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Progress on rails – the railway as a model for the future?

Against the backdrop of climate change, the railway is experiencing a revival. However, some steps still need to be taken to actually make it into a means of transport of the future, according to the two professors from Passau, Stefan Katzenbeisser and Urs Kramer. By Barbara Weinert


This article comes from the 5/2021 issue of the transfer magazine 'TRIOLOG. Science – Economy – Society in Eastern Bavaria' with the emphasis on mobility. The university consortium Transfer and Innovation in Eastern Bavaria (TRIO) is a project of six East Bavarian universities, in which the University of Passau is also taking part. The project is being funded from the programme 'Innovative University' by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and will run for five years. TRIO sees itself as an initiator of innovations in Eastern Bavaria. It aims to expand and actively organise the transfer of knowledge and technology and intensify the exchange between science, economy and society in the region.


Professor Katzenbeisser, as holder of the Chair of Computer Engineering you are dealing with Deutsche Bahn security concepts. Do you feel safe when you travel by train?

Katzenbeisser Yes, always. I have never felt uncomfortable. I know that the railways are doing quite a lot to make rail travel safer. Of course, you have to make a distinction between reliability, i.e. functional safety, and IT security. I deal primarily with IT security, especially in the control and safety systems. In this field, people really are just beginning to think about how they can protect these systems against external attacks. So far, they have mostly been proprietary, self-contained systems in which everything came from a single manufacturer, from the signal box and the cable to the point machine and the signal. Such systems are expensive, of course. Therefore, the railway wants to switch to modular systems in which components from different manufacturers can be combined.

What kind of attacks are you talking about?

Katzenbeisser Signal boxes, which are responsible for coordinating points, signals and similar, are to be controlled remotely in the future. In this case, there is communication between a dispatcher, who may be sitting far away, and the signal box. The control commands are transmitted via a network and it is necessary to ensure that this communication is not intercepted and modified.

Prof. Dr. Stefan Katzenbeisser

Professor Stefan Katzenbeisser

researches cyber security and technical data protection

How can critical infrastructures in a networked world be protected against cyber attacks?

How can critical infrastructures in a networked world be protected against cyber attacks?

Professor Stefan Katzenbeisser has held the Chair of Computer Engineering at the University of Passau since 2019. He is a member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Gesellschaft für Informatik (GI) and Senior Member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics (IEEE). He is head of a subproject on applied cryptography at the DFG Collaborative Research Centre CROSSING at the TU Darmstadt. 

That is an exciting challenge.

Katzenbeisser Definitely – and we are also entering completely new territory. This also relates, for example, to the approval processes: the classic railway technology is designed so that systems work for 30 or 40 years and do not have to be adapted. With regard to functional safety, it is said that if a system is safe, it will still be safe in 20 years’ time. In IT security, the situation is completely different. The general parameters are changing on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis. This means that a system that is secure today may no longer be secure tomorrow. Incorporating this aspect into the classic approval processes is an unbelievable challenge.

Professor Kramer, you are Professor of Public Law. The railway is also a focus of your work, but in a completely different discipline ...

Kramer That’s right. I look at the whole thing from a legal perspective. To remain with the aforementioned example of safety: my focus has so far been on technical safety. In the past, the railway was a government agency that provided both the tracks and the trains. Today, the situation is highly diversified, with the result that when we are moving a goods wagon, for example, there is one company that is the owner of the goods wagon. Another company is transporting the goods wagon, and yet another company owns the track. There is also a workshop that maintains the wagon and possibly many others that are, so to speak, tagging along behind. When does this become relevant? For example when an accident happens, as in Viareggio in Italy in 2009, when a goods wagon was derailed, resulting in serious consequences on the train when the gas boilers exploded. Who can be held accountable in this case and who must, above all, ensure that there is greater safety in the future? The “track company”? The “train company”? Or the workshop? I frequently deal with such issues. However, my research also looks at other areas: for example the construction of new tracks or the decommissioning of tracks. Here, I deal not only with Deutsche Bahn AG, the Federal Railway Authority or ministries, but also with foreign railway companies and smaller railway companies or citizens’ initiatives that request a legal clarification.

Particularly in rural areas such as the Bavarian Forest, the decommissioning of railway lines is an issue. How do you think the track situation is going to develop over the coming years?

Kramer The trends here vary quite a lot. A number of years ago, there was a clear trend towards the railway retreating from comprehensive nationwide coverage. This has now changed, but differently in the individual federal states. The Free State of Bavaria, for example, is not so progressive as far as reactivation goes, but, interestingly, money is being invested in the preservation of existing tracks. The major bone of contention is always the passenger-kilometres per kilometre of operating length required for a reactivation. This is a parameter that can be used to estimate the capacity. If we set the bar high here, the smaller stretches of track have poor chances of survival, even though they definitely have a legitimate right to exist in my view.

Professor Urs Kramer is the Professor of Public Law at the University of Passau and Dean of the Faculty of Law. One focus of his work is German and European railway law.

Katzenbeisser I believe that a lot will be done in the course of the digitisation process in the coming years. The problem facing the small regional railways is that they are expensive to run and take up a lot of manpower. Attempts are being made to combat this by using operating procedures that manage without many members of staff.

Is the railway a means of transport of the future?

Katzenbeisser I think so, yes. The retreat that we have seen in the past 20 years has largely stopped. I can imagine that we will once again see an expansion in the future. We will see a growth in the lines around urban centres in particular. As far as the small side lines in rural areas are concerned, we must look at how far autonomous vehicles, such as buses, represent real competition here.

The retreat that we have seen in the past 20 years has largely stopped.

Kramer I also see potential in passenger transport in the coming years. Alternative drive technologies, such as the hybrid train, are coming in this area. It will probably be more difficult in goods transport. The problem facing the railway lies particularly in those areas where the track is not electrified and a train still has to be powered by “stinking” diesel engines. As long as there is not yet a hybrid locomotive that is powerful and inexpensive enough to pull whole goods trains economically on non-electrified tracks, the transportation of goods away from the electrified tracks will remain a problem.

Katzenbeisser I am afraid that the transportation of single goods wagons is generally facing a death sentence unless new innovative steps are taken. There are definitely a lot of innovative approaches in this area. The question is how quickly these can ultimately be brought to the track. Fortunately, Germany – alongside Switzerland – is a driver of innovation in this field.

Thank you for talking to us!

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