Government to invest extra £350 million on digital signalling for East Coast main line

The government has announced it will invest an extra £350 million on digital signalling for the East Coast main line.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced that it will invest £350 million to install state-of-the art electronic signalling on the East Coast main line, to cut journey times and reduce delays.

This new cash injection, which comes on top of £1.2 billion already earmarked to upgrade one of the country’s most important rail arteries, is to start the process of rolling out digital signalling on the southern section of the East Coast main line, from London King’s Cross station as far north as Stoke Tunnel near Grantham. This is approximately where the four-track railway becomes twin-track as it goes further north.

Network Rail intends to replace the conventional signalling on this stretch of railway with ETCS (European Train Control System), a digital system that moves signalling information and commands onto the driver’s control desk and removes the need for lineside signalling. It will smooth the flow of trains, make journeys safer and reduce signal failures that every year result in thousands of hours of delays.   

ETCS digital signalling, as used here in Italy, will ease congestion and increase capacity.

The new investment will make the East Coast main line into Britain’s first long-distance main line railway with digital signalling. At present, only the Cambrian Coast railway, a test track near Hertford and the railway from Paddington into Heathrow Airport – currently under trial – are the only lines so fitted.

Upgrading the line is just one element of the government’s plan for a 21st-century rail network that will help spread prosperity to all parts of the country. A third of the United Kingdom’s population lives within 20 minutes of an East Coast main line station and, together, they produce 41 per cent of GDP.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has accelerated the roll-out of digital signalling to speed up Britain’s economic recovery as it climbs out of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. It is part of a wider national plan aimed at introducing digital signalling on to the entire rail network in Great Britain.

Under ETCS, the train communicates directly with the control centre, so signallers know its exact location at all timess.

The new technology allows signallers to know exactly where each train is at every minute of every journey. The East Coast main line is a mixed-use railway, with trains of different sizes and speeds, both passenger and freight, all using the same tracks. This smart signalling recognises these different trains, allowing train and track to ‘talk’ to each other continuously in real-time. This ‘in-cab’ system will mean an end to conventional signalling at the side of tracks – first used in the Victorian era.

More than 80 million journeys are made each year on the East Coast main line, linking London with Edinburgh, with congestion on the route compounded by signalling nearing the end of its useful life. The upgrade, between London King’s Cross and Stoke Tunnel in Lincolnshire, will ensure that more travellers reach their destinations on time. Delays in the south of the route have a knock-on effect further north, so the modernisation work will make life easier for people along the entire length of this vital national asset.

Secretary of State Grant Shapps.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “As the country recovers from Covid-19 we want to speed up our economy and reap the benefits of new transport technology. The Victorians gave us the world’s first great rail network and now it’s our turn to be modern transport pioneers and build on that great tradition.

“Upgrading this country’s conventional signalling system, and giving drivers technology fit for the 21st century, will boost train performance, cut delays, improve safety and support the supply chain.

“This is just the beginning. In time, we will digitise signalling right across the country to make good on our promise of better reliability and punctuality for passengers.

“Passengers shouldn’t have to worry about missing connections or being late home to see their children, and I’ve been clear that getting the trains to run on time is a personal priority.”

Today’s funding comes on top of the Government’s investment of £1.2 billion between 2014 and 2024 to improve passenger journeys on the East Coast main line, creating capacity for up to 10,000 extra seats a day on long-distance services, speeding up journeys and improving reliability for passengers.

Development work is already underway with Network Rail to roll out digital signalling on additional routes, including sections of the West Coast main line (London to Glasgow via the West Midlands), Midland main line (London to Sheffield and Leeds via Derby) and Anglia from 2026, leading to safer, more reliable, more resilient railways.

Toufic Machnouk, Network Rail.

The government has also announced that £12 million is being invested in fitting 33 new trains for the Midland main line with digital signalling equipment.

 Toufic Machnouk, programme director of the East Coast Digital Programme, said: “Today’s announcement is a big step towards transforming the network for the millions of passengers that use the East Coast main line and a welcome endorsement of the partnership approach that the rail industry has adopted to deliver Britain’s first inter-city digital railway.

“The funding detailed by the Secretary of State is very significant and will enable the vital building blocks needed to build a modern, right time railway.”

David Horne, LNER.

David Horne, LNER managing director and chairman of the East Coast Digital Programme’s Industry Steering Board, added: “After LNER and other operators on the East Coast successfully introduced brand new fleets, in-cab signalling will be the next exciting step we take to maximise the benefits of the technology that Azuma and all the trains on this route offer.

“This investment is good news for all customers, who will see even more improvements in services, reliability and sustainability.”

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