back to article How to make the trains run on time? Satellites. That's how

India has joined the gang of nations looking to make its trains run on time by using satellites. India's Ministry of Railways and Space Research Organisation (ISRO) this week signed a memorandum of understanding that “... aims for developing applications in the field of Remote sensing and Geographic Information System (GIS) …

  1. RIBrsiq
    Coat

    Make the trains run on thyme...?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Hope the tech teams have some Sage advice.

    2. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

      Make the trains run on thyme...?

      Obligatory XKCD :)

  2. Winkypop Silver badge
    Coat

    Attention passengers

    Your 5:17 train to Zurich will be 14 nanoseconds late.

    This is due to Einstein's theory of special relativity.

    We apologise for any inconvenience that may be caused.

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: Attention passengers

      Your 05:17 train to Zurich will be 14 nanoseconds late.

      or

      Your 17:17 train to Zurich will be 14 nanoseconds late.

      There fixed it for you. The Swiss do use 24hr clocks for railway operations unlike the USA.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Attention passengers

        your 17:17 to Zurich will be on time but not in the right place, or will be in the right place but we're not sure what time?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Attention passengers

          your 17:17 to Zurich will be on time but not in the right place, or will be in the right place but we're not sure what time?

          If you see what the Swiss have cooked up to make trains run on time you appreciate why someone wants to do it with satellites. They collect so much data from so many sensors that they had to resort to using messaging kit normally used in trading to handle it all. If I'm not mistaken it all comes together in Zollikon.

          Their delays are mainly due to passenger overload (there's only so much capacity, even with doubledecker trains), and the system is capable of then reworking the tables for the routes because they have a LOT of trains going on relatively few tracks. That reworking includes intermixing slow goods traffic with fast passenger trains, which makes for quite an impressive puzzle that needs to be solved on the fly every time there is a delay or a defect somewhere. It's IMHO a miracle that it works at all, let alone so well.

          There used to be a live map of the system at swisstrains.ch, but the domain is for sale. Shame.

          Accidents still happen, but even there their ability to cope with those is impressive.

          1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. dotdavid

        Re: Attention passengers

        "There fixed it for you. The Swiss do use 24hr clocks for railway operations unlike the USA."

        Why do you assume it wasn't a train at 5:17 AM?

        1. cd

          Re: Attention passengers

          Also, US railroads do use 24hr time for ops. The only snags are timezones and variable DST.

        2. Dagg
          Boffin

          Re: Attention passengers

          >Why do you assume it wasn't a train at 5:17 AM?

          Because it wasn't 05:17...

  3. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    Fail-Safe

    The question is whether such tracking engenders fail-safe operation of the railways. If I recall correctly satellite signals are attenuated by rain and as I understand it, parts of India have a lot of that. So, are the trains then delayed because of the weather? Or do you speculatively send a train down a long single-line track with no crossing points and gamble that "the other end" does not despatch a train at the same time? Even if preventative mechanisms kick-in if trains get too close to each other (in good weather conditions??) you still have the problem of knowing which train has the "right of way" and which has to be backed up to the last crossing-point - which goes right back to the original point of commissioning such a system:punctuality. There's a lot to be said for traditional signalling systems, or for spending the money on double-tracking the whole country, if that hasn't already been accomplished - but then there is the problem of dealing with track maintenance, which means shutting down one of those two lines whilst the other operates on single-line working principles.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fail-Safe

      If only the professionals working on this had thought about safety and integrity issues while busily duct-taping their cheap satellite phone to the cab wall. Oh wait, they did! For the European system you could try following that space4rail link in the article, and maybe start with the 3InSat project.

    2. John Sager

      Re: Fail-Safe

      Well, the single track working problem was solved well over a century ago with the token system. Originally physical, with end-to-end interlocks between the token dispensers in the signal boxes, it's now often done electronically. No reason why they can't do that over satellites. That's what makes me so surprised about that head-on crash on a single track in Germany a few weeks ago.

