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HIMA Rail Safety Talk: Where is railway technology heading in the future?

HIMAExpertengespräch rail
The full interview of our rail experts is now available on our website. Find out what the leading voices say about the future of the rail industry and what part HIMA and COTS solutions play.
What is the railway industry's future itinerary?

What does mobility of the future look like, what are the most important megatrends, and where is railway technology heading?

On June 7, 2016, at the HIMA facilities in Brühl, experts Johann Berger, ÖBB Infrastruktur AG; Frits Makkinga, MOVARES; Reinhold Hundt, Astran Business Consulting; and Sedat Sezgün of HIMA discussed these questions and others.

When and why was HIMA's attention drawn to the railway market?

Sezgün: Actually, it was the railway industry that became aware of HIMA. In the 2000s the first companies approached us with the question as to whether we could imagine implementing our safety technologies in the railway industry. We are proud of the fact that now we have systems in more than 20 countries, and projects running on all continents. And the list of projects grows day by day.

Hundt: In the late ‘90s, infrastructure managers and operators noticed that rail with the predominant monopoly-like or oligopoly-like structures and proprietary solutions, i.e., frequently with only one to two providers, would not be competitive in the long term. For this reason, the railway industry approached innovative medium-sized suppliers like HIMA. Initially, the search for suppliers was not so easy because at this time there were no controller manufacturers that offered open, standard systems for use in the railway industry in their product line.

At this time HIMA controllers still had no certifications for the railway industry. Was entry into the railway industry difficult?

Sezgün:No. Our roots are in the process industry where the safety requirements are very high. These requirements overlap strongly with the requirements of the railway industry. Naturally, we had to adapt the calculations and the documentation, as well as our concept, to the CENELEC philosophy. However, we did not have to adapt anything in the hardware or the operating system.

Makkinga: Specialization in safety technology definitely helped HIMA in securing approval of the controllers for the railway industry. The transition from SIL 3 to IEC to SIL 4 in accordance with CENELEC was relatively easy. The same product could be used. Nevertheless, the approval process took a good two years.

Currently in the railway industry, proprietary controller solutions are still widely used. What is HIMA's approach?

Sezgün: HIMA relies on commercial off-the-shelf solutions, abbreviated as COTS (see infobox). For more than 45 years we have been concentrating on safety technologies. As a result, our products are not aligned to a particular industry. On the contrary, we attempt to cover the requirements of different industries with our safety products. We are now bringing our experience with safety-critical applications in the process industry into the railway industry. The result: a controller with CENELEC SIL 4 approval, open interfaces and a standard operating system that can be flexibly integrated into the railway industry.

"With the choice of HIMax we were right on target. The redundancy is particularly ideal for interlockings." – Frits Makkinga

Why does MOVARES implement COTS solutions?

Makkinga: For us it is particularly important for the safety technology to be structured modularly and that standard industrial systems are involved. The most important selection criterion for the interlocking development is the non-proprietary interface. We can implement the HIMA controllers in our domestic market — The Netherlands — in accordance with the ProRail specifications and, for example, on the basis of the RaSTA protocol as part of the EULYNX initiative. Thus COTS offers significantly greater flexibility than is offered by conventional systems. Moreover, HIMA supports us in development of the protocol as Com User Task (CUT) or C++ function blocks. We started with HIMatrix® controllers in 2005, and then we very quickly moved over to HIMax® controllers in 2008.

COTS or proprietary technology, which technology will ultimately establish itself?

Hundt:Ten to fifteen years ago the defensive attitude against COTS was still quite widespread. This has changed due to the versatile and flexible implementation possibilities, as well as the lower COTS lifecycle costs. We are evolving incrementally towards a situation where standard industrial components are finding acceptance in the entire industry.

Berger:I believe that in the railway application market for smaller and medium-size systems, only COTS will be used in the future because everything else is too expensive. For large systems with 200 or more points, I am not so sure. My previous experience is that COTS controllers must be networked in large systems. This means that the information processing takes some time, which in the signal and interlocking technology can be absolutely critical. However, with PLCs that are sufficiently fast and practically divided stations, implementation of large systems with COTS components would also be conceivable.

What does this mean for the future of the signal and interlocking technology?

Berger:Today an interlocking takes on many functions that are not safety-relevant, that cost us money. Why? Because these functions had to be developed in the area of the safe functions. Because they are to be tested and will be examined in terms of their absence of reaction on safety. The objective should be to slim down the interlocking to a point-positioning and securing machine, and to transfer the convenience functions to a control system or a cloud solution.

