Rail’s £1 billion Information Revolution

FEATURE: After years in development, digital in-cab signalling is becoming a reality on Britain’s railway. BEN JONES joins the East Coast Digital Programme overnight testing team to discover how the industry has come together to deliver this revolution 

It’s 0100 on a chilly Monday morning, and a revolution in railway signalling is taking place deep beneath the streets of north London. 

Taking advantage of the overnight break in services on the Northern City Line (NCL), a Great Northern Class 717 electric multiple unit shuttles back and forth between Drayton Park and Moorgate, testing new systems and procedures that will eventually transform the way our trains are protected and operated. 

The ‘Digital Railway’ has been promoted by Network Rail and the Government as a panacea for congestion, reliability, speeds, and even infrastructure project costs. On the ground, though, it’s the job of the East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP) team to make digital in-cab signalling a reality on the southern part of the East Coast Main Line. 

ECDP is a genuine cross-industry initiative, bringing together train operators (led by Govia Thameslink Railway, GTR), Network Rail, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), Siemens Mobility, and Atkins. Siemens built the Class 700 and ‘717’ ‘Desiro City’ EMUs used by GTR, and is also responsible for the track-mounted equipment that communicates with its in-cab signalling. 

Central to this £1 billion revolution is the European Train Control System (ETCS), which will eventually allow Network Rail to dispense with traditional lineside signals in favour of advanced in-cab displays and constant real-time communication between track and train.

“ETCS is interoperable, safer, and built to standard guidelines, so you can buy it off-the-shelf,” says Rob Forde, Network Rail’s Senior Programme Manager for ECDP. 

“It removes a common failure mode and reduces costs in the longer term, so why wouldn’t we do it?” 

ETCS offers many advantages over the UK’s existing combination of Automatic Warning System (AWS) and Train Protection Warning System (TPWS), which has protected trains for the past 20 years. 

Read this feature in full in RAIL issue 980 here

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  • D - 18/04/2023 19:08

    A fascinating project to work on. Despite the number of technical and operational challenges that are being faced, I believe that ETCS will be one of the defining factors for railways in Britain and Europe in the coming decades.

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