In the Light of Dark

Rail professionals, whether from the railroads or the suppliers, associated with North American freight rail or European/Asian high speed passenger live and breathe some form of fixed block, signaled operation, either wayside or in-cab, as the means to provide crews with reliable movement authorities to advance trains. However, of that group only a relatively small percentage is operationally-familiar with the well-established, non-signaled operation (a.k.a. Dark Territory [DT]) that is used across 50% of U.S. rail trackage (albeit handling only 20% of the traffic).

What causes this lack of awareness?  Essentially, traditional traffic control suppliers have nothing to sell in DT  – there is no infrastructure required other than wireless – hence no business interest. Additionally, the heretofore, manual-only processes of DT have made it incapable of handling the requirements of high speed and/or high density operations, whether freight or passenger.  I say heretofore in that the digital age has now come to DT.

Dark Territory - the perfect traffic management solution for small railroads. No more expensive capex and operating costs to maintain wayside signals.

Wayside Signalling - An unnecessary cost

The availability of a wireless data network (with or without PTC) permits the time consuming, and possibly compromised, voice transmissions of the movement authorities between the crews and the dispatcher in DT operations to be handled as data presented via an on-board display. Additionally, that same wireless data path can be used to release authorities in the back office DT platform logic, a.k.a., conflict checker.  This double time-reduction whammy provides for a quantum increase in the capacity that a dispatcher can handle in DT operations.

But, outside of the Americas, the capability of DT, with or without the quantum improvement, is one of best kept secrets that, if known, could have a phenomenal effect on small and emerging railroads; railroads that are critical to the business and social welfare of their respective countries.  Again, I am not talking about the sophisticated railways of Europe, but the railways that are being considered across Africa, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere. These railroads could see a massive increase in capacity for minimal investment in a green-field operation to a net-savings for a railroad operating on an older signaling system (removing the older system would save future operating and maintenance costs, often resulting in a net savings). In addition, a traffic control system without wayside infrastructure results in less expensive equipment to be stolen or damaged by harsh environs reducing operating costs and increasing safety.

The railroads across the globe that could benefit from DT come in two types. First, there are railroads that are emerging either as green-field developments or as rebuilds of railways that have been reduced to rumble or abandoned for civil and/or economic reasons. Second, there are those railroads that are fully functional but are dependent upon the most antiquated traffic control system generically known as Token Block (TB). With its development stemming from the middle of the 19th century in Britain, TB can be found in patches across the globe. TB is safe in concept. That is, to operate within a particular segment of track , a crew must possess a token, physical /electronic that is uniquely assigned to that segment. However, as I witnessed in my assignment in Egypt regarding the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) to evaluate safe railroading, including both traffic control and enforcement, the manual processes involved in TB ( 85% of ENR’s trackage) permit the vitality of operation to be greatly compromised. When those processes are violated; major accidents have occurred.

So! Here’s the problem. While DT is an excellent traffic control approach for small and emerging railroads, these operators are not being informed of its availability. Instead, major suppliers are selling (and traditional consultants are promoting) the major systems that have been deployed across major rail operations as the only solutions. Such solutions put these railroads at considerable financial risk , not only due to the initial investment required, but also as to the on-going profitability due to a combination of extensive maintenance and training costs, a likely lack of disciplined and educated maintenance personnel, and the susceptibility to theft of wayside infrastructure.

Hopefully, the safety project I mentioned in Egypt, as well as the marketing efforts of myself and my colleagues (we don’t represent suppliers nor accept commissions) will help spread the knowledge of Dark Territory and bring it into the light of those nationalized and private railroads that can truly benefit from its deployment.

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7 Responses to “In the Light of Dark”
  • Surprised:

    Ron, Rulebooks operated by communication of related staff (dispatcher, station masters, level crossing operators, train drivers) are AGES old. In my 30 years in railroading all around the world I have not met a single Infrastructure Manager not having such a rulebook, that describes signals (if any), command and response, exceptional procedures, documentation need, etc.

    Thus it is confusing to hear that operators are not aware of DT. In contrast, my experience is that such operators are very aware of their problems and very creative in working out cheap alternatives. If such would exist they would use it.

