The government has announced that it will invest £350 million to make the East Coast main line into Britain’s first mainline digital rail link by installing state-of-the art electronic signalling designed to cut journey times and slash delays.
This investment is on top of £1.2 billion already earmarked to upgrade one of the country’s most important rail arteries. It will fund the replacement of conventional signalling with a digital system that allows trains to talk to the track, smoothing the flow of trains, making journeys safer and reducing signal failures that every year result in thousands of hours of delays.
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.
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 COVID-19 crisis. It’s part of a wider national plan aimed at introducing digital signalling on to the entire rail network in Great Britain. The introduction of digital signalling is also set to create high-skilled jobs across the supply chain, helping boost the economy as the country builds out of COVID-19.
This upgrade of 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. More than 80 million journeys are made each year on the East Coast main line, linking London with Edinburgh. One 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.
The route is congested, due to the number of passenger and freight trains using it, 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.
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.”
The new 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 further routes including sections of the West Coast Main Line, Midland Main Line and Anglia from 2026, leading to safer, more reliable, more resilient railways. The government also announced today that £12 million is being invested in fitting out 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, London North East Railway (LNER) managing director and Chair 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.”
The rail industry is ready to take up the challenge. Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, said: “Today’s commitment of funding for the East Coast Mainline’s digital signalling is very welcome, as is the announcement of the fitment of in-cab signalling for the Midlands Mainline and development work on other lines.
“Over the coming 15 years, 60 per cent of the UK’s signalling equipment units require replacing, posing both a significant challenge, but also an opportunity to revolutionise our rail network’s signalling systems through digital technology. So, today’s announcement is an important step for UK rail and for realising the vision of the Rail Sector Deal to deliver a pipeline of cost-effective digital signalling.
“For businesses supplying the UK’s rail network with digital signalling, including schemes like ECML, it is vital there is a smooth and consistent build-up of work over the coming years, so that the sector can develop the capacity and capabilities to deliver this programme of investment. The Railway Industry Association and its supplier members look forward to working with the government to explore how this investment can be sped up further, increasing the roll out of digital signalling, whilst also boosting investment and jobs at such a critical time for the UK economy.”