Introducing a new signalling and control system through the Thameslink core
A world first on the mainline railway in passenger service
The implementation of the Thameslink Programme was carefully phased to ensure that a reliable service was maintained as the new signalling and control system was introduced, with Siemens and Network Rail working in close collaboration to deliver the High Capacity Infrastructure (HCI) programme.
The HCI programme provides the European Train Control System (ETCS) and enhanced signalling control systems needed to support automatic train operation (ATO) and timetable management, these systems being critical to the programme being able to reliably achieve the required 24 train per hour operation.
The introduction of this system means that when deployed across the Thameslink core and London Bridge areas, all train movements are controlled automatically from Network Rail’s new Three Bridges Rail Operating Centre, with every train running at the optimised speed profile and intervals, performing accurate stopping, and maintaining a strict adherence to station dwell times.
On 17 March 2018, GTR successfully ran the world’s first train operating ATO over ETCS on the mainline railway in passenger service. The southbound 8-car Thameslink train brought itself to a halt automatically at London St Pancras International at 13.53, having transitioned into ETCS Level 2 Full Supervision and then ATO on its approach from Kentish Town.
With the driver checking the platforms, closing the doors and then selecting ATO again, the train with its in-cab signalling then continued under automatic control through Farringdon, City Thameslink and London Blackfriars. It finally transitioned out of the system on its exit from London Blackfriars, as it headed towards Elephant & Castle.
What the project entailed
The implementation of the Thameslink Programme was carefully phased to ensure that a reliable service was maintained as the new signalling and control system was introduced, with Siemens and Network Rail working in close collaboration to deliver the High Capacity Infrastructure (HCI) programme. This key element in the programme provides the European Train Control System (ETCS) and enhanced signalling control systems needed to support automatic train operation (ATO) and timetable management, these systems being critical to the programme being able to reliably achieve the required 24 tph operation.
The introduction of ETCS and ATO followed a progressive programme of integration and system-testing. The first stage of this was completed in the System Integration laboratory, the programme’s hardware test environment which was engineered and built by Siemens in collaboration with Network Rail. With successful results here, further extensive trials were undertaken at the ETCS National Integration Facility (ENIF), where the new Siemens Class 700 train was also introduced.
With testing continuing at ENIF, a series of tests was also undertaken in the Thameslink core. In Autumn 2015, Network Rail completed the first ETCS trials through central London, with the Network Rail ETCS test train completing a series of tests between Elephant and Castle and Kentish Town on weekends in October and November. The equipment worked first time and demonstrated the technically demanding transition from traditional signalling to ETCS. During 2016 and 2017, further testing was then successfully carried out with the new Siemens Class 700 trains between Blackfriars and St Pancras.
The introduction of this system means that when deployed across the Thameslink core and London Bridge areas, all train movements are controlled automatically from Network Rail’s new Three Bridges Rail Operating Centre, with adherence to station dwell times. Siemens’ continuous automatic train protection (ATP) system, provided as part of the ETCS, means that it does all of this with a high level of safety protection.
ETCS provides continuous automatic train protection (ATP), enabling the train-borne ATO unit to drive the train within the speed and distance limits set by the ETCS system. This allows the trains to be safely managed at closer intervals, allowing a greater throughput of traffic. If the speed or distance limits are exceeded, then ETCS will intervene and return the train to a safe state.
From the automatic train regulation (ATR) within the control system, the ATO unit also receives a ‘target arrival time’ for the next station, enabling it to fine tune the train’s speed for optimum performance. Once ETCS is engaged, drivers on Siemens’ new Class 700 trains, accept automatic control on arriving at the ATO boundary, normally with the train continuing on the move, with a transition back to manual control at the end of the ATO-controlled area.
Although ETCS allows trains to use the Thameslink core lines more efficiently, by managing the signalling directly to the train through the radio block centre (RBC), the conventional signalling system in the area has been retained, allowing ‘non-ETCS’ traffic to use the lines.
To achieve an operational 24 tph timetable, the signalling and control system has a design capability of 30 tph in both directions, to allow for recovery from any perturbation.
ATO opens the train’s doors immediately it stops in order to meet a 45 second dwell time – allowing passengers time to embark and disembark before train dispatch. To maintain passenger safety, door closing is manually controlled by the driver.
An integral component of the £7bn Thameslink Programme, the High Capacity Improvement project has provided the European Train Control System (ETCS) and enhanced signalling control systems needed to support automatic train operation (ATO) and timetable management. These systems are crucial to the programme being able to reliably increase train frequency from 16 to 24 tph in each direction through the core Thameslink area from Blackfriars to St Pancras.
The success of the programme can be seen with the world’s first train running ATO over ETCS in passenger service on a mainline railway. It will however also be seen as the frequency of train services increases over time from 18 tph through 20 and 22 tph before ultimately hitting 24, when Thameslink will offer a tube-like service of trains every 150 seconds through the central London Thameslink core.
The Thameslink Programme lays the foundations for the biggest transformation in services that this part of the rail network has seen in decades. The new, high frequency timetable takes advantage of the new infrastructure to provide more capacity, new journey options and better connections for passengers across London and the south east.
From a sustainability perspective, the use of digital technology has meant that the project hasn’t needed the same level of civil engineering works that would be required by a conventional solution, the programme utilising the existing infrastructure in a smart way, rather than digging up swathes of the network. The system is also ‘future-proof’, with the capability to support additional capacity through the Thameslink area, if required.
When deployed for the first time across the Thameslink core area, the enhanced control system and ETCS protection enabled the train-borne ATO unit to achieve the necessary driving performance at closer intervals and greater throughput – both of which are required to achieve the 24 tph timetable.
Given the complexity and sheer scale of the project, collaboration has been at its core, with Siemens and Network Rail adopting a ‘one team’ approach to successfully deliver the programme. This has effectively taken collaboration to a new level, with a complete transparent operation helping to overcome any obstacles that the programme threw up.
The roles in the team were assigned to the best person for the job (regardless of their organisational allegiance), with the team then encouraged to identify solutions to problems as they occurred – rather than escalate them up the organisations’ hierarchies as may previously have been done. Put simply, project behaviour has changed from ‘escalation mode’ to ‘solution mode’, such that solutions are now developed rather than problems escalated.
The success of this approach, in a highly-pressurised environment, can be seen by the fact that the majority of the team are still in the team – having benefited from working on a challenging and technologically innovative programme.
The Thameslink project will be the first operational application of full ATO functions over ETCS, certainly in the UK, and possibly the world and is Siemens’ first operational application of ETCS (both for the infrastructure and on-board) in the UK. The introduction of ATO represents a vital part of the high-capacity timetable planned for the route and means that every train runs at the optimised speed profile, performs accurate stopping, and advises the driver to adhere to strict station dwell times.
As a world-first, the project has delivered a great many lessons for the future deployment of digital solutions, not least through the skills and experience that have been gained by the members of the combined project team, all of whom are now eager and equipped to deliver such schemes in future.
We have also trained up and invested in the next generation of railway engineers, creating the industry’s future leaders. The team of graduates that entered the programme are now fully-fledged professionals, with invaluable experience of ETCS which the industry will need as digital technology is rolled out.
The project’s legacy is clearly in the high-performance railway that it has provided, but from a broader industry viewpoint, it is also evident in the well-trained and exceptionally capable team of engineers that are now available across the wider supply chain. The legacy therefore is that the project has created an industry that is capable of executing projects repeatedly.
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