Over the past few decades, high-speed rail has penetrated European countries at an increasingly rapid pace, enhancing connectivity between regions for passengers and boosting the industry’s attractiveness compared to aviation. Nevertheless, when it comes to scale and technological innovation, one of these networks arguably stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Under construction since 1992, Spain’s Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) high-speed network service is now the longest rail network in Europe. More than 3,200km of tracks spread tendril-like across the country, from Seville and Malaga at its southern tip, to Santiago and Barcelona in the north, and Valencia and Alicante in the east. Around 500 trains are propelled along these high-speed corridors every day, carrying approximately 36.5 million passengers every year.

Since its formation in 2005, Spanish railway infrastructure operator ADIF has made itself a bastion of high-speed rail expertise. The company’s stated mission is to be a “benchmark organisation in the innovation and integration of management systems among European infrastructure managers”.

To find out more about how the AVE network is operated and maintained, Future Rail was invited by energy management specialist Schneider Electric to go behind the scenes of ADIF’s Madrid-Valencia/Alicante high-speed line, one of the most technically advanced on the network.

Keeping trains on track

Albacete’s Control and Regulation Centre (CRC) for high-speed traffic is one of four nerve centres tasked with keeping the AVE network running safely. It controls the traffic of 1,500 trains per month as they travel along 607km of track between Madrid, Valencia and Alicante. Operators in charge of managing railway traffic, power supply and communication systems sit at workstations in front of an enormous wall-mounted LED screen, which provides a full video-graphic representation of the rail line in real-time.

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“Trains more than five minutes behind schedule are considered very late by ADIF standards.”

The Albacete CRC serves to demonstrate the effectiveness of a number of cutting-edge technologies for high-speed lines. With the exception of the Madrid/Seville line, European Rail Traffic Management Systems (ERTMS) are deployed along the entire AVE network, enabling data exchange between trains and infrastructure via balises or GSMR-waves. A mainstay of these systems is the European Train Control System (ETCS), which continually calculates the safe maximum speed for trains and can take control depending on whether permissible speeds are exceeded.

But while automation is a big part of the process, operators are still required to remotely operate systems that allow traffic managers to establish safe routes for trains. This is achieved through a centralised tool – the DaVinci system – which collects information and allows controllers to react quickly in case of an incident.

According to Rafael Perea, manager of the operational control centre of the Madrid-Levante high-speed line, critical safety technologies include falling object and weather detectors situated along the track. While cases of obstacles on the tracks are rare, crosswinds are a constant factor for consideration, and DaVinci’s speed limit management system therefore automatically slows trains when wind levels exceed a certain level.

A testament to the network’s efficiency is its punctuality, and Perea says trains more than five minutes behind schedule are considered very late by ADIF standards. The company claims Spain’s high-speed railways are second only to Japan’s in this area, with trains reaching their destinations on schedule around 98.5% of the time.

While signalling and traffic management is the task of a few operators, only one is required to remotely supervise electrical substations and ensure that power continues to reach installations, including catenaries and tunnel lighting applications, across the length of the line. It’s a testament to the power of a real-time supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), which automatically sets off an alert if the voltage cuts out.

With a range of state-of the art systems keeping things running smoothly, Perea says the most hectic time for the CRC is usually during the night shift from midnight to 5am, when corrective and preventive maintenance work on the infrastructure is coordinated. But for 32 operators, working eight-hour shifts in a centre open 24 hours a day all year round, the work never stops.

Immersive training technologies

The key to a fully functioning high-speed rail network is its employees, and when it comes to this area, ADIF has brought a number of innovations to the fold.

Based in Valencia, ADIF’s Technology Training Centre designs and executes training programmes within a number of fields, including engineering and construction, maintenance management, and telecommunications and IT systems. Consultation is provided by 40 full-time professionals and over 1,000 employees on a part-time basis.

“Trainees are able to familiarise themselves with Schneider Electric systems that are used to power high-speed railways.”

Classrooms in the centre contain replicas of substations, switches and protections systems used on the AVE network, while an outdoor practice area allows trainees to hone their maintenance skills on an artificial track and overhead catenary system. Nevertheless, there’s only so much space and money available to create these physical systems, and so digital tools such as software simulations, video tutorials, and virtual reality (VR) have become increasingly important.

The centre’s technical coordinator of energy facilities Rafael Tortosa Belda demonstrates the use of an augmented reality system to teach employees how to mount high-speed rail catenaries. Special tiles held under a camera are linked up with a computer monitor, on which images of catenary parts are projected. Participants are then tasked with slotting these tiles together in the correct order.

One of the facility’s highlights is its ‘Immersive Room’, a specialised training area in which trainees use VR simulation to put what they’ve learned into practice. Participants don an HTC Vive headset and are immersed in full 3D training environments that put them through a number of preventive maintenance tasks, catenary mounting exercises and power switching procedures.

Through these virtual tours, trainees are able to familiarise themselves with Schneider Electric systems that are used to power high-speed railways. According to Schneider’s railway solutions architect Juan Manuel Martin, the final vision for the Immersive Room will include a wireless VR headset and motorised cameras that will allow the trainee’s virtual surroundings to be projected on to the walls around them.

“An hour spent using these tools is more productive than an hour spent using traditional methods,” says Martin. “This means it is possible to train more people in less time.”

Exporting expertise

With 26 years of high-speed rail experience under its belt, exporting expertise worldwide is a key part of ADIF’s operations. In addition to its three primary training centres in Spain, the company’s e-learning platform – known as the Virtual Training Centre – features around 300 courses that can be accessed by contractors worldwide. According to Francisco Javier Sánchez Bolumar, manager of the Technological Training Centre in Valencia, ADIF’s goal is not just to provide training for high-speed rail maintenance, but to create a new standard for training globally.

“Specialists share knowledge in areas including the repair, management, construction and control of high-speed track.”

ADIF has signed collaboration agreements with rail infrastructure owners from a range of different countries, including the US, Turkey, Poland, Russia and Morocco. Specialists share knowledge in areas including the repair, management, construction and control of high-speed track, with reference to ERTMS and the DaVinci traffic management system.

“A clear example of the competitiveness of the Spanish offer is that in recent years around 40% of the commercial proposals submitted to different countries have been satisfactory and have subsequently led to the signing of various contracts,” reads a statement provided by ADIF.

In Europe in particular, collaboration seems increasingly important given recent concerns about the overall benefits of high-speed rail. A recent report by the European Court Auditors found that the effectiveness of the European Union’s €23.7bn investment in high-speed rail had been ‘lacking’, and that the bloc was currently behind its target of tripling the length of European networks by 2030.

Now more than ever seems the time for high-speed rail operators to ramp up their adoption of new technologies, such as ERTMS, and ensure that their railways are able to meet the reliability and punctuality standards that passengers expect. A mere glimpse of the technologies on display at ADIF’s training and control centres presents a good example for other European nations to follow.