Security of the railway network against electromagnetic attacks (SECRET)

Railways constantly face increasing terrorism threats – one aspect in particular is electromagnetic (EM) attacks. SECRET – SECurity of the Railway network against Electromagnetic ATtacks – is a research project within the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, and aims to assess the risks and consequences of EM attacks on rail infrastructure, to identify preventive and recovery measures and to develop protection solutions to ensure the security of rail networks, subject to intentional EM interferences, which can disturb a large number of command-control, communication or signalling systems. The project’s Technical Coordinator, Virginie Deniau and colleagues from the project’s consortium including Marie-Hélène Bonneau (UIC), Philippe Massy (SNCF), Renaud Comte (ALSTOM), and Antonio Kung (Trailog), provide more details about the project’s structure.

The European railway network is in a period of significant evolution with the deployment of ERTMS; in particular, the deployment of ERTMS Level 2 which is based on the transmission of signalling information through the GSM-R network which has called upon all railway stakeholders to maintain an optimal security level.

Due to the increasing terrorism threat that railways face, various aspects – and in particular electromagnetic (EM) attacks – need to be taken into account. The harmonisation of the European railway network results in a harmonised EM vulnerability which needs to be addressed at European level and especially the resilience of ERTMS against potential malicious actions which could be implemented in order to disrupt the railway network. Knowing that some information will be transmitted via wireless solutions, the issue of the Intentional ElectroMagnetic Interferences (IEMI) naturally occurs.

The European project SECRET co-funded by the European Commission within the FP7 programme was therefore initiated in order to study the potential impact of such interferences and to implement solutions to avoid any disruption.

The SECRET1 consortium involves 10 partners from five European countries. The project is coordinated by IFSTTAR2 which is the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport, Development and Network.

SECRET assesses the risks and consequences of EM attacks on rail infrastructure, works on preventive and recovery measures and develops protection solutions to reinforce the security of the rail network, subject to IEMI, which can disturb command-control, communication or signalling systems.

During this project, several scenarios were studied in order to identify the potential vulnerable situations. Regarding the interferences considered in this project, we did not identify direct potential dangerous situations for people. However, such interferences can seriously impact rail operations and the capacity of the network. 

The project is oriented into the following four major contributions:

First contribution

The first contribution is oriented on the definition and realisation of susceptibility tests performed on specific railway components in the presence of interferences corresponding to specific intentional interferences. This work is linked with an issue larger than the railway domain. Indeed, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Subcommittee (SB) 77C works on the standards to protect civil systems against man-made high power electromagnetic threats. Initially, this subcommittee considered mainly very high power electromagnetic threats and progressively the definition of the considered intentional interferences evolved. Indeed, with the proliferation of the emission devices accessible to general public and with the deployment of the application ensured by wireless communication technologies, the threat is in permanent evolution. The test methodologies developed in SECRET and the definition of the EM attack signal were then discussed with members of IEC SC77C in order to contribute to the evolution of the international standardisation concerning the civil infrastructure.

Second contribution

This is focused on the research of solutions to detect the presence of IEMI. Indeed, in the case that IEMI would be generated in the space dedicated to the railway network, the priority is to diagnosis the situation. The detection can permit us to involve an adequate countermeasure and to not confuse an attack with a technical failing. Different detection methods were studied in order to identify what can be the more efficient solutions according to the context (on-board train, along the track or in railway station).

A first detection approach is based on the analysis of the spectrum occupation to distinguish ‘normal’ distributions, corresponding to the absence of attack signal, from ‘abnormal’ distributions corresponding to the presence of attack signal in the spectrum. For this spectrum distribution approach, two different methodologies were studied: the supervised detection or the attack signal classification. The supervised detection consists in learning and modelling the ‘normal’ environment. In that case, the detection application consists in recognising an environment which does not belong to the ‘normality’.

The attack signal classification method consists in learning the environment in the presence of different attack devices and to extract distribution models for each device. In that case, the detection consists in comparing the environment with the different models and to recognise the presence of one of the models. In SECRET, measurements were performed in different situations (on-board train, along track and in train stations) in order to define the laws corresponding to all these ‘normal’ situations. In parallel, different attack devices were characterised and modelled, optimising the model definition in order to facilitate the detection without being affected by over fitting. The spectrum approach can allow monitoring several communication systems in adapting the frequency bands monitored and in using adequate antennas.

Another detection approach is based on the in phase and quadratic (IQ) data received by the GSM-R terminal and consists in analysing the GMSK IQ constellation with and without attack signal. The Error Vector Magnitude (EVM) which corresponds to the sum of the errors on the sample positions is calculated for each GSM-R time slot. The values reached by the EVM and the evolution of these values over the time permits to efficiently detect the presence of IEMI. We noticed that the variation of the EVM is really significant in presence of attack signal even if the power of the attack signal is 20 dB lower than the GSM-R signal. Then, the jamming signal could be detected even if the communication is not affected and the reaction to have could be anticipated.

