"We know that the risk [of a cyber-attack] will increase as we continue to roll out digital technology across the network..."
Hackers have the ability to tap into the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) currently being trialled in the UK and cause havoc according to a leading rail expert. Professor David Stupples told the BBC that plans to replace the current system based with a computer based one could leave the rail network exposed to cyber-attacks. Prof. Stupples - an expert in networked electronic and radio systems at City University in London - said if someone hacked into the system they could cause a "nasty accident" or "major disruption". "It's the clever malware [malicious software] that actually alters the way the train will respond," he explained. "So, it will perhaps tell the system the train is slowing down, when it's speeding up."
Network Rail, the owner and operator of most of the UK rail infrastructure which is in charge of the upgrade, acknowledges the threat. "We know that the risk [of a cyber-attack] will increase as we continue to roll out digital technology across the network," a spokesman told the BBC. "We work closely with government, the security services, our partners and suppliers in the rail industry and external cybersecurity specialists to understand the threat to our systems and make sure we have the right controls in place."
ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) is a signalling and train control system which will replace traditional lineside railway signals with a computer display inside every train cab, reducing the costs of maintaining the railway, improving performance and enhancing safety. There is no history of the system being hacked.
But Prof. Stupples acknowledges the system is well protected against outside attack but is more vulnerable to a rogue rail worker. "The weakness is getting malware into the system by employees. Either because they are dissatisfied or being bribed or coerced," he explained to Richard Westcott, Transport Correspondent for the BBC (@.)
He added that part of the reason that transport systems had not already been hacked as frequently as financial institutions and media organisations was that much of the technology involved was currently too old to be vulnerable. All of that will change in the coming years, as aircraft, cars and trains become progressively more computerised and connected, he concluded.
The rapid advances in the use of digital platforms for control and communication across all aspects of the rail industry have created increasingly integrated security operations but have opened up greater threats from cyber-attacks. These attacks can have the potential to go beyond the electronic domain and cause serious threats to safety and security. One alarming example of this took place in Lodz, in Poland in 2008 when a teenage boy who hacked into the city's tram system used it like "a giant train set", causing chaos and derailing four vehicles.
Reported in the Telegraph (UK), Miroslaw Micor, a spokesman for Lodz police, said: "He studied the trams and the tracks for a long time and then built a device that looked like a TV remote control and used it to manoeuvre the trams and the tracks. He had converted the television control into a device capable of controlling all the junctions on the line and wrote in the pages of a school exercise book where the best junctions were to move trams around and what signals to change."
See also: Keeping railways safe and secure in the digital era.
and Welkom ERTMS! Dutch government set to invest €2.5bn in installing the European Rail Traffic Management System across full network by 2030.