On the right track

IEC standardization for rail transport contributes to the sector's development

By Morand Fachot

Rail transport is a well-established and pivotal mode of transportation both for passengers and freight and is a key component of the global economy. It has enabled many remote areas to be developed and, far from sliding into obsolescence, it is enjoying major expansion throughout the world. Standardization work by IEC TC 9: Electrical equipment and systems for railways, is central to the growth of the rail sector.

Swiss-made "crocodile" electric locomotive introduced in India in 1928

Early urban transport: electricity not steam

Whilst steam power ruled rail transport over long distances in most countries when this mode of transport was first introduced, urban public transport systems were powered by electricity. This started in Berlin in 1879 when the world's first electric suburban railway was inaugurated and electric trams and electric trolleybuses followed soon afterwards.

The first electric-powered underground railway line was inaugurated in London in 1890, with Paris, Berlin and New York opening their own underground electric railway lines in the early 1900s. Underground railway lines gave an impetus to electric traction as steam engines proved obviously impractical in tunnels, from which they were soon banned.

The IEC took the decision to start work on standardization for metropolitan and railway transport networks in April 1924. Minutes of an IEC Committee of Action meeting held in London on 28 April 1924 mention "the decision to refer the question of traction motors to a Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on Rating, but the Committee of Action felt that it would be wiser to appoint a special Advisory Committee for this subject. It was pointed out that the proposals already circulated appeared to refer only to tramway motors and they felt that the Advisory Committee should review the subject from the point of view both of tramway and railway motors".

This Advisory Committee had the title: Electric traction equipment. It subsequently became IEC TC (Technical Committee) 9: Electrical equipment and systems for railways.

Widespread work with a global reach

Standardization work by TC 9 now extends well beyond "tramway and railway motors". It also includes "rolling stock, fixed installations, management systems (including communication, signalling and processing systems) for railway operation, their interfaces and their ecological environment".

As of March 2014 TC 9 had issued 91 publications covering all the above-mentioned areas, and was working on dozens more.

The TC's membership greatly expanded in line with the scope of its work. The Advisory Committee created in April 1924 was "to consist of one delegate from each of the following [six] countries: France, Great Britain, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland". Today 395 experts from 26 participating countries are involved in TC 9 standardization work in 5 WGs (Working Groups), 12 PTs (Project Teams), a number of MTs (Maintenance Teams) to revise, maintain and update existing Standards and 5 ad hoc Groups to work on specific issues. Thirteen countries also hold observer status in TC 9.

Changing worldwide environment

TC 9 observes that the sector has experienced significant change. This has greatly influenced the design of railway systems, their operational characteristics and the technologies involved.

It also notes that its work has been affected by regional activities, such as the adoption of EU (European Union) Directives aimed at promoting common standards, open access and competition in the railway sector.

Therefore TC 9 seeks to identify "where there is a need of an attractive action for worldwide standardization by adapting regional standards when possible; creating original International Standards when there is a specific need different from regional ones; focusing its means preferably on general worldwide items".

The TC sees its goal in the near future as being "responsible for a full coherent set of standards, the ones based on regional standards included".

In recent years a domain that has seen a significant expansion in TC 9 standardization work is that of communication to interconnect trains, to connect standard on-board equipment and to connect trains to a ground network. To make this possible TC 9 is developing the IEC 61375, Electronic railway equipment – Train communication network (TCN), series of Standards, six of which had been published as of February 2014.

TC 9 has also set up WG 46 to develop Standards for on-board multimedia systems for railways.

Technology and environment

Technology in the railway domain has seen significant performance developments, in particular as regards traction systems, which have benefited from techniques based on on-board power electronics that allow the use of traction motors with their higher power-to-weight ratio.

Network electrification varies greatly from country to country. Worldwide it stands at 26,6%, according to UIC (International Union of Railways) data, varying from 0% in many countries to 100% (Switzerland). Some countries like India and China have embarked on massive electrification programmes.

Even where network electrification is partial or non-existent, it is worth remembering that even so-called diesel locomotives are actually diesel-electric machines that use a diesel engine to drive an electrical d.c. generator or an a.c. alternator-rectifier to provide power to traction motors.

