World standard signalling system to improve GO Train service

GO Expansion signals to a future with faster, safer, and more reliable trains.

Apr 30, 2024

Advanced signalling technology for rail, called the European Train Control System (ETCS), was invented to solve a challenge for train travel across Europe, before becoming a global standard for railways.  

Now, it’s coming to Ontario – as the first North American jurisdiction to implement this technology. 

A modern signalling system, like ETCS, is a critical success factor for GO Expansion – a program that will deliver faster, more frequent GO and UP Express service throughout much of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, from Toronto and Burlington to Oshawa, Markham and Brampton.  

Specifically, ETCS Level 2, has been selected by Metrolinx to deliver the increased capacity required to run more trains on the GO network. 

GO Trains sitting at the Whitby Rail Maintenance facility on the Lakeshore East Line

Better, safer technology means faster, more connected service across the region. (Metrolinx photo)

What does ETCS “Level 2” mean? 

ETCS Level 2 (or ETCS L2) is a radio-based train control system that communicates train speeds, positions, and movements across a rail network.  

It achieves this by calculating and exchanging information in real-time between equipment onboard trains and trackside infrastructure, through wireless Long-Term Evolution (LTE) radio technology. 

The trackside signalling infrastructure acts as a centralized control system to monitor and manage rail traffic optimally.  

This continuous track-to-train radio communication ensures safe and efficient train operation, allowing the advanced signalling system to deliver safe, fast, frequent, and high-capacity train service. 

inside the cockpit

The GO Train driver's point of view is in for an upgrade. (Metrolinx photo)

Why did we choose this technology? 

“Enhanced Train Control is the future of railway signalling systems, enabling operators to safely increase capacity and decrease journey times,” said Jonita Delaney, Metrolinx vice president of technical systems integration.  

“Metrolinx has selected ETCS L2 based on its suitability to operating model and the safety benefits it will bring to passengers, railway workers and level crossings.” 

In Europe, with railways using different signalling systems, a train that crosses borders needs different equipment for each country. ETCS was devised to solve this problem with a common system. It’s the core signalling and train control component of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and has spread to several countries around the world – including Australia, China, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Taiwan – because it offers improved safety, performance, and headway times. 

In those jurisdictions, all trains and track equipment were fitted with ETCS to enable interoperability among various countries and operators.  

GO Train stock images

ECTS L2 will be incorporated on Metrolinx-owned railways. (Metrolinx photo)

In Ontario, GO Trains operate largely on track owned by Metrolinx, so ETCS L2 will be deployed throughout Metrolinx-owned track. Tenant passenger trains that operate on Metrolinx-owned track, such as VIA Rail, will also be equipped with ETCS L2. 

Tenant freight trains, such as Canadian National Railway (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), that use Metrolinx tracks to service their customers will not be equipped with ETCS.   

Instead, conventional line-of-sight signals, which use coloured lights to manage traffic, will be maintained throughout Metrolinx’s territory to: 

  • provide continued support for freight operators 
  • support GO/VIA passenger operations during ETCS deployment phases 
  • serve as backup for ETCS-equipped trains for the long-term, in rare cases of degraded operations

GO Trains operating on tracks owned by third party railroads will operate using existing line-of-sight (colour light) signalling systems and will transition seamlessly into and out of ETCS L2 at territory boundaries. 

GO Expansion Advanced Signalling System

ETCS is used on major rail lines around the world, including Germany’s S-Bahn. (Alstom photo)

Headway is the time interval between consecutive trains, and safely reducing it is the key to running more frequent GO service.      

Since trains cannot stop as quickly as cars, signalling systems are used to maintain space between them. Railway lines are broken down into “blocks” or zones using train detection systems, for example track circuits or axle counters.  

“Metrolinx currently runs a fixed-block signalling system,” said Thomas Casselman, Metrolinx vice president of signalling and communications.  

“Lights provide an indication of what the driver is supposed to do.” 

GO Expansion Advanced Signalling System

The information drivers get delivered to the driver interface under ETCS is more sophisticated than the red and green signals GO Train drivers now see at trackside. This train was being tested in the Netherlands. (Alstom photo)

The length of the blocks dictates how far apart the trains must be and, on many of the tracks where GO operates, their size is more appropriate for freight traffic.  

Freight trains are typically longer and slower than faster, shorter passenger trains. In practice, that means that sometimes passenger trains are at a safe distance apart, but the current system doesn’t reflect that safe status, which results in fewer trains running on the tracks. 

Newer, more sophisticated signalling systems, like ETCS, go beyond trackside lights and deliver instructions to each train’s driver, based on implementation of shorter virtual signal blocks in addition to the longer fixed signal blocks.  

Because ETCS L2 is an overlay on the conventional signal blocks, freight trains (or other vehicles not fitted with the onboard equipment) can still be safely accommodated on the network at the same time as creating virtual signal blocks being optimised for passenger trains. 

“When the location of the train is precisely monitored, trains can safely run closer to each other,” said Keith Ampalavanar, Metrolinx senior manager of signalling and communications at Metrolinx. 


GO Expansion Advanced Signalling System

ETCS technology has been built-in to trains around the world, like this one in Liège, Belgium. (Alstom photo)

That’s where advanced signalling comes in as a key part of the GO Expansionprogram. 

It’s proven technology that reduces headways and delivers both real and virtual signal information directly to the driver on board each train. 

“ETCS is an off-the-shelf solution that we’ve already deployed around the world,” said Christophe Wacrenier, head of signalling at ONxpress, the consortium contracted by Metrolinx to deliver the GO Expansion – On-Corridor (OnCorr) Works project.  

“It’s been developed over 20 years by all the different companies existing in the market.” 

GO Transit will be the first passenger rail system in either Canada or the United States to use ETCS.  

“This is a great opportunity to showcase the benefits of this technology,” Wacrenier said. 

GO Expansion Advanced Signalling System

Advanced signalling systems, such as the ETCS L2, will be used to deliver more frequent service on key corridors of the GO rail network by making it possible for more trains to run safely on the same track.

By taking a data-driven approach to spacing the trains, systems like ETCS L2 make it possible for more trains to be on any one line at any given time – shortening the blocks and making calculations based on trains’ speed – resulting in more frequent service for customers. 

“It’s a system that has a lot more potential for growth,” said Jonathan English, development phase proposal value creator at ONxpress Operations Inc. (OOI).  

“It really can handle an enormous amount of train traffic on a pair of tracks, in comparison to the amount that we’ve managed to move in the past.” 

Systems with ETCS are “allowing trains to get closer together while still respecting basic safety margins,” said Tyson Moore, a visiting lecturer at the University of Birmingham.  

“Safety was one of the fundamental design principles.” 

Metrolinx plans to run electric trains, equipped with advanced signalling equipment, as part of the GO Expansion program, which also includes building new track and improving infrastructure throughout the GO network. 

This will result in trains departing more often, tripling GO service from 3,500 trips a week in 2019 to more than 10,000 in the future, offering customers better, faster, and more connected service across the region. 

by Alex Kelly Metrolinx communications senior advisor