    You mention green field applications. Well, the one\’s I worked came with a business case that were highly adjusted to the maximum cost/benefit, i.e. maximum performance with minimum lifecycle costs. The track design is adjusted to an optimized operations program. A fully fledged signalling/telecom system is ~10% of investment costs. Your proposal would need a telecom system (wireless, interlockings, point machines, CTC, in cab device), and I guess your proposal would save some 5% out of the 10%.
    If saving 5% with a proofable unsafe human protocol against a high performance continuous signalling system (wireless with NO additional wayside equipment) is such a radical improvement must be decided by a client. Let it work well for its lifetime, fine, winner. Let there be 1 major accident and the 5% saving might be consumed ….

    You propose to optimize the communications with wireless radio and computer technology. For sure an improvement – but in no way is the underlying \’problem\’ addressed. The human failure rate. And to overcome that, we have signalling systems.

    Did you consider insurance costs in the operations costs? Manual procedures might have a high premium increase compared to fully fledged signalling systems.

    As an example look at GE\’s ITCS – no wayside equipment.
    You might consider a look at ETCS regional which is intended to equip such DT areas – as a replacement of the rulebook based approaches.
    ETCS regional is an initiative of the EU, not of \’consultants not aware of such cheap alternatives\’.

    I would be very happy to learn more about your approaches to bring them to my clients. However, I am not sure if they would be happy with German \”Zugleitbetrieb\” or similar Rulebook based DT approaches.

  • @Surprised,

    Your comments are very confusing.

    “Let there be 1 major accident and the 5% saving might be consumed ”

    The threat of accidents is always present, however the use of expensive or other signaling has not proven to prevent such accidents. However, Dark Territory operations have a much higher safety rate that signaled operations in North America, albeit they handle much less traffic (which is the point). In addition, Dark Territory operations on a smaller to medium sized railroad would save much more than 5% in sunk costs and close to 50% on running costs depending on the railroad.

    “You propose to optimize the communications with wireless radio and computer technology. For sure an improvement – but in no way is the underlying \’problem\’ addressed. The human failure rate. And to overcome that, we have signalling systems.”

    Almost every accident in recent railroading history has occurred in signaled territory. Your comment makes no sense.

    Dark Territory functions safely and often more efficiently than current signaled operations (for lower traffic rail) because it uses conflict checker algorithms, which are more reliable/accurate than the humans currently used.
    If Dark Territory operations were combined with an overlay Positive Train Control (PTC) system, you would remove the human error element you referred to before and thus have as safe a railroad as current technology would allow.

    The GE ITCS is similar to the Dark Territory operation Ron proposes, except it’s Dark Territory on massive amounts of steroids. ITCS is built for heavy traffic, high-speed rail. The author of this blog is offering affordable and safe solutions for small to medium sized railroads, which would go broke before the first train ran, if they purchased ITCS.

    Your comments are interesting because they reflect the lack of innovation and forward thinking in railroading today, especially in markets like the EU where railroads have become addicted to “cheap-money” – government subsidies – and thus do not feel the need to produce risk-adjusted returns. However, the current fiscal crisis in the EU should be an alarm bell waking up EU citizens to the systemic problems they’ve created by running businesses addicted to cheap-money. Please don’t push this mind-set on emerging markets who do not have the fiscal ability to absorb inefficient railroads the way EU countries can, yet still need to expand their rail operations.

    Dark Territory in concert with PTC can offer a fiscally responsible and safe solution for small to medium sized railroads that, unlike fixed signaling, can easily be scaled up at a lower investment to handle greater capacities when traffic increases. (virtual blocks via wireless signaling are much more flexible than blocks created by fixed, wayside signaling).

    @Surprised, welcome to the 21st Century.

  • Surprised.
    Based upon your comments above, and an earlier one regarding a previous posting, you are not aware of what Dark Territory (DT) really is. You are associating DT with operating from the rule book. Maybe you consider that to be DT, but that is simply… operating from the rule book. DT, and its two forms of traffic warrant control (TWC) and direct train control (DTC) as used in the Americas, is very safe process. I am providing you an URL for your review to understand the concept

    I request you read the article, and some of my previous postings, especially that describing vitality, and then review your previous comments.