Cyber threats are an increasing concern for every business

Third contribution

The third contribution of the project consists in designing an ICT communication architecture resilient to EM attacks. It integrates a detection system (DS), a redundant multipath communication system (MCS), and a management capability in charge of acting upon attack. The DS detects in real-time EM attacks and is able to take over manual or automatic actions to overcome them. The MCS can harden for instance an ETCS (European Train Control System) communication between the RBC (Radio Block Centre) and the train using multiple paths simultaneously. The management system consists of distributed components called health attack managers (HAMs): a central HAM located at the command centre level, HAMs at the track level and HAMs at the train level.

The architecture is specified to take into account configuration flexibility requirements and interoperability requirements. Different configurations are possible: DS only, MCS only, DS and MCS together. Interoperability interfaces are defined, e.g. between a central HAM and a HAM, between a HAM and an MCS. Examples of configurations could be the following: an ETCS solution over a non-IP-based communication, with a DS at the track level; an ETCS solution over an IP-based communication (e.g. GPRS-R, WiMAX, LTE, Tetra) with one of the three options (DS only, MCS only, DS and MCS together).

The architecture was evaluated with a modelling and simulation tool with different scenarios of attacks. Examples of parameters were attack position, train position, strength and duration of attack. Simulation showed that under different conditions and scenarios the railway communication is resilient against EM attacks. For practical reasons the architecture will be demonstrated through a different use case: a railway worker will have an alert equipment on themselves (inside their coat) which is connected through Bluetooth to their GSM mobile. Upon attack detection, an alert is sent from the detecting equipment to the mobile. The mobile connects to the control centre to inform that there is an attack.

During the architecture specification work, it was realised that the use of different risk analysis methods and tools created a terminology problem. For instance the concept of threat was different in each method. Consequently, unification work is being carried out. It is based on ontologies and can lead in the future to automatic generation of rules to be used by health attack managers.

Fourth contribution

The fourth action is about the dissemination of the project results to key players and contributing to the improvement of standardisation. Because the project wants to make the whole railway community hoarding on its outcomes, contributions to Technical Recommendations (TecRec) will be proposed in link with the UNISIG/UNIFE normalisation process. Meanwhile, fearing the TecRec process duration, a parallel activity consists in porting those outcomes to more specialised normalisation committees, as well at hardware level with committees like CENELEC (European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation), CEN (European Committee for Standardisation, except electrotechnical and telecom) or ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) with providing some EMC recommendations but also at system level like UNISIG with discussing more resilient architectures.

Cyber threats are an increasing concern for every business. Barely a week goes by without new reports of sophisticated IT systems – even of the largest organisations or intelligence services – falling victim to cyber-attacks. It was therefore important to check what further precautions could be taken within the railway sector, should the need arise. The SECRET project addresses this issue for EM attacks targeting infrastructure and will then contribute to reinforcing the signalling systems.



Virginie Deniau is Technical Coordinator of the SECRET project and received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electronics from the University of Lille in 2000 and 2003 respectively. Since 2003, Virginie has been a Researcher in Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) for the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport, Development and Networks (IFSTTAR). Her research interests include EMC test facilities and methodologies, EM environment characterisation and the EM susceptibility of communication systems.

Philippe Massy is Head of the Section of Radio Networks Company / Expert Synapses (Network of Scientific and Technical Experts SNCF). His field of expertise is in radio-communications. Philippe has acquired experience at SNCF since 1975 and has taken part in many various projects for SNCF, its subsidiaries, and external missions, in all kinds of radio technology systems like analogue, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, I-Burst, satellite, TETRA, TETRAPOL, and GSM-R. Within the Engineering Direction of SNCF, he manages the division which takes part in the studies and completion of projects of internal and external SNCF radio-electrics networks for trains, buses and subways. He is also specialised in radio transmissions in the railway mediums for high-speed trains (Internet aboard TGV, Wi-Fi on-board).

Antonio Kung has 30 years of experience in embedded systems. He co-founded Trialog in 1987, where he now serves as CTO. He heads the company product development as well as collaborative projects with a focus on embedded systems, engineering, security and privacy for ITS, ICT for ageing, smart grids. He holds a Master’s degree from Harvard University and an Engineering degree from Ecole Centrale Paris.

Renaud Comte is from ALSTOM Transport and is RF Senior Expert, with a PhD in Electronics and Electromagnetism from Limoges University (France) in 1996. After several years in the cellular industry (2G/3G) as RF designer and architect for several major manufacturers, Renaud joined the company in 2009 as RF designer, working on ERTMS L1 Eurobalise hardware. He then moved to urban CBTC system design based on Wi-Fi communication. He’s now involved in several projects through its Senior Expert role. His field of competence covers RF electronic design, RF system design, RF metrology, antennas and EM simulation.

Marie-Hélène Bonneau has been Senior Advisor at the UIC Security Division since 2008 and works on the organisation and animation of cooperation activities within the UIC security platform which brings together security experts from the railway companies. She is also involved in several European research projects in the field of rail security to express railways’ needs and disseminate project information.