A new signalling system has been commissioned over the bank holiday, promising Great Northern rail passengers at 30 stations much more reliable journeys on the route to Moorgate in the City of London. The new equipment has replaced ageing components dating back to the 1970s — including some old tripcock systems that still ran on compressed air — on the Northern City Line between Finsbury Park and Moorgate stations.

New signalling system (c) Network Rail

The initial stage, after some bedding in time, will reduce delays caused by signal failures, but the long term goal is ultimately that traditional signals will be removed from the tracks. Drivers will instead be digitally signalled through screens inside their train cabs, once the system testing and driver training period are complete.

The Northern City Line is expected to operate solely using digital signalling by 2024.

The old system caused around 9 hours of delays over the year due to being antiquated and harder to maintain, so the replacement was needed, but the decision to make the changes in the Great Northern line tunnels was also due to a much larger project that will eventually see much of the UK’s signalling upgraded.

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.

While good for Network Rail, the benefit for passengers is that they can also run trains closer together, depending on the signalling set-up, and with better oversight of where trains are on the network, the controllers can respond more rapidly to problems before they affect passengers.

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.

There’s now a plan to upgrade the entire East Coast Mainline railway, and that’s where the Northern City line comes in. Conveniently, it’s a simple line in railway terms and is also operated by GTR, which has experience from the Thameslink project. And the Northern City line recently started using a fleet of new trains, which were fitted with the in-cab equipment ready for the signalling upgrade.

Toufic Machnouk, Network Rail’s Director, Industry Partnership for Digital Railway, said: “This commissioning will deliver improved reliability for passengers and marks an important step forward in the wider East Coast Digital Programme that will transform the capability of a major intercity route.”

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8 comments
  1. ChrisC says:

    9 hours of delay in a year is a piddling amount of delay.

    Typo?

    • ianVisits says:

      10 minutes of delays a week — but if you delay a train by 30 seconds in the rush hour where trains are stacked up to get into platforms, that cascades right down the line and causes massive delays to the rest of the line.

    • ChrisC says:

      Which is still not a lot of delay!

      I’m aware the delays have a cumulative impact but 9 hours of cumulative delays year is still hardly anything in the scheme of things.

    • ianVisits says:

      Tell that to the people who spend ages stuck in a queue of trains because one train 15 minutes earlier missed its 20-second window to get through a junction because of a fault on the signalling that may have lasted 10-seconds at most, but in doing so caused a snarl-up for several miles down the tracks.

      You may think 9 hours a year is “hardly anything”, but clearly the railway disagrees with you, otherwise they wouldn’t be spending money to get rid of it.

  2. Nick says:

    I wonder if they will be able to run heritage trains under steam after the mainline is done?

  3. John Usher says:

    The 717’s seem to have eiiminated much of the delays caused by failures on switching from overhead to 3rd Rail at Drayton Park, and hopefully the signalling upgrade will further improve reliability.

    The ETCS was tested on the Hertford Loop beteween Hertford North and Stevenage in the yellow Class 313 test train (often parked up at Hornsey) – will the loop be an early adopter? That is another ‘simple’ line.

    That would only then need Finsbury Park to Alexandra Park on the ECML ETCS enbaled to connect Moorgate to Stevenage.

  4. Paul says:

    Replacing ancient signalling reduces costs on multiple fronts – the cost of obsolete component replacements, the cost of labour required for the constant maintenance effort, and the cost of delays and cancellations that follow from failures.
    Win-win-win.

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