The Department for Transport aims to accelerate the roll-out of digital signalling and control technologies on three major routes in England.
Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris has announced £1.2 million of funding for studies into the feasibility of installing digital signalling on vital sections of the West Coast main line, Midland main line and the East Anglia route, including Peterborough to Kings Lynn on the Anglia route, and in the Warrington and Wigan area on the northern section of the West Coast main line.
These feasibility studies will identify the most effective ways to apply this type of technology to the railway and new ways of working, capitalising on early engagement with the supply chain and creating further opportunities to encourage innovation and drive efficiencies across the regions.
This early scoping work follows the recent experience of the East Coast Digital Programme, where a partnership with route-based operators has been a success. It will lay the foundation for future digital signalling renewals as part of a wider national plan to introduce digital signalling across the rail network in Great Britain.
Chris Heaton-Harris MP, the Rail Minister, commented: “We’ve come a long way since the era of metal levers, used by Victorian signallers to provide safe passage for trains rolling into and out of stations. Now it’s our turn to be modern transport pioneers as we build the railway of tomorrow.
“Today’s investment brings forward early investigation work with Network Rail engineers and suppliers on how best to roll out digital signalling across the rail network, reducing delays and improving safety in the long term.
“Our ambitious programme to modernise Britain’s rail network will support the supply chain by creating high-skilled jobs and boosting the economy, as we level up the country and build back better after COVID-19.
Under conventional signalling, the network can struggle to recover quickly following disruption, with a small delay on one part of the railway still causing knock-on delays hundreds of miles away, on other parts of the network, many hours later.
Using the latest digital technology, signallers receive much better real-time information about train movements, enabling them to communicate with train drivers continuously to reduce the impact of delays. This ‘in-cab’ system will mean an end to conventional signalling at the side of the tracks – first used in the Victorian era.
As part of this work, the department is engaging with suppliers of digital signalling, and with industry experts across the country, to learn from similar schemes and drive efficiency in the government’s nationwide programme to roll-out this technology on the railway, part of the commitment with industry in the rail sector deal.
The announcement of the new feasibility studies follows an investment of £350 million toward the East Coast Digital Programme that was announced in June 2020. This will introduce digital signalling on the East Coast main line between London King’s Cross and Stoke Tunnel in Lincolnshire.
Andy Jones, director of Operational Programme Delivery at Network Rail, said: “We’re delighted with this development funding, which reconfirms the DfT’s commitment to pursuing the long-term deployment plan for digital signalling on Britain’s railway.
“The first three schemes – on the East Anglia route, the West Coast main line and the Midland main line – will help drive forward the modern railway we all need.”
David Clarke, technical director of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), added: “With around 60 per cent of signalling equipment units on the UK rail network needing to be replaced over the next 15 years, rail suppliers will need to gear up to ensure they are ‘match fit’ for a significant amount of work, ensuring its rollout is delivered efficiently, to time and to budget, and in order to ensure value for money for taxpayers and passengers.
“New digital technology will improve the reliability and resilience of the network, providing better services for passengers and freight, and will create highly skilled jobs across the UK, at a time when they are vitally needed.
“Today’s investment is a positive step towards rolling out digital signalling and builds on the great work undertaken through the Rail Supply Group (RSG) deal, a joint collaboration between industry and government. The Railway Industry Association and our members very much look forward to working with government in delivering digital technology across the network.”