Wireless Signaling Systems


Rail Update Japan

Completely wireless, better than the competition, but needs a level playing field

A railway has to have three things: a track, rolling stock, and a signaling system. The signaling system is absolutely essential for safety — it detects the location of the rolling stock on the track, and indicates when to proceed or stop.

Ever since the earliest days of rail transport, signaling systems have used physical wiring. Over the last few years, though, technical developments have permitted the use of wireless signaling. Such a system consists of wireless equipment installed at regular distances along the track, to “communicate” with onboard wireless devices and control train movement. European manufactures are ahead in this field. But a major Japanese enterprise, Nippon Signal Co., Ltd., has opened another door into the market. It developed a completely wireless train control system called SPARCS and installed it for Line 15 of the Beijing Subway in late December 2011. “It’s the world’s first completely wireless signal system for railways,” says Hideo Oshima, the Executive Officer of the company’s Overseas Division, with evident pride.

So how is the system different from the ones made in Europe? The European varieties are not completely wireless, because they need telecommunications cables to link the rails’ wireless devices together. Japan’s system is completely wireless, without those cables, so it comes at a lower cost, with cheaper construction and lower maintenance costs as well. And that’s not all — if for some reason the system goes down, when it reboots itself it detects train locations automatically, and it periodically switches frequencies to prevent radio interference. Technological features such as these do not come with the European systems, says Oshima, “We started out a few years behind them, but now we’re more technically advanced.”

Nippon Signals’ wireless trackside equipment is dramatically less bulky, which gives experts reason to believe it will be the candidate of choice for future signaling installations, especially for urban rail systems in emerging countries. But the wind is not so much in its sails that it can expect to sell left and right. When rail system manufacturers bid on a contract they have to meet the specifications of the buyer, and European entities have a great deal of sway over what those specifications stipulate. Even now the specs are weighted in their favor, making it impossible for Japanese enterprises to bid on a number of projects. Although Nippon Signal’s products are more attractive than the European competition, both in function and price, the company won’t be able to bid for a while because of conditions like ‘At least one year of proven operation.’ This leaves Oshima worried. “We need the Japanese government to negotiate so that we can at least compete on a level playing field.”

What are the prospects for his company’s sales in Japan? “Wired systems have been used for so long that it’s not easy to get operators to suddenly switch over to wireless.” But there is progress in this new field in Japan — for example, in October last year JR East installed a wireless signaling system on part of its Senseki Line. If it continues installing it on more of its track, the possibility certainly opens up for wireless signaling to spread throughout the country.

This article is an extract from a feature called Tetsudo Saikido (Railways Back on Track) in the February 25, 2012 issue of Weekly Toyo Keizai, a well-known magazine with an economic focus. We thank the magazine publisher, Toyo Keizai, Inc., for granting us permission to present this article in translation.


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