Makkinga:This is also our approach in the Netherlands. Our interlockings are conceived relatively simply. They only know whether or not the point has changed its position, and they provide a "route free/not free" signal. In many interlockings, control of the routes is also integrated. If you want to integrate a new route in the process, you must change the entire interlocking and obtain a new approval, which is very cost intensive. An interlocking should only do what it needs to do, namely ensure safe routes and send a signal or report to the control system.

What does the increasing use of Internet-based and cloud-based solutions mean for security?

Sezgün:With the increasing transfer of functions into the cloud, the topic of cyber security will become increasingly important in safety technology. Railway infrastructure companies must ensure that they are able to offer the appropriate security for the signal technology. HIMA has its own operating system for its controllers, which is a great advantage in terms of safety. If you operate with conventional, PC-based PLC solutions, theoretically you must constantly update the operating software of these PCs to protect them against attacks. However, through an update of the operating software, operators are placing the safety verification or approval at risk. And no one will do this. Consequently, in my opinion, solutions such as those from HIMA have a clear advantage on the market.

In many places, the railway structure should be fundamentally modernized in the years to come. Where do we Europeans stand in this regard, and how do you view the worldwide development?

Berger: Nobody imposes such high requirements on the railway infrastructure as we currently do in Europe. Nowhere else in the world is the ratio of throughput of trains to time as high as it is here. Das European Train Control System (ETCS) is a genuine success model: What we standardize and build here in Europe will be used worldwide. And I believe that if we Europeans lead out in terms of PLC technology, all other countries — or at least a majority of them — will follow. The high cost pressure affects the entire railway industry worldwide.

Hundt:European technology is recognized throughout the world. For example, the American railway market is dominated by European companies, usually in the form of subsidiaries. All the large European railway industry enterprises were able to post significant growth in recent years.

"For smaller and medium-sized systems I see the technology as HIMA offers it, as the technology of the future." – Johann Berger

What megatrends will have the greatest impact on the railway industry in the years to come?

Hundt: First, this would be urbanization: On one hand this trend means that the infrastructure in the conurbations must be extended; on the other hand, more and larger modes of transport will be required to transport the growing number of people into the cities. And to transport them faster the capacity of the network must be increased. This is only possible with modern technology. Another crucial trend will be digitalization, which for me consists of five concepts: autonomous systems, Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality, big data, and Industry 4.0. An example: Big data will play a very important role in preventative maintenance, i.e., predicting faults, reducing overall costs and increasing the availability of infrastructure.

Berger:Another megatrend is precise satellite positioning. This will enable waiting trains to be optimally threaded in, which will at least partially solve the capacity problems, particularly in railway stations.

Can the rail industry compete with other modes of transport in the long run?

Berger: For me, rail is unbeatable in public commuter traffic. There will be no alternative, particularly in Europe's conurbation areas. The railway industry can certainly compete in freight traffic if it learns from the requirements and reacts appropriately.

Sezgün: Unreliability is the main reason for the relatively poor image of the railway industry in Germany. Consequently, it must be made more attractive. Travel with the car or plane is just as unpunctual; however, the expectations imposed on rail are higher. If the rail industry wants to survive in passenger traffic, it must optimize its internal processes.

Hundt: I am of the firm conviction that the railway industry will continue to evolve and improve its position relative to the other modes of transport. Rail freight traffic has a CO2 balance that is five times better than that of truck freight traffic. And in terms of passenger traffic, experts calculate a factor of 2.5 relative to the car. Also, we must not forget that currently rail is the safest mode of transport. And if you consider the total costs that the traffic systems generate, then the distance relative to the other modes of transport becomes even greater due to the high level of safety. Consequently, I am sure that the conviction to invest more in group-oriented modes of transport will mature in the political arena.

Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS)

Commercial off-the-shelf refers to series-manufactured controllers that are sold in large quantities as standard components. This means that there are no customer-specific adaptations after the devices leave the plant.

The advantages: versatile implementation possibilities, proven components, fast error diagnostics, standard programming languages, manufacturer neutrality, open compliance with safety standards typical of the railway industry; and low development, investment and lifecycle costs.

Due to these characteristics, COTS solutions are more flexible, more future-safe and more cost-effective as compared with proprietary special technical technology.


HIMA safety-related products manufactured in Brühl protect critical applications in refineries, pipelines, chemical plants and railway systems.

HIMA invests 70 percent of its manufacturing effort in the testing of its systems. The internal standards are so high that the controllers' probability of failure is virtually zero.

The high-availability HIMA systems guarantee reliable and uninterrupted operation for safety-critical railway applications such as electronic interlocking technology, rail crossings, sensor-monitored door opening systems, electronically controlled slip and slide protection, dead man's switch remote control and safe train movement.

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