The Digital Railway – Still On Time?

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Back in the 1990s, Railtrack, and subsequently Network Rail, was charged with implementing the Europe wide signalling and train control system – ERTMS. This included the emerging ETCS (Electronic Train Control System), which was intended to remove the use of optical, lineside signals completely, and use track to train communications through a system of track mounted transmitters/receivers.

But is there more to this digital railway business than simply providing a better train control, management and signalling system?

The UK is still years behind our European neighbours in implementing the ERTMS platforms – although to be fair Railtrack/Network Rail have rolled out the halfway house of Train Protection & Warning System (TPWS), and today the core routes are at the entry level for ETCS. Today’s push for the “Digital Railway” has a lot of chatter, and media speak around improving performance and capacity for economic and commercial growth, but on the technology front, there seems to be some way to go – still.

Back in the late 1990s, the TPWS platform was supposed to have a 15-year lifespan, so is now beyond its final years of scheduled life, alongside the upgraded conventional signalling systems. By 2001 we were implementing systems that conformed to ETCS Level 3, with the Alstom TCS (Train Control System), for the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line (WCML).

There were plans to fit ETCS cab equipment in new stock, but following revisions to Control Period 5 with the ‘Hendy Review’ funding was cut, and the delays in deploying the system could be said to be pushing the UK further behind.

In 2015, the Rail Delivery Group published its 3rd annual “Long Term Passenger Rolling Stock Strategy”, where it stated that:

“During CP5 and CP6, the European Train Control System (ETCS) will be fitted to many fleets
 in preparation for the operation of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).”

2015 Rolling Stock StrategyScreenshot 2019-11-21 at 10.51.37

Originally, it was considered that the modular nature of ETCS would be attractive to introduce the technology at Level 1 on secondary routes, interfacing to the existing IECC (Integrated Electronic Control Centres providing automated route setting, amongst other functions), and SSI (Solid State Interlocking) technology. This ability to upgrade in a phased manner was and is important to the UK and other rail networks, with open communications interfaces allowing integrated working across Europe.

But has the signalling and train control system finally been implemented to the optimistic plans of 2001, when the WCML upgrade was completed?

Perhaps not, since back in 2010, the Department for Transport (DfT)was working with outside advisers to try and determine the risks and benefits of adopting – at a future date – possible adoption of the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS/ETCS) Level 3. This report came to the obvious conclusion that it was necessary, desirable, cost effective and efficient – but that was almost a decade ago.

Towards the end of 2016, and although the Rail Delivery Group, and Network Rail’s initiative for a cross-industry Digital Railway programme was progressing, the Transport Committee in its 7th Report (Rail technology: signalling and traffic management) showed that there was still much discussion on the topic:

Their conclusion:

We conclude that improvements to signalling and traffic management technology are needed to deliver a world-class rail network in the UK. In principle we support the idea that the deployment of the European Train Control System (ETCS), Traffic Management software and Driver Advisory systems should be accelerated but this should be subject to careful consideration of the Digital Railway business case, clarity about funding, and a clear understanding of how this programme would affect existing plans for work on enhancements and renewals. In particular, Network Rail’s Digital Railway business case should include a full cost/benefit analysis of all potential systems for a particular route, and consult upon it, before finalising its Digital Railway strategy. 

So, the UK’s rail network, its technology and industry does still appear to have some way to go – despite the fitting of ETCS Level 3 technology to the latest rolling stock, and plans for trials on various routes.

That said, the limited trials using Class 155 multiple units and departmental Class 37 diesels in Wales, on the Cambrian line paved the way for the application of ETCS level 2 on the Thameslink route, with GTR Class 700 trains. The trains began operating in August 2016, with a train running from St Pancras to Blackfriars, and having the ATO software overlay installed to allow automated operations. According to some reports this meant the driver would be responsible for supervising operations via instructions and guidance from in-cab screens, as opposed to controlling the train in a more conventional manner.

