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A question for our train afficinados:

How compatible are european train systems? I know that russian trains use(d?) to run on wider tracks and that Poland in 1918/9 inherited three different track widths (german,austrian and russian). But that was a while ago.

This breaks down into two questions:
a) How compatible are the old low-speed european train systems, especially tracks?
and
b) How compatible are the new (not fake) high-speed european train systems, especially tracks?

I ask this because I feel that if trains are to really compete with fligth we need a common european train system, and we do not really have one today. That does not mean that we need to merge everything, but to set common standards (tracks, trains, personel) so that the usefulness increases.

Hey, is this not what this whole EU-thingy is supposed to be about?

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by A swedish kind of death on Wed Jan 24th, 2007 at 10:39:48 AM EST
Poland in 1918/9 inherited three different track widths (german,austrian and russian)

Both Germany and Austria had standard gauge, maybe you mean narrow gauge railways?

Regarding compatibility, this is the main problem for international traffic. Track-related issues aren't even the worst of it. Issues include:

  1. signalling system
  2. electric system (AC, DC, which voltage and frequency, what voltage stability)
  3. maximum cross section
  4. track width (gauge)
  5. maximum axleload
  6. rules of operation
  7. train staff education
  8. couplers

The situation on each of these:

  1. Systems are essentially different from railway to railway (sometimes even within a country). Nowadays border-corssing vehicles are fitted with multiple systems. The EU pushes the ERTMS (levels 1-2-3) to standardise this, but it is a herculean task, and one plagued by technological problems. There are only half-functional pilot lines with ERTMS.
  2. There are four main systems: 1.5 kV and 3 kV DC (in BeNeLux, half of France, Italy, Poland, half of former Czechoslovakia and ex-Yugoslavia), industrial voltage: AC 50 Hz, 25 kV (rest of France and the other 'half DC' countries, Denmark, Hungary, all new high-speed lines in DC regions), and the 16.7 Hz / 15 kV railway AC (German-speaking countries, Sweden). Expect AC to slowly take over some DC lines, but overall, this separation will stay. However, modern power electronics made multi-system locomotives an econmic option.
  3. Cross sections were internationally standardised more than a century ago. However, there are too many of them with different sizes, posing different limitations. Generally, one could say that Britain has a very narrow cross section, France and BeNeLux and Switzerland and Italy the next smallest, other Germanic countries and Hungary have a somewhat wider but significantly higher one, while the Iberian peninsula and Scandinavia has a significantly wider one. But, non-national differences are in corner height: some railways have room  4m high for truck- or large container-transporting cars, some don't. But for future high-speed lines and trains, the narrow French norm was adopted, so no differences here between the newest Spanish, Italian, German trains or the British CTRL line.
  4. Russian broad gauge rules in the ex-Soviet-Union and in Finland. There is one broad-gauge line deep into Poland ending at the Czech border. The even wider Irish and Iberian gauges rule in the respective countries. However, Spain has a very ambitious program to rebuild all of its (surviving) broad-gauge lines to normal gauge. This started with building high-speed lines in normal gauge and upgrades with sleepers that have jacks in two positions for easy re-mounting of one rail. There is one lesser known, somewhat related difference between railways: the lateral inclination of the rails (1:20 and 1:40 in different countries). How much effect that has is still subject to research.
  5. The main difference here is between branchlines and mainlines, but across Europe, there is variation in the latter, too. On most mainlines, it's between 17 and 22.5 tons per axle. There is a push both from the EU and some railways to raise it on main freight corridors to 25 tons, but to do it across the whole European network would be very expensive. On the other hand, in the main factor in making a track suitable for some axle-load, rail type, there is a well-progressing development towards using UIC-60 rails (means: 60 kg/metre rails according to UIC norm). For high-speed trains, following the French-Belgian norms, 17 tons was agreed, though note that tracks have to bear more due to aerodynamic load.
  6. Some rules of operation are international, some related to the railway line traversed, some to the signalling system, some unique to railway company. The EU packages include standardisation or provision of information or instruction about differing systems to operators.
  7. Standardisation here is included in the EU's Third Railway Package.
  8. The former Soviet Union has its own automatic coupler, the rest of Europe a standard non-automatic coupler. Normal-gauge railways attempted to introduce a standardised automatic coupler in the seventies-eighties, but it foundered upon sabotage by cash-strapped railways (chiefly East Bloc). But from the nineties, a family of less powerful, lighter automatic couplers (the Scharfenberg type) became almost standard on new-built multiple units.

