The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced that it’s funding a substantial upgrade along the East Coast Main Line (ECML) to improve the signalling infrastructure.

The upgrade, known as the East Coast Digital Programme was announced in 2020 and will remove outdated lineside signalling and replace it with the European train control system (ETCS) that will be rolled out initially across the southern section of the line – from London’s King’s Cross to the Stoke Tunnels, just south of Grantham.

The East Coast Mainline — which links London to Edinburgh — was chosen for the upgrade as a third of the population lives within 20 minutes’ reach of one of its stations, together producing 41% of the total UK’s GDP. The line carries more than 80 million passenger journeys, and tens of millions of freight tonnes, worth £30bn, every year. There’s also the advantage that many of the newer trains in use on this railway are already fitted with or easy to upgrade to work with the new signalling system.

The new system, the European Train Control System (ETCS), will allow Network Rail to remove lineside signalling and put all that information on a display screen inside the train cabs instead. Not only does that reduce the cost of a signalling system as there’s less hardware, but there’s also a reduction in maintenance costs, as there are no longer any signals to maintain.

The main passenger benefit is that the railway controllers are able to be in constant contact with trains and are able to react faster to local issues and provide movement authorities when a driver would not traditionally be able to see the next trackside signal. That flexibility to keep trains moving can substantially improve the reliability of services, especially on the approach to stations where trains often need to arrive in a very tight window on the timetable to avoid delaying other trains behind them.

ETCS was first used in the UK on the Cambrian line as a test deployment, and then on Thameslink in the central core of the network. It’s also one of the signalling systems being used on the Elizabeth line.

The deployment of ETCS on the rest of the UK’s railway has been expected as it’s already being rolled out on the Northern City line between Finsbury Park to Moorgate, with the information learned from that deployment to be used to roll out the signalling upgrade across the rest of the UK. The Northern City line upgrade came online last month, and following a period of training, this section of the railway is expected to be fully converted to the new signalling by 2024.

Now that the Northern City line is up and running, that gives Network Rail the impetus to expand the signalling coverage, initially along 106 miles of railway out of King’s Cross up to Grantham, and eventually UK-wide.

The King’s Cross to Grantham section of the railway was chosen as it matches the 50-year olf King’s Cross and Peterborough control areas — both of which are in the process of being replaced with the York Rail Operations Centre. Although several years of parallel running will be required as the new signalling is overlaid on the old, the eventual aim is to remove the lineside signalling and switch entirely to screens inside the train driver’s cabin.

Modern trains come with that facility, and contracts are already being signed to retrofit older trains, and a project is underway to ensure heritage trains can continue to use the railway when the old signals are switched off.

It’s expected that the railway signalling upgrade will be completed, in phases by 2029.

Oddly though, the DfT’s statement said that the signalling upgrade will “replace outdated Victorian infrastructure with cutting edge digital signalling technology”, which has caused some chatter online as the signalling systems used on the railways are at most 60 years old, and none of it is Victorian.

Quite why the DfT threw that line in is a mystery as it seemed designed to do nothing other than to annoy railway people.

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8 comments
  1. Simon says:

    I suppose one could describe fixed block signalling as “Victorian”.

  2. John Airey says:

    Leading to the obligatory “what have the Romans/Victorians ever done for us?”!

  3. John Airey says:

    Does this mean that the 125mph limit can go then?

    I have to admit when I saw the size of investment new tunnels and a widened Digswell Viaduct were being drawn in my head

  4. Sam says:

    it is wrong to say that the DfT threw that line in to do nothing other than annoy railway people. The recent campaign, led by the DfT and NR Management, against industrial action conducted by the RMT union was based on the idea that the railway operates with Victorian working practices. This has been done in an attempt to justify to the British public their attempt to push forward with their workplace reforms to cut jobs and force through reduced terms and conditions of employment and lower working conditions for Network Rail employees.

    ‘Railway people’, as you put it, often seem to think that the world and the rail industry as a whole think about them a lot more than they actually do. There are several individuals within the industry, myself included, who do not engage with or consider the implications of this kind of throw-away comment (the railway to me is a job and just that – not a vocation or a way of life)

    Rail Enthusasists might get their knickers in a twist about inaccurate press releases the like such you are correct to pick up on, but whilst they get upset over a line of government propaganda, the rest of us get on with actually running the railway, fighting the DfT’s desire to cut pay and conditions, and ultimately keeping Britain moving.

  5. Crawler says:

    Wonder how disruptive the installation work will be – are we talking bus replacement services every evening and weekend between now and 2029? Hope not!

  6. Stuart says:

    Will this make higher speed limits a possibility? If I understand correctly the ECML has had locomotives capable of higher speeds since at least the late 80’s but 125 mph was deemed to be the maximum speed at which line side signalling could be reliably be observed.

  7. Nosmo King says:

    This must be the next step to full train automation.

    Once the signals are in the cab, there’s no point in paying someone £60k+ a year to translate signals into throttle control. The middleman (driver) will go and doubtless that’ll be more strikes coming our way.

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