The East Coast Main Line is set to become Britain’s first mainline digital rail link, with £350m of new investment to install state-of-the art electronic signalling designed to cut journey times and slash delays.
The new £350m cash injection will fund the replacement of conventional signalling on a 100-mile stretch of the line between London Kings Cross and Lincolnshire with a digital system that allows trains to talk to the track.
Ministers claim this will smooth the flow of trains, make journeys safer and reduce signal failures that every year result in thousands of hours of delays, and is part of a wider national plan aimed at introducing digital signalling to the entire rail network in Great Britain.
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.
Ministers claim 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.
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 ministers claim that 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.”
Development work is also 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 (22 June) that £12m 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, LNER managing director and chair of the East Coast Digital Programme’s industry steering board said: “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.”
Will Rogers, managing director of East Midlands Railway, said: “This vital signal investment is great news for the Midland Mainline and all the passengers we serve. Our new state of the art bi-mode trains will now come into service during 2023 with digital signalling technology ready to take advantage of the greater efficiency and flexibility this route upgrade will offer.”
Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association, said: “Over the coming 15 years, 60% 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.”
No date has been given for when the new digital signalling will be operational on the route.