The sensible part of the EU Railway Packages pushes changes to increase compatibility on many of the above detailed fronts. The rules define a truckload of so-called TSI, Technical Standards of Interoperability. I also note that on another front of standardisation, rules for testing and accepting new railway vehicles, international railway organisations already progressed much without the EU, though EU rules are needed to break down the practice of requiring tests on the same subject for the same vegicle in each country separately.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jan 24th, 2007 at 01:13:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wow, thanks.

I thought I knew two things and it turned out one of them was wrong. But now I know a lot.

Tricky system to standardise (lots of investment done into seperate standards), but I am glad that it appears high-speed railroads are built with a common standard in mind. Maybe one day not to far away, it will be cheaper and faster to go by train to most destinations. Or at least one of the two.

A follow-up question: what is a coupler?

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by A swedish kind of death on Wed Jan 24th, 2007 at 05:48:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The thing that couples train cars together :-) Here you see two railcars coupled with the standard European screw coupler:

...and a typical Scharfenberg coupler:



*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jan 24th, 2007 at 06:35:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Mind you, trains that use different coupling system can share the same track, but they can't be marshalled into the same set without special gear.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Jan 24th, 2007 at 08:19:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Another issue is buffer. When you have an automatic coupler like in North America, that also serves as buffer. But European trains normally have two buffers on both sides of their coupler. Many of the new Scharfenberg coupler trainsets lack side buffers, which calls for special safety considerations.

If we are here, trains can differ in another thing: the longitudinal forces they can withstand. The US, with its much longer trains, demands much higher values than is the standard in Europe. But Europe also has railbuses and some trainsets which don't fit that norm, and for that reason can't be put in a long train or 'bumped' by a shunter.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 05:50:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you can read French, you may be interested in the official report on the subject. http://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/rapports-publics/034000721/index.shtml

Something Dodo said but might have emphasized is that there are two standards evolving. The French one and the German one.

Something he missed is quai height which is also different depending on the country and is becoming part of that double standard.

If you continue reading on this subject, you'll find it's common for 'cross-section' to be referred to as gauge. Kinematic gauge if pedantic.

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 05:24:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
there are two standards evolving

Standard of what do you mean? Note that the ICE-3 already adopted the French kinematic gauge, axleload, train length standards. And the TGV Est of course forces both companies to look for compatibility.

Something he missed is quai height

Correct, but the difference has more dimensions than country. There are are different standard heights (the most used defined by UIC) used by different kinds of trains. For example in Germany, there are four standard elevated platform heights from 380 to 960 mm above railhead. This has consequences like the manufacture of double-deck car types in two versions (door high or low). The big difference you may mean, also in the previous question, was that on German main stations platforms for high-speed trains were built for the standard UIC 760 mm height, but the TGV system was for the 550 mm height. The EU adopted both in its TSI for high-speed trains. But note that to access Swiss and Austrian destinations, all ICE and some TGV trains are already suited for both platform heights (not the Duplex).

Kinematic gauge if pedantic.

To make things even more complex, there is kinematic and dynamic gauge (for vehicles) and structural gauge (for track, e.g. tunnels, bridges, wayside buildings, trees and catenary masts).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 05:44:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Electrification and quai height are appearing as a double standard.

Your comment on gauge makes it sound like kinematic and dynamic aren't synonyms. I had to check. :)

In your other comment where you mention German vs French polishing, I assume that German polishing is much more infrequent since:

  1. DB runs HSTs at higher axle loads and lower speeds.
  2. DB runs freight extensively.
  3. Siemens decided not to use Jacobs bogies for the ICE3 so they "could be removed more easily" which is preposterous unless they have much higher wear rates

Unless they simply couldn't build an EMU with Jacobs bogies at the time.
by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Sun Jan 28th, 2007 at 11:46:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I brought up polishing practices as a track/vehicle-connectedness issue, e.g.: running polishing trains daily is a higher infrastructure cost, but results in less wheel wear and better ride comfort, while the intent of running freight trains not only results in higher construction costs (smaller maximum grade -> more tunnels/bridges) but more track wear and worse running comfort.

Regarding your points on polishing, I see multiple issues mixing here.

High axle loads, lower speeds and freight are a characteristic of the ICE-1, ICE-2 trains and the older lines. The ICE-3 and the Cologne-Frankfurt line don't differ from the TGV system in these respects (where the ditching of mixed traffic was definitely the abandonment of a bad idea).

