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Passengers have ridden the UK’s first self-drive mainline train in a major milestone for the rail industry.

On 26 March 2018 the 09.46 service from Peterborough to Horsham, one of the new routes that will be opened up by the industry’s biggest timetable change for a generation in May, ran under automatic train operation (ATO) between St Pancras International and London Blackfriars.

Thameslink trains will in future use the technology, developed by Siemens and operating on Network Rail’s new digital signalling system, to run between London St Pancras and London Blackfriars at a rate of a train every 2-3 minutes – a frequency never before achieved on Britain’s railways.

Automation will make this ‘core’ north-south connection across the capital the new heart of the region’s railway network. It will serve 80 more stations than today on 12 separate routes, helping create capacity for up to 60,000 more people in each peak and speeding journeys for hundreds of thousands of passengers.

Delivered by the Government-sponsored £7bn Thameslink Programme, which also includes Britain’s biggest new train fleet and the £1bn upgrade of London Bridge station, it is a key element in Govia Thameslink Railway’s RailPlan20/20 modernisation plans.

Martin Chatfield, Network Rail Project Director for High Capacity Infrastructure, said: “Seeing the first UK mainline train running in ATO for passenger services is a truly momentous day for the Thameslink Programme High Capacity Infrastructure Team, and the wider industry teams that have been involved.  This underlines the combined efforts of Network Rail, the supply chain, and the train operators over the past five years to reach this point. It not only proves the digital railway technology within the heavy rail environment, but it also demonstrates that an industry approach is the way to solving railway capacity issues in the future.

The Siemens in-cab system uses optimum acceleration and braking on board the Class 700 Thameslink trains while maintaining a smooth ride for passengers. The driver remains in the cab to check the platforms at stations, close the doors, and manage the overall safe operation of the train. ATO works with Network Rail’s new digital signalling system, which means that trains can safely travel closer together through the central section of London with knock-on benefits for hundreds of thousands of passengers across the wider network.

Twelve different routes will pass through the central section from places as far afield as Peterborough and Cambridge, and Brighton and Maidstone, meaning passengers will be less likely to need to switch to the Tube. ATO is one of a series of innovations to significantly boost capacity on the most heavily congested network in southern and eastern England, creating space for 40,000 more commuters into London each morning and evening peak this May, and 60,000 by December 2019.

GTR Engineering Director Gerry McFadden said: “Govia Thameslink Railway is blazing a trail with self-drive trains which can run at higher frequency than manual operations. We are embracing digital technology to boost capacity through the heart of London, an historical bottleneck that has held back rail expansion across the south of the country.

“Self-drive technology also has great potential for the rest of the country’s rail network, particularly on congested routes, and could in future reduce the need for costly infrastructure projects. This is a world-first in terms of the technology being used and a UK-first for self-drive trains. It’s a fantastic achievement and a vital part of our RailPlan 20/20 plans to modernise Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express on the busiest part of the UK rail network.

“We’ll always need a driver in the cab but this technology allows us to run more trains, more frequently than we could by driving the trains manually and for passengers, the trip will be as smooth as ever. Trains can run more frequently, which allows us to add 80 more stations to the Thameslink network across the south and east of England, speeding journeys for hundreds of thousands of passengers. Drivers and their union representatives have been fully consulted.”

Mark Ferrer, Operations Director Digital Rail, Siemens said: “This brings to life the hard work and commitment from the entire Siemens, Network Rail and GTR team, collaboratively proving the operation of digital signalling and automation technology on a critical part of the railway infrastructure and realising the future of train control. This major milestone is the culmination of years spent testing in labs, on various test tracks and on the actual Thameslink Core with the new Class 700 Desiro City trains. The introduction of these technologies delivered in the UK, maintains Siemens’ position as a world leader in the application of leading edge solutions to the in train control systems, and new generation digital trains.”

The Thameslink Programme is improving connections through London, giving passengers better travel options to more destinations. It has already delivered longer, 12-car trains between Brighton and Bedford, platform lengthening at a dozen stations between St Pancras and Bedford, track work and upgraded stations at Farringdon and Blackfriars. The redevelopment of London Bridge station, a £1bn project that has been ongoing since 2013, is a cornerstone of the Thameslink Programme and is now nearing completion.

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