A train is shown in a station.

How advanced signalling technology will bring more frequent GO Train service to Ontario

GO Expansion will deliver more frequent, two-way, all-day service to riders. With so many more trains on the tracks, a technology upgrade is needed to keep them running safely. An advanced new train signalling system, such as the European Train Control System (ETCS), is essential to this plan. Metrolinx News explains what ETCS is and why it could be part of GO’s plan to add more trips throughout the day.

This technology was invented to solve a challenge for train travel across Europe, before becoming a global standard for railways, and it’s coming to Ontario. It will be a big part of GO’s future, where trains will be coming into your station so often that you won’t bother to check the schedule before leaving your home – just like going to the subway.

In Europe, with railways using different signalling systems, a train that crosses borders must have equipment for each country. The European Train Control System (ETCS) was devised to solve this problem with a common system. It has spread to countries around the world – including Australia, China, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Taiwan – because it offers improved safety, performance and headway times.

A train moves through Germany.
The European Train Control System is used on major rail lines around the world, including Germany’s S-Bahn. (Alstom photo)

Headway is the time between trains, and safely reducing it is the key to more frequent GO service, but before getting into that, let’s look at how signalling works to manage it.

Trains cannot stop as quickly as cars, so signalling systems are used to maintain space between them. Railway lines are broken down into “blocks” or zones. When the first train is in the block ahead of a second, the driver of the latter will see a red light, high above the tracks, until the first has completely left the zone, triggering a green light.

When you’re on a train that’s stopped, and the Customer Service Ambassador announces, ‘We are just waiting for a signal,’ it’s that green light they are talking about.

“Metrolinx currently runs a fixed block signalling system,” said Thomas Casselman, Metrolinx’s Director of Signalling and Communications. “Lights provide an indication of what the driver is supposed to do.”

A driver sits at the control panel of a train.
The information drivers get delivered to the cab car under the European Train Control System (ETCS) is more sophisticated than the red and green signals they now see at trackside. This train was being tested in the Netherlands. (Alstom photo)

Sometimes the trains are a safe distance apart but the second one will be stuck waiting for the tail end of the first to cross an arbitrary line, because the system isn’t that sophisticated.

The length of the blocks dictates how far apart the trains must be – and on many of the tracks where GO operates, their size is more appropriate for freight traffic.

The current system works well for freight trains – which require longer blocks – but it’s too simple for a modern passenger rail network. The length of those blocks effectively limits how many trains can be on the tracks, and ultimately, how often trains leave each station.

“Our network is currently built around freight operations,” Casselman said. “A lot of the blocks are still designed the way they were when we purchased tracks from CN, so they are not necessarily optimized for passenger rail.”

Newer, more sophisticated signalling systems bypass trackside lights and deliver instructions to each train’s driver, based on the exact location of the one ahead of it and the speed of both.

“When the location of the train is precisely monitored, trains can safely run closer to each other,” said Keith Ampalavanar, Manager of Enhanced Train Control for Metrolinx.

A train is shown in a station.
European Train Control System (ETCS) technology has been built-in to trains around the world, like this one in Liège, Belgium. (Alstom photo)

That’s where advanced signalling comes in. It’s proven technology that reduces headways and delivers signals directly to the driver on board each train. It’s part of the GO Expansion plan.

“ETCS is an off-the-shelf solution that we’ve already deployed around the world,” said Christophe Wacrenier, Head of Signaling for ONxpress, the company contracted by Metrolinx to deliver GO Expansion. “It’s been developed over 20 years by all the different companies existing in the market.”

GO may well be the first in either Canada or the United States to use this technology.

“This is a great opportunity to showcase the benefits of this technology,” Wacrenier said.

Advanced signalling systems are used to deliver more frequent service by making it possible for more trains to run safely on the same track. (Alston image)

By taking a data-driven approach to spacing the trains, a system such as ETCS will make it possible for more trains to be on any one line at any given time – shortening the blocks and making calculations based on trains’ speed – resulting in more frequent service for customers.

“It’s a system that has a lot more potential for growth,” said Jonathan English, the Toronto Region Board of Trade’s Transportation Policy Director. “It really can handle an enormous amount of train traffic on a pair of tracks, in comparison to the amount that we’ve managed to move in the past.

“There’s potential here for GO to act almost like a subway because the transit will be so frequent … it’s the signalling system that allows you to run trains closer together.”

Systems with ETCS are “allowing trains to get closer together while still respecting basic safety margins,” said Tyson Moore, a visiting lecturer at the University of Birmingham. “Safety was one of the fundamental design principles.”

Metrolinx plans to run electric trains, equipped with advanced signalling equipment, as part of the GO Expansion plan. It also includes building new track and improving infrastructure throughout the GO network.

This will result in trains departing more often, tripling GO service from 3,500 trips a week in 2019 to more than 10,000 in the future.

Story by Mike Winterburn, senior writer, Metrolinx News