Someone at the Maily Telegraph – who is not told, as for once the piece has appeared without a name on the by-line – has decided that it would be A Very Good Idea to frighten all those rail commuters who struggle with opening a broadsheet format paper during their journeys just a little. So today has come the ominous headline “Hacking ‘threat to train network’”.
How could that happen? “Hackers could attack the train network and disrupt services because of a shift to new signalling technology, a security expert has warned” explains the sub-heading. Really? Well, the source of this information, a Professor at a German technical University, speaking at a conference in Berlin, sounds suitably plausible, but the Telegraph has not done its homework.
The technology being discussed, GSM-R or Global System for Mobile Communications – Railway to give it its full title, is indeed being rolled out by Network Rail (NR) across more of the mainland UK network. But it is not being used to control lineside signals: rather, it is used solely for communication between train crew and control centres.
And little of the mainland UK network, save the HS1 high speed link between London and the Channel Tunnel, is signalled other than by lineside signals. And the system used on HS1 is not related to GSM-R. Therefore, as the Telegraph piece goes on to concede, even if GSM-R were to be hacked, this would not stop trains moving, and nor would it compromise safety.
So when the article talks of “Train switching systems, which enable trains to be guided from one track to another at a railway junction”, this merely demonstrates that whoever wrote the piece does not understand that the word “signalling” has more than one meaning, and in this case it emphatically does not refer to the signal interlockings which keep trains apart and work the lineside signals.
Moreover, the idea that GSM-R would mean being “connected to the Internet” does not mean a hacking attack would – or even could – get through the system’s security, something that NR was rightly not prepared to discuss with the Telegraph. Even the serious end of the Fourth Estate, it seems, has more difficulty finding someone who understands the railway than someone who knows their slebs.
And, for those punters who pay for a serious paper and expect its hacks to be seriously knowledgeable, that’s not good enough.