll-out

Even if the European train protection system ETCS is gradually being introduced in the railway networks of various EU countries, it will still take decades before it is rolled out across the board and will thus replace the existing national train protection systems in the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T). This section describes the roll-out of ETCS in Germany, Europe and worldwide.

A diagram with a map of Europe, indicating the different train control systems of the countries by colour and by using the corresponding abbreviations.
Train control systems in Europe
© Michael Kunze

ETCS Roll-out in Germany

It will take a while before Germany will experience a comprehensive roll-out of ETCS equipment. According to current planning, the existing LZB system in Germany will be gradually replaced by ETCS Level 2 with approx. 2,500 km by 2030. By 2050, the entire TEN-T network in Germany (approx. 16,000 km out of a total of 30,000 km) must be equipped with ETCS by 2050. In the next few years, the concrete implementation steps for the individual corridors will be as follows:

– North Sea-Baltic: In Germany, this affects the connection of European seaports starting at the border to Poland. The Hamburg seaport is connected via the Frankfurt (Oder)–Berlin–Hamburg route. Further seaports can be connected by continuing the corridor from Berlin to Hanover. The seaport of Rotterdam is connected via the Hanover–Osnabrück–Hengelo line. The Antwerp seaport is connected via the Hanover–Cologne–Antwerp line. The section of the line between Frankfurt (Oder) and Berlin is scheduled to be completed here by 2023.

– Rhine-Alpine: In Germany, this affects the connection between Duisburg–Düsseldorf–Cologne–Koblenz–Mainz–Mannheim–Karlsruhe–Basel. The completion of these lines is scheduled for 2023.

– Scandinavian-Mediterranean: In Germany this affects the connections to Scandinavia via Munich–Nuremberg–Hanover–Hamburg to Flensburg from the border to Austria in Passau. The Fehmarnbelt crossing is also connected from Hamburg. The seaport in Rostock is also connected via Leipzig and Berlin. The Berlin–Rostock line and the border connection routes in the south and north of the corridor are scheduled to be completed by 2023.

– Rhine-Danube: In Germany, this relates to the connection from the border to France near Strasbourg via Mannheim–Frankfurt–Würzburg to the border to Austria near Passau. A connection to the Czech Republic to Prague is also planned. An alternative line is the connection from Strasbourg via Stuttgart and Munich to Passau. Border connections to Austria and the Czech Republic are scheduled to be completed by 2023.

– Atlantic: In Germany this affects the connection from Mannheim to Strasbourg. From Strasbourg via Paris, the cities on the French Atlantic coast (Le Havre and Bordeaux) and the Atlantic coast on the Iberian Peninsula (Bilbao, Porto, Lisbon) are connected. The connection to this corridor is scheduled for 2023.

– Erfurt–Eisenach line. In connection with the “German Unity Transport Project 8” (VDE 8), the connecting line between Erfurt and Eisenach is being expanded and equipped for speeds of up to 200 km/h. Expansion with ETCS Level 2 is planned until 2023.

ETCS Roll-out in Europe

Some countries implement comprehensive signalling renewal programs, which ultimately result in the comprehensive use of ETCS. Examples of such consistent implementations are Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway. These projects are listed as examples.

Belgium. Belgium is currently implementing a complete conversion of the signaling system to ETCS. From December 1, 2016, in Belgium, railway undertakings have had a general obligation to equip their vehicles with ETCS on the Belgian rail network. This means that all railway companies operating in Belgium have to equip their vehicles with this system.

Denmark. The Danish rail network has a total length of 2,132 km. All conventional railway signalling systems will be replaced by ETCS Level 2 equipment. In order to optimally utilise the possibilities of ETCS Level 2 technically and commercially, the new system will do completely without signals.

Luxembourg. The railway infrastructure company decided to take a decisive step in equipping the entire route network as well as all locomotives and traction vehicles with ETCS Level 1. A pilot route went into operation on March 1, 2005. The other routes were then equipped with ETCS L1 and operated in commercial test mode. The entire Luxembourg rail network has been equipped with ETCS L1 since December 1, 2014.

Switzerland. Switzerland has been the early adopter of ETCS to control trains. All rail vehicles in Switzerland are equipped with the so-called ETM (Eurobalise Transmission Module). This enables them to read and process information from the national SIGNUM and ZUB train control systems provided by Eurobalises and Euroloops (in packet 44).

Since 2003, only Eurobalises and Euroloops have been used on the track side for refurbishments of and construction of new lines of “legacy” ZUB transponders or ZUB loops. This is the starting point for the migration to ETCS in the entire national rail network in Switzerland, which is planned to be executed with ETCS Level 1 Limited Supervision.

ETCS L1 LS information will be used together SIGNUM and ZUB information in the same balises. This means that vehicles with national equipment (SIGNUM/ZUB/ETM) as well as vehicles that only have ETCS equipment can operate on the infrastructure. The new Mattstetten–Rothrist line, which went into operation in 2004, and the Solothurn–Wanzwil line, were the first lines in equipped with ETCS level 2 in Switzerland. The Lötschberg base tunnel was also put into operation in December 2007 with ETCS Level 2. In 2016, operations in the Gotthard base tunnel started with ETCS Level 2. The commissioning of the Ceneri Base Tunnel with ETCS Level 2 took place in March 2020.

Norway. 4,200 kilometers of track will be converted to ETCS in Norway over the next decades. The new signaling technology is to gradually go into operation by 2034.


Recommended specialist books:

Schnieder, Lars, An introduction to ETCS

Stanley, Peter, ETCS for Engineers

Trinckauf, Jochen; Maschek, Ulrich; Kahl, Richard; Krahl, Claudia (Hrsg.), ETCS in Deutschland