From Signalboxes to ROCs

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There is a new word in town – it’s “digital” – and you can use it for anything to make it sound big, clever, or a technological marvel.  Take the “digital railway” for instance, what is it?  This is what they said on their website in 2019:

“Digital Railway aims to deliver the benefits of digital signalling and train control more quickly than current plans, deploying proven technology in a way that maximises economic benefit to the UK.”

In 2021, this was changed slightly and now reads:

“What’s the Digital Railway programme?”

The rail industry’s plan to transform the rail network for passengers, business and freight operators by deploying modern signalling and train control technology to increase capacity, reduce delays, enhance safety and drive down costs.”

Now, a couple of short videos are posted on the opening page:

That said, hundreds of signalboxes are now on their way into history, and the UK has come a long way from mechanical, through electro-mechanical and electronic systems, and is changing at an even faster pace today.

Chris Grayling, the then Transport Secretary, stated in 2017 he was taking £5 million from the £450 million pot for the UK’s “Digital Railway”, to enable Network Rail to investigate options for making the Manchester to Leeds route “digital”.  But why Network Rail – implementing ETCS at even Level 1 will require work from the train operating companies and rolling stock owners to retrofit their locomotives and trains.  On top of which, some have already been fitted with what will become non-standard TPWS, and cab signalling/driver advisory systems, which would add to the cost, although today ETCS has been used on lines in mid-Wales, and under test on the Hertford loop.

Clearly Mr Grayling – and maybe even the “Digital Railway” web pages are highlighting what they might like to see, and there is still much work to be done.

York IECC Control Room – 20th Century signalling technology

Yes – I know about the WCML upgrade work – but, although it was included in the EU “TENS” programme – I can’t help but wonder if it will be fully complete without more private investment, or ideally perhaps state investment.  ETCS together with GSM-R telecoms was and remains an integral part of the ERTMS platform, which perhaps not surprisingly has progressed in fits and starts over the years.

I remember first writing about this over 20 years ago, and whilst yes, historians will say that automatic train control systems have been around on London Underground, the Great Western Railway (in steam days), and even British Railways in the 1950s, this is really about ETCS.  Back in the 1990s, as Solid State Interlocking and IECCs (Integrated Electronic Control Centres) began to arrive on BR, the old fixed block systems were gradually being phased out and replaced by the new technology, which today we are obliged to call the “digital railway”. 

Inside Three Bridges (London) ROC

Ironically perhaps the video on the Digital Railway website states that the UK needs a new signalling system designed for the 21st century – what a pity the UK didn’t invest sooner in the 20th century system that this Digital Railway will use.  Perhaps the one thing I would take issue with in their promotional video is that this nirvana will provide “better connections” – well only if you provide more stations and more trains on new or re-opened lines perhaps! 

A current version of the same video, and the “better connections” feature seen previously seems to be missing, and more attention focussed on the improved capacity, and CDAS (Connected Driver Advisory System) included.  

Automatic Train Operation (ATO) still features, the ‘autopilot’ for trains, along with real time train performance information gathering – oh yes – and being able to update passengers in real time about delays.  This latter presumes that stations have information displays on the platform – many still do not have this, and it seems to depend on the train operating company (TOC) to put these facilities in place.  But it is progress – albeit slow.

Still we do have the experience of the Cambrian Line ETCS at Level 2 to gather data from, analyses and provide that next step.  However, despite Mr Grayling’s proposition, Thameslink is next in line, along with Crossrail – and presumably Crossrail 2, which has replaced the planned work on the Transpennine electrification.  The Thameslink core will be receiving in addition, a system from Hitachi that allows automated route setting, and claims to minimise signaller involvement, but does not control the interlocking directly, but responds to status information, with sophisticated software used to set or amend the route.

In 2018, details were published of the ETCS rollout projects for the remainder of Control Period 5 (CP5), which took us up to the end of 2019, and these included:

From that list – intriguingly – the ETCS deployment on Crossrail has been described as a “Metro based” signalling system, which is apparently not compatible with mainline deployment.  So, here we have a “digital strategy” to deploy ETCS Level 2, but which is not being deployed in a strategic way.  This is what the strategy document actually said:

“The Crossrail core section utilises Metro based signalling that is not scalable from either a technology or procurement perspective for widespread mainline applications.”

Given that Crossrail is supposed to provide a cross London route for main line trains, why would you deploy such a system?  Does it provide full ETCS/ERTMS compatibility, and does calling is a “Metro based” system just mean that its name is the only thing that has changed?

More recently, the rollout of ETCS has been proposed to the East Coast Main Line, and in 2018, the “Digital Railway Strategy” indicated that this would be done in a ‘discrete’ manner, as and when signalling was due for renewal and/or replacement.   Is this just a piecemeal approach?  This is what was stated as the 2018 strategic approach to signalling:

So, further deployments were planned in line with funding through CP6 and CP7, and in late 2020 it was announced that £350 million was to be used to deploy “digital signalling” on the southern section of the East Coast Main Line.   This is the section from King’s Cross to just north of Peterborough, and will be migrated to ETCS level 2 with no lineside signals in a phased approach.  At the same time existing passenger and freight trains will be fitted with the new technology.   The major changes to the infrastructure and signalling systems, including the provision and deployment of ETCS, was set to be carried out by a partnership of Network Rail, WS Atkins and Siemens in a framework contract. 

With a new Transport Secretary in place – Grant Shapps replaced Chris Grayling in July 2019 – the development and rollout of the “digital railway” is still not a strategic plan, but based on business cases for the routes, and often only sections of the main routes.  Much of the national rail network’s main routes will not see ETCS in either Level 1 or Level 2 form until the next two control periods have passed – sometime in the next 10 years.  In fact, according to the Long Term Deployment Plan, most work on the infrastructure – based on a business case for the specific renewals, and retrofitting trains – will happen between 2028 and 2039.  Presumably that depends on funding being available, and whether or not the private train operating companies – passenger and freight – buy into this evolving strategy.

Goodbye to the Signalbox

With the reliance on in-cab signalling and in formation, lineside signals will gradually reduce in importance to the operation of the train, and as innovation and technical developments take place, the control of train movements will become ever more centralised.  That said, controlling traffic flow will still need to have multiple – if fewer – points of control, and changes to movements and/or direction can be implemented more rapidly with 21st century communications.  This will have perhaps its greatest impact on the lineside feature that is the signalbox.

The traditional signalbox – IECCs and SSI as well? – is being replaced by the ROC (Railway Operating Centre) – which although essentially a Network Rail facility, will be a shared facility with the private train operators’ staff working alongside Network Rail at 12 locations. 

So close to nationalisation surely?

Of the ROCs being rolled out by Network Rail, Manchester was first, and kitted out with the latest software and systems for train control, planning, and automated route setting, opened in July 2014 by Sir Richard Leese.  In the UK this is the Hitachi platform for train management, known as “Tranista”, which was developed initially for GE Transportation Systems, but works with both Alstom MCS and Siemens Westcad

Manchester ROC Entrance

Nice, but functional, and behind the walls lies the heart of the operation, computer systems and traffic management software.

I’m guessing they’re not necessarily using Windows!

This has been a long time coming. Back in 2002 I wrote this item for ‘Engineering‘ summarising some of the platforms available, and what was being used and proposed on the UK rail network – much has changed and developed with technology, but it makes an interesting review.

-oOo-

Useful Links:

Network Rail Links

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