    The true test of understanding DT is being able to identify the vitality of the process, i.e. what generates the authority, e.g., track circuits in concert with control points in signaled operation. Once you understand vitality, then you will see the difference between DT as to what it is true is, and your perspective of operating from the book or rules.

    Lastly, when DT and PTC are used together, the railroad is as safe as it can be as to both vitality and enforcement to prevent crew errors respectively. As I noted in the posting, small and emerging railroads are not hearing about DT with or without PTC. They really need to have that information. I would gladly welcome the opportunity to speak with your clients, with you present of course, to discuss the opportunities. In fact, I hope that railroads and consultants reading this comment will reach out to me to discuss how the services of my team of independent consultants can assist them. I should point out, as noted elsewhere on this blog, that neither myself nor any of my associates represent any suppliers nor accept commissions. It’s not clear to me that consultants that push signaling systems are as objective and straightforward with their clients.

    I certainly welcome your comments and will gladly present them on the blog, but only if they are based upon sound understanding of the issues involved.

    link to

  • Surprised:


    do we agree that that TWC is a rulebook approach?

    Person A does this, Person B that, so that C can do its part, and so on. This is what is called rulebook, or?
    Person A, B, C, etc. each make 1 failure in 1000 actions. Let it be a dispatcher feeding in wrong info to the TWC process … so the safety you can ever get with TWC is 1/1000. Not very promising, or?

    Modern signaling systems have a rate way below 1/10pow9.

    It seems the principle of a components (human, system, component) failure rate has not been understood. Otherwise a statement like “ITCS is equal to TWC” would not have been made.

    ITCS like TWC and any other control system operates a routine/procedure/rulebook or however you call the operations program. The only difference is in the failure rate of the safety critical contributors.

    Have you considered cultural values in the different countries? You might end up with failure rates above 1/1000 …

    Could you express a value for “really really safe”.

    Do we agree, that a car is really really safe until an accident happens?

    Do we agree that PTC is a signaling system?
    What for would you need that if TWC is really really safe?

    Are you aware that a full moving block system is not quite more expensive than a classic PTC, but allows for significant performance increase at much higher safety and operations flexibility?

    What will an infrastructure manager (IM) – who can not afford a safe system – do, if there’s an accident, which destroys 2 of his locos, kills people, damages his track, harms the freights and stops service for a considerable time? Get broke?

    DTC has a track record of 12 accidents per year, not really what I understand as safe. It will not take long for such an IM to get broke.

    ITCS was built for high speed traffic? Well, 170 km/h is not slow, but that’s roughly halfway the modern scale.

    The statement that “most accidents happen on signaled territory” is probably right. Did you forget to mention that the accidents occurred in failure modes, i.e. when human control was applied, which is similar to TWC approach?

    At a recent 250 km freight project we optimized investment which was only capable with a fully fledged CBTC system. That added up 5% to the investment costs, but saved 45% which was the next best option of track upgrade. Furthermore, almost doubled performance on a single track, increased safety, reduced requirements on staff qualification and made scheduling as flexible as could be. Emerging country, where every cent counted!

    Europe seems to be way ahead of american railroading. I am sure they would be very interested to hear about your proposals – and ask the same questions I do. They might get disappointed to get proposals which they try to get rid of for many years in an affordable way. Latest try is ETCS regional – intended for side lines with low traffic density, which are currently operated in TWC similar rulebook approaches ….

    I am very sincerely interested in railroading and especially control systems, which motivates me to continue this discussion. Sorry for my questions, still trying to find the sense in your approach …

  • Surprised
    I want to start my response to your plethora of questions and comments in an encouraging way. With my primary focus being on North American traffic control for most of my career, with the recent exposure to token block given the safety study in Egypt, I was not aware of ETCS Regional. So, thank you for that. Now that I have researched it, I am even more encouraged that you are starting to understand the value of Dark Territory, but you just don’t know it. Permit me to explain. You agree that ETCS Regional is similar to TWC in that it is a rulebook approach, as you say. (BTW, don’t you understand that all traffic control is rule book approach including signaling? – check it out, its in there as to aspects, what to do when signals don’t, etc.) Also, you like ECTS because it is cost effective for low density lines, versus other ETCS levels. Now, here’s the kicker. The primary difference between ETCS Regional and TWC is that ETCS requires substantially more investment for the onboard, wireless and back office. In fact, the only justification for ETCS Regional over TWC with PTC is for those operations that have ETCS 1 & 2 elsewhere and want to ensure locomotive interoperability. So, I am not interested in Europe. I thought I was clear about where Dark Territory would make sense, i.e., small and emerging railroads. It would be helpful if you would expand your railroad horizons beyond that of Europe and realize that not everyone needs or can afford those types of systems, especially for freight operations.

