Signal boxes: Everyone is talking about digitization – the railways prefer not to

The plan of the federal government, Deutsche Bahn (DB) and the private sector to jointly accelerate the digitization of the rail network is not going well. This year, initially only seven regional routes can be equipped with digital interlocking technology. As of November 2020, 13 relevant pilot projects were actually planned.

In September, the DB, together with the Association of the Railway Industry in Germany (VDB) and the Federal Railway Office, which is subordinate to the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI), an agreement was reached to speed up the digitization of conventional signal box and level crossing technology. The complete retrofitting should therefore take place via a “high-speed program” by 2035 – five years earlier than planned.

100 million euros had already been used for this in 2020, 400 million should flow this year. The money comes from the federal corona stimulus package.

That is now first only around half of the planned showcase projects can be realized, explains the BMVI in a heise online report to the budget committee of the Bundestag with significantly increased costs for the contractor. The offers of the industrial partners were noticeably above the “indication prices” calculated by the railway. Due to the fixed financial framework of 500 million euros, the group was therefore unable to order all of the renovation projects for 2021.

The house of Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) does not expect a rapid turnaround. According to the report, there is “currently a very unfavorable market situation” in the sectors that are not already covered by modular contracts. This is mainly due to the labor-intensive cable civil engineering, which is due “in particularly large quantities when replacing old, in some cases mechanical, signal boxes”. The ministry assumes “that the companies have priced in the very short implementation time”, the new procedural model “and a certain uncertainty” about available workers “due to the corona situation in the end”. The scarcity of resources is also noticeable in the expansion of fiber optics.

The seven projects planned for this year relate to regional routes “of low complexity” in Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Thuringia. The new technology is intended to replace existing systems of “various types” there. According to European tender documents the orders went to the general contractors Alstom, Hitachi, InoSig, Pintsch, Scheidt & Bachmann, Siemens and Thales. The respective signal construction companies are responsible for the entire project planning.

(Image: Deutsche Bahn)

According to the report, seven out of eight scheduled launch events have now been held for three projects. The aim is to “familiarize the companies with the processes and procedural steps” and to answer open questions. Although this also increases the initial costs, it leads “as a result to more competition and providers for the later, large-scale rollout of digital signaling technology”.

The BMVI intends to use the experience from the pilot operation “to further reduce costs and construction times in the further implementation of digital interlockings”. In view of the halving of the first round, the gain in knowledge is now likely to be significantly lower than originally hoped.

Interlockings with conventional technology led to 14,459 disruptions in 2019 and 14,285 disruptions in 2018 at DB. These are said to have had more or less serious effects on train traffic such as delays. Deutsche Bahn therefore also sees the targeted rapid digitization as a “contribution to the turnaround in traffic and climate protection”. With the change, “more trains could be used on the same route”.

“Shorter travel times, shorter waiting times, precise customer information,” DB expects from the program. “Intelligent tracks give an alarm before they break: breakdowns are avoided and train traffic continues as planned.” Digital interlockings also formed the basis for equipping the network with the European Train Control System (ETCS), which is standardized across Europe.

Deutsche Bahn does not yet want to comment on the medium-term effects of the delays. “We are in the middle of the rollout planning”, explained a group spokeswoman for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “It would be premature to speculate about time and cost plans.” However, the railway also mentioned surprisingly high financial demands from the contractors in relation to comparable “past tenders”. DB Infrastructure Board Member Ronald Pofalla maintained despite the setback in March: “We are now on the move with digital rail Germany in turbo mode.”

For the left-wing budget politician Victor Perli, however, it is clear: “The already manageable ‘high-speed program’ is severely paralyzed.” There is also the fact that three of the seven remaining construction initiatives are in Scheuer’s home country of Bavaria and that the Free State benefits most from them. Once again, this means that the minister is simply not making headway with the railways, “regardless of whether it is about digitization, electrification or route expansion”. The Committee on Budgets wants to deal with the report on Wednesday as item 17 on the agenda.


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