Currently, under the Control Period (CP) plans for the East Coast and ex-GWR main lines, ETCS will be introduced in phases – but it will take between 2024 and 2049 to complete the work. This is what is on the current plans:

  • CP6 (by 2024) – KX to Crews Hill and Hatfield
  • CP7 (by 2029) – Sandy to Peterborough; Grantham to Retford and Plymouth to Totnes
  • CP8 (by 2034) – Peterborough to Grantham; York (North) to Northallerton; Ferryhill to Alnmouth, and Paddington to Slough and Heathrow; Totnes to Exeter
  • CP9 (by 2039) – Retford to York (North); Northallerton to Ferryhill; Alnmouth to Berwick, along with Wootton Bassett to Exeter via Bristol, and Pewsey to Cogload Junction
  • CP10 (by 2044) – Didcot area (Cholsey to Wantage Road); Didcot to Oxford and Honeybourne
  • CP11 (by 2049) – Reading area (Slough to Cholsey); Wantage Road to Wootton Bassett; Reading to Pewsey

But no work will be undertaken on the ECML for Control Periods 10 and 11 – well at least that’s the current position, I think.

Thameslink trains now operate with ETCS Level2, with ATO in the central section, which puts that route at the forefront of implementing ATO with ERTMS, operating the new Class 700 Siemens “Desiro City” multiple units. These were procured under a PFI arrangement from 2013, from a consortium of Cross London Trains Ltd, which included Siemens Project Ventures GmbH, Innisfree Ltd., and 3i Infrastructure Ltd., and the trains began operating in 2016.  They were either 8 or 12-car units, and were later supplemented with an order for another 25 6-car trains – the Class 717 units, that would be used on the Great Northern line. In the end these new trains replaced no fewer than 6 older designs, from the Class 319 to Class 466.

Currently the only other ETCS Level 2 equipped and – well almost operational – trains are the Class 345 9-car trains for the Crossrail line. These actually began running in June 2017, and used at the outer ends, on the Great Eastern and Great Western main lines, as ETCS implementation is completed. In the Crossrail case, the trains are based on Bombardier’s “Aventra” design, but, unlike Thameslink, they are equipped for 25kV a.c. operation only, with no 3rd rail contact shoe. The Crossrail trains also carry equipment that allow them to use the TPWS warning system devised as a ‘halfway house’ towards ETCS in the 1990s.

Back in 2018, the DfT produced an 8-page implementation plan/technical spec for interoperability – the Control, Command System (CCS), under the slogan “Moving Britain Ahead”. On Page 4 of that document it states that the “Class B System”, which is the old “Halfway House” platform of TPWS from the late 1990s is supported by an industry wide spec. It also states that migration to ETCS will be on a “business led” basis, and implies that the “Class B System” will continue to be used in the UK.

“This specification defines all the required functionality and performance in a way which does not constrain the market to any particular supplier.” 


When ETCS was being promoted in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and when it was to be rolled out on the West Coast Main Line, in a phased manner, there were still multiple suppliers of ETCS equipment – whether for Level 1, 2 or 3. Not sure that still holds, but certainly the technology has progressed – perhaps the primary objection to speeding up its rollout is the rolling stock problem, and retrofitting to the large fleet of older vehicles. It’s great that it has been implemented for Thameslink, and there are still plans to implement – but TPWS was only intended to have a 15 year lifespan in 1999.

Following a review in 1999 of Railtrack’s West Coast upgrade, the approach to implementing train control through an ETCS platform was not progressed in the original manner, and it was recommended a more piecemeal approach, as an overlay to existing systems was taken. That is one of the ways in which ETCS can be implemented, with no need for a ‘big bang’ approach, and all that that would involve both technically, operationally, and S&T and driver training.

So, you might say, the UK’s “Digital Railway” is getting there, to misquote an old British Rail advertising slogan – but it will be sometime yet, before that objective is realised. In truth, some of us may not even be here to see that…… ah well.

-oOo-

TPWS

TPWS Feature coverClick on the image opposite, which will take you to a short feature written in 2001 about the implementation of TPWS – the UK’s initial step towards a full ERTMS/ATP train control system.

 

 

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