Relevant for shorter and individual travel too

The expansion of urban and suburban transport and automatic people mover systems is also driving standardization work for TC 9, which set up WG 40: Railway applications – Urban Guided Transport Management and Command/Control Systems, to develop specific Standards.

The gradual introduction of automatic people movers requires specific provisions as these systems are fully automated (see article on automatic people movers in this e-tech). TC 9 also focuses its work on environmental issues that include noise emission of equipment, which involves acoustics, as well as EMF (Electromotive force), EMC (Electromagnetic Compatibility) and stray currents. Environmental issues also include "taking into consideration the disposal, recyclability, reusability and toxicity concerns where necessary", and energy-efficiency with "projects to assist the reduction of energy consumption in trains and associated infrastructure".

Safety first

Global railway safety record varies according to countries with obvious differences depending on infrastructure and rolling stock conditions. However, considering the number of passengers and volume of goods transported it is on the whole extremely good, especially when compared, for instance, with road transport.

Train safety is a major concern for manufacturers and operators. As a result TC 9 has identified the following safety aspects as being relevant to its work:

  • Electrical safety
  • Protection against fire
  • Safety hazards in long tunnels
  • Passenger safety (including passenger alarm systems and communication between the operator and passengers)
  • Event recorders (e.g. so-called “black boxes” or automatic system surveillance)

All these contribute to safer railway transport. In the EU, for instance, there were 2 261 persons killed or seriously injured in railway accidents in 2012. However, the majority (82,1%) of these victims were not passengers travelling on trains or railway employees but "other persons" such as level-crossing users or unauthorized persons on railway premises.

Furthermore, serious accidents which result in significant loss of life, such as the July 2013 Santiago de Compostela derailment in Spain and the Lac-Mégantic derailment in Canada, are more often than not the result of human error rather than of technical failure.

Essential collaboration

Railway transport is a complex sector that relies on many technologies. As such, TC 9 maintains liaison with a number of IEC TCs and SCs (Subcommittees) to determine whether existing Standards developed by these can apply, fully or partly. As a result TC 9 liaises with the following:

  • SC 32B: Low-voltage fuses
  • TC 36: Insulators
  • TC 40: Capacitors and resistors for electronic equipment
  • TC 56: Dependability
  • TC 69: Electric road vehicles and electric industrial trucks
  • TC 79: Alarm and electronic security systems
  • TC 99: System engineering and erection of electrical power installations in systems with nominal voltages above 1 kV a.c. and 1,5 kV d.c., particularly concerning safety aspects
  • TC 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment
  • TC 106: Methods for the assessment of electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields associated with human exposure
  • TC 111: Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems
  • CISPR (International Special Committee on Radio Interference) SC B to ensure coordination on EMC aspects

TC 9 liaises also with IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) P1901, which works on the 1901 BPL (Broadband over Power Line networks) Standard, to ensure coordination in the development of communication protocols for train communication networks.

Crucial sector for the global economy

Rail transport is central to domestic and global trade. The public's attention is often drawn to the latest generation of high-tech, high-speed trains in service or being introduced or planned in many parts of the world. However, if passenger transport, which nearly reached 2 900 000 billion passengers/km in 2012, according to UIC statistics, is the most visible aspect of rail transport for the media and members of the public, freight transport is no less important. With over 9,8 billion t/km of goods estimated to have been transported globally in that year, it is an absolutely central pillar of domestic and global trade.

The introduction of intermodal freight transport in particular, which made possible the transportation of goods across multiple modes of transportation (lorries, trains, ships), thanks to containerization, has transformed global trade.

Rail transport plays an essential role in intermodal freight transport, in particular over long distances or in countries where the road infrastructure may not support movements of large volumes of freight adequately.

IEC TC 9 standardization work over 90 years has provided and will continue to provide the best possible support to ensure the safe and reliable transport of passengers and freight over long or short distances in international, domestic or urban environments.

1280px-Indian_electric_locomotive_4502 Swiss-made "crocodile" electric locomotive introduced in India in 1928
shinkansen_lineup_org Japan Railways Group Shinkanzen high-speed trains
tc-1_bombardier_nottingham_org This light rail system in Nottingham (UK) relies also on IEC TC 9 Standards (Photo: Bombardier)