REPORT: Etihad Rail DB quietly makes rail history

Etihad Rail DB has quietly implemented the most advanced signalling system in the world, making it a benchmark for Europe to look toward as the future of rail transport.
From now on, Etihad Rail trains will be operated using one of the world’s most advanced cab-signalling systems.
From now on, Etihad Rail trains will be operated using one of the world’s most advanced cab-signalling systems.


Etihad Rail DB operates and maintains Stage One of the UAE national network, transporting granulated sulphur across some of the most challenging desert conditions, from Shah and Habshan to Ruwais in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi. The company’s efforts to ensure that Stage One is operated following the highest safety and efficiency standards have paid off; thus far, Etihad Rail DB has successfully transported over 7 million tonnes of transported sulphur granulated sulphur for ADNOC, its client, with no lost-time injuries.

But you already knew all this. What you likely don’t know, is that the UAE’s rail operator just made history, becoming the world’s first rail operator, let alone a heavy-freight operator, to deploy ETCS Level 2 network-wide. ECTS Level 2 is the gold standard of rail signalling, and signalling is the backbone of rail operations. It is to rail networks what the internet and email was to telegrams.

From now on, Etihad Rail trains will be operated using one of the world’s most advanced cab-signalling systems. The system allows the train to ‘know’ where it is through a combination of trackside equipment and on-board sensors, while instructions from the control centre are conveyed through the GSM-R (Global System for Mobile – Railway) signal.

GSM-R is an international wireless communications standard for railway communication and applications. A sub-system of European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS / ETCS), it is used for communication between train and railway regulation control centres. The system is based on GSM specifications which guarantee performance at speeds up to 500 km/h (310 mph), without any communication loss. ETCS L2 is a digital radio-based signal and train protection system, and the one selected for Etihad Rail DB’s operations.

ETCS L2 technology negates the need for line-side signals and cables, and allows continuous control of the train with the highest possible standard of safety. Furthermore it will ensure efficiency and network capacity, especially when Stage Two of the UAE national network, including passenger services, will be launched. An advanced rail network, entirely based on ETCS L2, is also an ideal environment in which to develop and implement innovative processes and systems, such as automated train driving (ATD), condition based maintenance (CBM), and others.

Taking a step back, it is essential to understand how train operations works and how cab signalling supports it. Firstly, all main railway lines are divided into block sections – sections of tracks between any two points – as a means of securing railway lines and track circuits (via interlocking, monitoring terminal status, etc.), while axle counters provide train detection. Train drivers must essentially be trusted to control the train, and trains are not permitted to enter a block until a signal indicates that a train may proceed. Meanwhile, there is an empty section at the end of each block covering the appropriate distance required for the train to break and stop.

Cab-signalling is a typically automated control-command system that ensures appropriate train spacing and the protection of danger points; it is a crucial element of all functioning, safe trains. By not permitting trains to exceed their maximum speed or ‘movement authority’, the system helps avoid potential accidents. Movement Authority (MA) refers to the allowance given by the RBC to a specific train to run on a defined section with a defined speed profile. It is limited by an End of Authority (EoA) usually in front of a Danger Point (point, train etc.).

While previously there were 26 different systems across Europe with varying levels of control (speed/ gradient) and movement authority, there was a call for one unique system that would enable interoperability. To this end, the European Train Control System (ETCS), the cab-signalling component of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), was introduced and developed by the European Commission and European Rail Agency.

The fact that it also ultimately removes technical barriers between networks has made it the most sought after signalling technology, given aspirations for greater long-term connectivity across the world. In Saudi Arabia, the system is expected to be adopted on the Haramain line and the North-South line (Riyadh-Al Haditha) in the future. Meanwhile, at present, ETCS L2 is deployed on only certain networks – in the U.K. Italy and Belgium, for example. If European member and non-member states are successful in implementing it across all networks, and if it is implemented in the GCC, it would ensure future inter-operability within Europe, and eventually between Europe and West Asia as well.

“The fact that this advanced system is already in use in the UAE is a significant achievement; the system has helped us exceed the efficiency in delivery to our customer, ADNOC, and ensure safety in all relevant areas of operations. This cements the UAE’s commitment to leading the way as a railway pioneer, not only in the region’s emerging railway market, but also in far more established markets, such as those in Europe,” said Eng. Shadi Malak, Acting CEO of Etihad Rail DB.

ETCS L2’s state-of-the-art safety functions are indeed priceless, particularly for the transport of hazardous materials. For example, its automated intervention function means that the system will intervene if the driver does not react quickly enough; this makes it virtually impossible for a train to exceed its limit of authority in speed, and so greatly reduces the risk of accidents or incidents resulting from human error. The system also negates signal sighting issues as a result of poor visibility, and maintenance is less intrusive than alternatives due to having less track-side equipment. All the information transmitted is displayed on the Driver Machine Interface (DMI) resulting in better train control.

ADNOC has taken an unprecedented decision to shift the transport of its product to rail, recognising the combined benefits it offers in terms of efficiency, safety and costs compared to other modes of transport. Together, ADNOC, Etihad Rail and Etihad Rail DB have triggered a shift in the logistics and transport sectors, and in doing so are furthering the UAE’s legacy as a pioneer, and reinforcing its commitment to economic diversification.

The Etihad Rail DB team has demonstrated it has the necessary expertise to support the evolution of the UAE’s transport industry – the 11 staff members in the Operations Control Centre’s team have an average of 21 years of train control experience each, while the Facilities Control team has a combined experience of over 50 years operating railways with high voltage power (33KV three ring main). All train drivers, train controllers sand systems maintenance staff use ETCS, and Etihad Rail DB currently has 10 train control staff and the OCC Manager trained and competent in ETCS L2 operations.

Armed with the knowledge and the skills to operate the latest technologies that will be deployed in future stages of the Etihad Rail network, including ETCS L2, there is no doubt that Etihad Rail DB is helping to set a strong benchmark for industry counterparts to follow – in the region, and beyond.

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