image: Fintraffic

FRMCS tests in Finland to start in 2022

A train control center in Finland, image: Fintraffic

In the Finnish Digirail project, the radio-based communication system FRMCS will be tested. A unique European trial will begin in Finland, where the new system can be adopted earlier than in most countries, because their GSM-R has already been replaced. The Digirail project is now moving from preparation to practice as digital train control technology will be constructed and piloted on the railways. The goal is to have a fully operational test laboratory in 2022, and a test track two years later.

The goal is for Finland to introduce a modern radio network-based train control system for the entire rail network by the 2040s. The European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) will replace the old train control system (JKV). This system will require radio network communications between the train and the track infrastructure. The recommended radio network is the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) based on 5G.

This system will apply a uniform operating principle throughout Europe. By standardising the functions for the European Union, it will allow uninterrupted movement of trains across land borders. The development and verification phase of Digirail will test new solutions employing 5G-based data transmission. Digirata published a report on 2 July 2021 with information on the modernisation of the technical systems. Now, the project is moving from preparation to practice as the test lab and track will be built to be able to start tests next year.

Early transition

“The preparatory phase of Digirail provided valuable information on how to replace the train control system as it approaches the end of its service life in the 2030s”, says Minister of Transport and Communications Timo Harakka. “Pioneering work will now begin as the new system will be tested on the Kouvola-Kotka-Hamina track section. Our digital solutions for rail transport will be a global leader, with the potential to be scaled up for a future international market.”

In Finland, the transition to the FRMCS network is different compared to other Member States, as Finland no longer has a GSM-R network. This voice radio system used by the railways in Finland has been replaced during 2018–2019 by the Finnish authorities’ telecommunications network (Virve) and mobile phones with an application. If other countries want to deploy ERTMS level 2, they will most often have to upgrade their GSM-R network first, and there will be a later transition to the FRMCS network, is explained in the Digirail report. Thus, the transition to the FRMCS network in Finland is easier and can serve as a trial and example for the rest of Europe.

Testing in a real environment and in the laboratory

Digitalising a railway system is a major reform that requires trials. The first project testing field will be a test track on the Kouvola-Kotka/Hamina railway line together with the ERTMS test laboratory. These installations will pilot pioneering data transmission on railways in Europe. The test track comprising Finland’s first Digirail section and laboratory will be completed as part of a track section improvement project.

The aim is to realise a fully operational test laboratory in 2022 and to build the test track by 2024. Construction of a commercial pilot track is also planned with a view to launching commercial rail transport operations in 2026.
The Digirail project is developing a modern ERTMS train control system for Finland. The project will establish the technological foundations for a system to digitalise train positioning and automatic operation, to update capacity and schedule information, and to manage rail traffic.

Outcomes of the project

Digirail is a significant investment in the future of Finnish rail transport, and concerns far more than technological development alone. “Digirail will provide more rail network capacity with a view to increasing rail passenger volumes, improving services, reducing disruption and cutting transport emissions”, says Project Manager Juha Lehtola of the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency.

The preparation phase has been implemented through a partnership between the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom, the traffic management company Fintraffic, Fintraffic Railway, the Finnish railways company VR Group and Helsinki Region Transport (HSL).

Recovery fund

The total cost of Digirail will be 1.7 billion euros over the period from 2021 to 2040. The Government will contribute 1.4 billion of this, with rolling stock owners financing the remaining 300 million. Digirail is also part of the Recovery and Resilience (RRF) Plan for Finland to recover from the coronacrisis, which were approved by the Government in May 2021.

The funding would cover the preparation of testing and piloting operations during the development and verification phase of the project in 2021-2026 in the test laboratory, on the test track, and on a pilot track to remain available to commercial train traffic. The European Commission has two months to assess the RRF Plans of Member States.

The development and verification phase of the Digirail project will now begin with a view to studying and testing technological solutions. The Ministry of Transport and Communications will appoint a new steering group to guide the project in 2021-2027.

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Author: Esther Geerts


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