      1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: Fail-Safe

        There is an appropriate article in the current edition of 'Rail' that describes the different systems for single line working that are currently employed in the UK. They are not always token based.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Fail-Safe - Rail magazine

          "in the current edition of 'Rail' "

          What's on the front cover (ie have I missed it in the shops yet)?

          Alternatively is it, er, online? Couldn't quickly see it at

          www.railmagazine.com

          And while I'm here, anybody got any decent recommended (ie not Wikipedia itself) analysis of what went wrong in the Wenzhou high speed train crash?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Fail-Safe

          "article in the current edition of 'Rail' that describes the different systems for single line working that are currently employed in the UK."

          Current edition means Issue 796 March 16-March 29 with "Structural defects force Heathrow 332 withdrawal" as the front page headline.

          The single-line signalling article is on pages 72-76 but for some reason doesn't feature in the contents listing on page 5?

          £3.80 at all fine newsagents, and selected supermarkets and motorway service stations.

      2. cd

        Re: Fail-Safe

        The crash surprised me as well, until I saw who they are using to operate their trains. Same outfit that was operating at the time of the Chatsworth crash in California, just a new name pasted over the sundered one.

    3. bazza Silver badge

      Re: Fail-Safe

      The question is whether such tracking engenders fail-safe operation of the railways.

      So long as it's done right, yes. Generally speaking you need everything to fail safe when the radio craps out, and not depend on radio to propagate the fail safe network-wide.

      So if an emergency stop signal for a train is delivered by radio, that won't work. The signal may not arrive.

      However if the train stops automatically if the radio craps out, that's better, so long as the signalling separation gives everything else time to realise there's a problem before one train hits another.

      My biggest worry over things like this is that it's putting a lot of eggs in one basket. Lose the satellite and you're left with minimal train network capacity for years.

    4. Scott 53

      Re: Fail-Safe

      Trains delayed by the weather? Only in the third world...

    5. PNGuinn
      Holmes

      Re: Fail-Safe

      Which in India probably means lots and lots of single line working, with right to the track still determined by possession of a mechanical token.

      Somehow I'd have far more faith in a lump of brass in the driver's paw or round his neck than an incredibly complex and weather dependent .....

  4. Captain DaFt

    I don't really see how a more accurate monitoring system tracking the same old train system running on the same old rails in the same old conditions will make it run on time, but at least they'll now know exactly how late it's going to be!

  5. Refugee from Windows

    Not really necessary

    Funnily enough trains run on predictable routes and don't have conflicting traffic to slow them down. Even then there are signalling and control systems that know where a train is, a system that's worked for over a century and seems to make them pretty safe.

    Other factors can't really be controller by a satellite, it'd be a bit like problems in Discworld - you can know how much fresh prawns cost at their source but no chance of getting them to market!

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: Not really necessary

      and don't have conflicting traffic to slow them down.

      They do. Maybe you wouldn't want to call all of the causes 'traffic', but that's beside the point.

      In no particular order: wildlife, mechanical failures, suicides, yoofs playing silly buggers, electrical and/or comms failures, leaves on track, snow on track, other stuff on track*, human error**, sabotage.

      * trees, vehicles, drunks, etc.

      ** Failing to top off the fuel tank (not as exciting as the Gimli Glider, but a problem nonetheless). A freight of steel sheets shifting during transport due to not being tied down securely and knocking several dozen catenary poles out of true. And much more of that.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Not really necessary

      "don't have conflicting traffic to slow them down"

      Back in pre-denationalisation days when I commuted on the Chiltern line they'd frequently send a stopping service out just before a delayed through train. It wouldn't have mattered so much but they'd reduced a number of 4 line stations down to 2 so there was no chance to overtake.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Not really necessary

        So instead of delaying the stopping train, the through train was later than it otherwise would have been.