Regarding bogies, it is true that the somewhat higher axle density (ICE-3: 32, most TGVs: 26 for the same 200 m length) and more uneven distribution of that mean higher track stress and wear, but it is not so significant compared to the above problems.

The "could be removed more easily" you read of could mean multiple things.

Either it was a reference not to the ICE-3 but the earlier generations, and not only to bogie maintenance but car maintenance (say one car is vandalised, it is removed while the rest of the train can get back into service) and operational rearrangement. The latter differs from the fixed-composition TGV concept and parallels the Shinkansen concept: the ICE-1 can run with 10 to 14 middle cars, the ICE-2 can even be arranged into an ICE-1-like "long train" by dropping driving trailers.

If it was a reference to the ICE-3 and removal of bogies, then the main issue is that the ICE-3 has distributed traction. Both Siemens (DB series 425) and ex-ADtranz-Bombardier (DB series 423) has motorised Jacobs bogies. The problem is that currently, there is no high-speed-suited motorised Jacobs bogie in service anywhere in the world - not in France, not in Japan (where all Shinkansens have distributed traction, including the prototypes for 360 km/h trains). So far there is only the two test bogies in the two cars of Alstom's mothballed partial AGV prototype "Elisa", though the technology shall be revived this year, in the "Pégase" prototype and in the new attempt to break the world speed record with TGV POS 4403.

I also note that Jacobs vs. standard bogies aren't relevant to the question of interoperability standards, they were relevant in the failed pursuit of an all-European high-speed train (one unifying French, German, Italian and Spanish technology) that would have cut costs by economies of scale.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jan 31st, 2007 at 07:13:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I forgot the link for the new speed record attempt: en français, in English.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jan 31st, 2007 at 07:36:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In other words, my second supposition was correct and they couldn't build an EMU with Jacobs bogies. You know, it's mildly irritating how you ignore what I've said in favour of reprising the topic from scratch. Which is only made tolerable because you really know the subject and that expertise is greatly appreciated. Especially with reference to the significance of various effects.

I did not consider vandalism before. I wonder if it's a serious problem. I'm guessing it isn't since the much lower cost of the TGV compared to the earlier ICEs would have allowed the SNCF to stock up on extra trainsets. Swapping cars isn't a problem when you can afford to roll an entire trainset to the shop.

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Fri Feb 2nd, 2007 at 09:15:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Your comment on gauge makes it sound like kinematic and dynamic aren't synonyms. I had to check.

Er, yes, I meant static. But here is a fuller classification of gauge types (though I'm not sure I got the English terminology right in each case), generally from narrowest to widest:

Construction gauge/vehicle limit profile/loading gauge at standstill:
this is the actual limit for the cross section of a specific railway vehicle.
'Static' loading gauge:
a railway vehicle must fit into this even considering the worst combinations of curves and the lateral play of moving parts (wheel in rail, axle in axlebox, suspensions). Until recently, the construction gauge was caluclated from this.
Kinematic (dynamic) gauge/reference profile:
similar to the previous, but dynamic effects like tilt in curves and uneven track are also considered. It's also called reference profile because both construction gauges (for vehicles) and structure gauges (for track) can be derived from it.
Structure limit gauge:
derived from the reference profile by considering the tolerances of track-laying.
Inner structure gauge:
the standard of a railway company for the space within which nothing fixed can protrude.
Outer structure gauge:
the standard of a railway company for what extra spaces to keep clear (for aerodynamics, for track workers, for waiting passengers etc.) in various situations: tunnels, bridges, overpasses, stations, side-by-side tracks etc.
Right-of-way:
the entire room demanded by a railway line, including ballest bed and catenary

BTW, for A swedish kind of death, here is a drawing from my work (clickable thumbnail):

Free Image Hosting by FreeImageHosting.net

It displays the rough outline of a Swedish IC car to be measured (no precise data was available then), the Hungarian and Swedish (Scandinavian "A") static loading gauges, and the narrowest (old standard, non-electrified line) and widest ('new' East Bloc standard, electrified line) structural gauges of potential test tracks in Hungary. It can be seen that corner height could be expected to be a problem on old lines, would it not be the case that the car apparently doesn't utilise the Scandinavian loading gauge in full.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jan 31st, 2007 at 07:15:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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