Iarnród Éireann’s train signalling systems outdated – report

Some equipment 30 years old and does not offer expected protection levels, report finds

The report said only Dart trains in the greater Dublin area have an automatic protection system in operation which automatically applies the brakes if a driver fails to obey a restrictive signal or speed limit. Photograph: David Sleator

The report said only Dart trains in the greater Dublin area have an automatic protection system in operation which automatically applies the brakes if a driver fails to obey a restrictive signal or speed limit. Photograph: David Sleator

 

Signalling systems for Irish trains do not offer the level of protection expected nowadays on passenger railways in a developed economy, the annual report of the Commission for Railway Regulation states.

It says that although proven technology is available to reduce exposure to driver error, this is only applied on a small proportion of the Iarnród Éireann network and some of the equipment in use is 30 years old.

The commission said that over the last 30 years there have been significant developments in passenger rail travel in Ireland. Maximum speeds have increased to 160km/h, the frequency of services on most mainline routes has doubled, additional local routes have been opened, passenger numbers have tripled and driver-only services have become commonplace.

“The risk profile associated with passenger train movements has undoubtedly changed during this 30-year period, but this change in risk has not been balanced by a proportionate increase in the level of protection offered by the signalling on the Iarnród Éireann network,” it warns.

“The margin between tolerable risk and intolerable risk has therefore been reducing.”

Automatic protection system

The report said only Dart trains in the greater Dublin area have an automatic protection system in operation which automatically applies the brakes if a driver fails to obey a restrictive signal or speed limit. The electrified Dart line comprises less than 5 per cent of the total rail network.

“A further 41 per cent (900 track kilometres) of the Iarnród Éireann network is equipped with a continuous automatic warning system (CAWS), which provides train drivers with an in-cab indication of signal aspects.

“All Iarnród Éireann trains are equipped to work with CAWS and this requires a driver approaching a restrictive signal aspect to acknowledge a warning. However, after such acknowledgment, the CAWS does not over-ride the driver’s subsequent actions if they are inappropriate as automatic train protection functionality is not provided. Nor does the CAWS system provide any form of speed supervision.

“The remaining 54 per cent (1,166 track kilometres) of the Iarnród Éireann network is not equipped to operate with any form of driver warning or automatic train protection system. Safety of train movements is therefore highly dependent on a driver’s obedience to signal aspects and speed restrictions.”

The report said a marked increase in the number of incidents where a driver passed a signal indicating a danger ahead (signal passed at danger, SPAD) is a reminder of the ever-present risk of a human error-induced railway accident. The report said the number of SPAD events involving trains increased from 10 in 2014 to 14 in 2015.

Iarnród Éireann said that since 2013 it had continuously highlighted the need to invest in automatic train protection systems to further reduce the incidence of SPAD.

It said it welcomed the commission’s support for the strategic imperative of investing in these systems. In the interim, the company had implemented driver reminder appliances across the fleet to support drivers in reducing SPAD incidents.