        That's a "delayed trains" reduction from 100% to 50% in that case. Looks good to me :-)

  6. Charles 9 Silver badge

    My question is how well would such a system work on a rail network with a lot of tunnels which would obscure the train's position when seen from above. And there's no guarantee a train will maintain speed within the tunnel. What if it breaks down inside and is too deep in to get a signal out?

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Repeaters inside the tunnel. Even road tunnels have FM radio repeaters these days. There's often a sign on the approach to the tunnel telling you to turn on your radio and which station/frequency for travel news.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        [GPS] Repeaters inside the tunnel.

        If that was done the "obvious" way (a GPS antenna "up top", with the signal rebroadcast in the tunnel), I'm tempted to think that people in the tunnel would think they were in the same location as the original antenna, no? Maybe better than the satnav thinking you've been instantaneously transported 150 miles away to the last tunnel it was in, in Birmingham (I think that's what makes it happen), but...

        All good stuff.

  7. tony2heads

    should be easy

    This already exists for trucks on the road and ships at sea.

    Why would there be a problem tracking a train?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    tunnels

    "how well would such a system work on a rail network with a lot of tunnels which would obscure the train's position when seen from above. "

    It would have to work better than my otherwise excellent CoPilot satnav software does in tunnels. Doesn't matter where the tunnel is, there's a 50% chance I'll instantly be transported to Birmingham. Then back to where I was. Then Birmingham. Etc. Till signal is restored.

    Rail tunnels have a habit of being quite long in comparison with road tunnels.

    "What if it breaks down inside and is too deep in to get a signal out?"

    Existing mechanisms, e.g. track circuits, GSM-R? Otherwise, dunno.

    I'm sort of getting a feeling of a satellite operator looking to sell a value added service here except the value added isn't entirely obvious, in general.

    Original press release (?), for reference:

    http://space4rail.esa.int/news/tracking-trains-satellite-premiere-for-europe

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: tunnels

      "It would have to work better than my otherwise excellent CoPilot satnav software does in tunnels. Doesn't matter where the tunnel is, there's a 50% chance I'll instantly be transported to Birmingham. Then back to where I was. Then Birmingham. Etc. Till signal is restored."

      LOL, that's a good one.

      My Garmin guestimates where I am in the tunnel. If there's anything to slow me below the speed limit then it usually guesses wrong, but at least it tries. The only down side is one tunnel I use seems to have a blip in the map. There's a side road above the tunnel which is maybe 20 metres long and has been inaccessible for at least the last 5 years, but the Garmin map thinks that not only is it connected to the main road above the tunnel but the other end (a dead end) connects to the southbound tunnel 30 feet below. If I'm on the road above and wanting to go south, the routing tries to get me to drive down under the 30 feet of ground to get onto the tunnel road. If I'm in the tunnel going home, the routing tells me to exit the road at that point from 30 feet underground.

  9. captain veg

    in-depth analysis

    "[India's] roads are often deeply average"

    So, how deep is the average road?

    -A.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: in-depth analysis

      Depends where you are and if it's rainy season. Up country the roads are often axel deep, the axels in question being trucks. You don't really want to be in a low slung car on those "deep" roads.

  10. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Par for the course and old hat in some lands with all hands, stout hearts and minds at the tiller?

    Are not the Dutch, with Nederlandse Spoorwegen, already ahead of the curve and running their systems in such a manner?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Par for the course...

      That's the Netherlands: relatively level and even terrain. Now try Switzerland or anywhere else around the Alps, where you're more likely to have uneven terrain and especially that bane of overhead surveillance: tunnels.

    2. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: Par for the course and old hat in some lands

      They're not. ERTMS is in use on two routes, and some recent systems rely partially on GPS, but in general it's conventional wheels-on-track block system signalling.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "India is of course very reliant on railways for passenger and freight movement because its roads are often deeply average."

    You should try living in the South West, we dream of roads that are "deeply average". And as for rail-links, they haven't been significantly improved since Brunel's time.

  12. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQPTDuuCSWQ

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