    Now to some other points in your most recent comment. Your statistics as to failures rates, whatever, are misleading, if even accurate, in making a comparison between signaled and dark operations. The key source of accidents is not how the traffic control system works, but how the train crew handles the authorities. Three of the four most recent, deadly accidents in the US that were due to crew errors were in signaled territory. The Dark Territory accident was because the crew blew through a misaligned switch.

    Again, please put down the bottle of beer and read my postings with true interest instead of disdain. PTC is not a signaling system, It is an enforcement system. Pure PTC neither generates nor transmits authorities …. and signaling systems do not do enforcement. How much different can they be?

    As to your comment that moving block is not expensive is really quite strange. I am talking about moving block where it is most needed, i.e., high density operations. Moving block means vital office to me and a wireless communication system that can deliver authorities every 10 seconds or so. All of that is extremely expensive. For example, the use of GSM-R for ETCS can be 10 times more expensive that required for TWC. Perhaps you are thinking of flexible block, or automatic extension of authorities every 15 or 30 minutes.

    I would like to respond to your comment regarding a 250 Km project somewhere as to what was saved, increased traffic, etc. However, the only point I can make is that you can’t be making an legitimate point if you didn’t explore what you could have done with TWC, for example

    As to your genuine interest in control system and trying to make sense of my stuff, I can only suggest that, again, get our head out of Europe and their truly wonderful passenger train operations that are funded by governments and not private enterprise – as in the US

  • Surprised:


    for your information, i’ve been working most of my career in asia and middle east. A good share of private railroads.

    PTC is not a signaling system? Well, call it whatever is appropriate, Europe calls such systems signaling systems, and more specifically ATP (automatic train protection).

    GSM-R for signaling is roughly twice as expensive as GSM-R for communication purposes only.

    Last year we delivered a full scale continuous CBTC signalling/telecom/OCC system incl. all wayside equipment and wayside sensors for 56 km track for 9.6 Mio USD. 1 passing station, loading loop. Dark Territory Approach (Rulebook only) would have saved investment for signalling, bit of telecom (availability), bit of OCC, but would have required a second track ….

    Let me point you to the German “Zugleitbetrieb” ZLB, which is equivalent to TWC. It dates back to the 1960ties …. and you can buy a copy (dont know if its available in english) from German Railways. ZLB is intended for low density side lines up to 80kmh (at specific conditions up to 100kmh).

    link to
    As referenced on that website, too many accidents happened because of staff failures. As continually repeated, that’s the reason to introduce signalling (for understanding: ATP). If ZLB would have been that good we would still use it.

    40 years have passed since ZLB … and much has been done to research and try appropriate replacement of ZLB tracks.

    Its great that EU and governments fund research and new systems like ETCS and probably thats the reason that Europe seems way ahead in railroading.

    German Railway is a public company delivering good profits.

    Are there public resources on your or similar projects, which I can use for further study of concepts? Any link would be great.

    Happy railroading.

  • Surprised, I appreciate your continuous flow of comments. I must say that many of the things you state I agree with in general, but not to the extent that you apply your familiarity with the point. For example, GSM-r used for Spain’s high speed requires a base station every 4 Km or so. However, for voice it could easily be every 25-30Km depending upon terrain and height of the towers. It simply isn’t a 2 to 1 cost as you suggest. Anyhow, for further info on PTC, myself, whatever, I suggest you seek out the IEEE Vehicular Technologies issue which was earlier this year regarding PTC. I have a submission in that along with a number of other individuals and companies. And once again, PTC is not a signaling system. It neither generates authorities or even display them to the driver in its purest form – It only pulls the brake valve. Indeed there are signaling systems that do pull the brake valve as well as generate and transmit an authority, but that 1 point of commonality doesn’t make PTC a signaling system. Please draw yourself a Venn diagram for this one.

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