Over the past fifteen years, the world’s rail networks have been on a journey of radical transformation. Ticketing, signalling, and passenger information systems have all gone digital. In the future, with the incorporation of modern signalling and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, trains will become completely autonomous. This transition, combined with rising investment in railway infrastructure to cater for growing demand for sustainable transport, raises the risk of malicious actors hacking railway networks to create chaos with potentially fatal consequences.

“The copper cables inside the track-side cabinets have been replaced with fibre optic cables,” explains Olivier Haven, global key account manager for nVent Schroff. “Fibre optic cables don’t have commercial value like copper cables, but this transition means the ‘brain’ of the railway network is now accessible to the general public in a way that wasn’t the case previously.”

Innovation in physical enclosures

Brendan Quinn, VP, rail division, nVent Schroff, adds: “Copper cables were often targeted for their commercial value and if they were stolen, then the trains couldn’t run. That’s an inconvenience because the system shuts down, and passengers can’t get to work on time. But now that the electronics are available through the cabinets, which are out in the open, a motivated terrorist could create a head-on collision or speed up one train and slow down another, causing chaos because the cabinets now house the electronics and data transmission systems.”

To prevent such a scenario, nVent Schroff has developed an innovative cabinet that can protect the modern digital systems from malicious attacks as well as extreme weather incidents. Piloting these first-of-their-kind electronics cabinets using latest “anti-vandal” building technology with operators and OEMs in France and Germany, the enclosure ensures the physical security of the digital system.

“Virtual cybersecurity threats get all the attention,” says Haven, who looks after commercial relationships with major rail customers including Siemens Mobility, Alstom, and Hitachi. “Physical enclosures are not the first thing people think of around cybersecurity, but they are vital in protecting the networks from unwelcome intruders who only need a lead and a laptop to hack into the network.”

Making the right investments

With trains carrying more passengers than ever, and at speeds of over 400 kilometres an hour on modern high-speed lines, the consequences of such an attack could be disastrous. Rail operators and OEMs need to invest their money in the right places to avoid such possibilities.

“There’s really no point in having a state-of-the-art train if it can’t deliver passengers every couple of minutes safely,” notes Quinn.

In France, nVent Schroff is working with national railway operator SNCF to supply them with outdoor cabinets weighing one tonne and equipped with an access system usually deployed for safes in banks.

Aside from preventing the cables from physical breach, nVent Schroff, the leading cabinet supplier to operators around the world, says that their cabinets can also protect the railway network from electromagnetic interference on-board or in trackside data centers. Nowadays, at stations most passengers possess some form of technology transmitting radio waves or microwaves, such as a phone or laptop connected to Wi-Fi, in addition to all the modern rail technology deployed throughout the network. This all has the potential to disrupt the digital system.

Moreover, climactic considerations must be considered when protecting modern rail systems. A lightning strike could take down the entire system, as could the build-up of dust and overheating. Containing the cables within a heavy-duty cabinet, equipped with air conditioning and cleaned regularly, will reduce this risk, according to Haven, who adds: “We can make modifications and customisations to fit whatever the OEM needs. That’s a key part of our value proposition.”

As an example, he cites the one tonne cabinet built specially for the French rail system. With this equipment at their disposal, the physical security of France’s digital rail system won’t be compromised.

“People are investing in mass transit that is affordable, clean, reliable and convenient,” says Quinn. “The only way to do that is with modern electronic controls. But the flip side of that is that you’re also open opening yourself up to disaster if you don’t do it correctly.”