Some developments on the UK Network

Posted: 3 November 2005 | | No comments yet

These are exciting times for the UK rail network and for its infrastructure manager, Network Rail and the next five years will lay the foundation for the next 50.

These are exciting times for the UK rail network and for its infrastructure manager, Network Rail and the next five years will lay the foundation for the next 50.

These are exciting times for the UK rail network and for its infrastructure manager, Network Rail and the next five years will lay the foundation for the next 50.

After nearly five years of hard work, train performance has been re-established at levels good enough to see real growth in patronage once again. Major projects, such as the rebuilding and upgrading of the West Coast Main Line and the construction of the high speed line from London to Eurotunnel, are nearing completion. Other major projects now underway, such as the building of a complete new telecoms network, are creating the backbone of tomorrow’s railway. At the same time, Network Rail has organised itself and is now transforming its processes. Being one of the first of the new European infrastructure managers, and in a complex political climate too, has made for a difficult and testing time since 1994, as has been extensively reported on elsewhere. Network Rail has approached its task of rebuilding Britain’s railways with commitment and tenacity coupled with forging open honest relationships with its stakeholders and customers. Some aspects of Network Rail’s activities are outlined here for the information of those networks now embarking on vertical separation.

West Coast Main Line Upgrade

September 2004 saw the completion of the first stage upgrade of the West Coast Main Line, covering the core route from London to Crewe and Manchester and enabling tilting trains to run at speeds of 200kmh. At the end of this year, most of the remaining route to Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow will be commissioned. The remaining capacity enhancement works – such as four-tracking in the Trent Valley and completely remodelling the Rugby and then Crewe areas – will then follow. Creating the formation for these is now underway.

Whilst the spotlight has focussed on higher speed and tilting train technology, the challenges of running reliably the most intensively used mixed traffic railway in Europe has demanded the rethinking of infrastructure management and the introduction of several new technologies.

In addition to high speed trains, the route takes intensive suburban traffic and is the primary freight artery of the UK network with both higher speed container traffic and 25 tonne axle weight heavy haul.

In the last three years we have introduced our new NR60 generation of main line switches and crossings, based on best practice in Europe, powered by new designs of switch drives which not only provide higher reliability but which also allow completely mechanised maintenance.

For train detection we have turned to axle counters which, with some remaining technical issues now nearly overcome, promise higher levels of reliability over track circuits. Of equal importance, axle counters allow the removal of the last joints in an otherwise continuous welded rail railway. This in turn is permitting the full introduction of greater reliance on automated examination of tracks with much reduced human inspection – and with it reduced trackworker safety exposure and avoidance of traffic interruption for patrolling. To cope with the power requirements of trains once capacity improvements are complete, the route will be the first in the UK to deploy auto transformer technology with all the changes in electrical control and immunisation that entails.

It is with this project that we have introduced high quality track renewals and proven for ourselves the whole life costing theories which have emerged from Austria in recent times. Track renewals completed to conventional standards have demonstrated the need for tamping maintenance every 60 months or so of traffic – barely a year’s worth on the West Coast main line. Recent renewals completed to new engineer’s quality standard have shown minimal deterioration in the same time and a tamping interval of around 200mt, or at least three years, looks likely. Given the cost of traffic interruption (it is not unusual for interruption costs to exceed the cost of work itself) the business case for high quality on our principal main lines is proven.

Major projects around London

Much has been written on the successful completion of the first stage of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2003, bringing 300kph running to the UK for the first time. The second, final stage is heading towards completion in 2007, on time and in budget this will enable us to be part of this significant expansion of the international high speed train network in that year.

Of at least equal significance to the prosperity of our capital city has been the power upgrade project for the Southern third rail electrified network. Almost unnoticed the traction supply to all the principal line out of South of London has been completely upgraded. This is to introduce a new generation of 160kph trains, with all the power demands of higher speed and acceleration and train auxiliaries, such as air conditioning, modern trains bring. This, the largest rolling stock replacement programme in recent times, has seen the replacement of all the 1950s/60s era trains – some 2,000 carriages.

Proving that the project has been completed on time, well under budget, on an intensively used network essential to the economy of London and the South East, is symptomatic of the regained confidence within Network Rail. Over the next five years our teams face the even greater challenge of major enhancement projects all round London, not only to make the network fit for the next generation but specifically to ensure it is ready for the 2012 Olympic Games.

It is not only London where projects are expanding the capacity of the UK network and making it appropriate for the 21st rather than the 19th Century. Under the sponsorship of the new Scottish Executive and Parliament, a series of new and reopened lines have been planed and are now being designed to be built during the next five years. Elsewhere, a strategy of incremental enhancement has been established off the back of the £2.5 billion per year infrastructure renewal programme. Wherever a significant condition based renewal is necessary, the opportunity is being taken to provide for both today and tomorrow’s needs. Typical examples already being progressed are higher speed entry or exit switches at junctions and stations to realigned bridges with increased loading gauge clearances. The incremental cost is usually small compared to the future business opportunity realised.

Control system projects

The first pilot sections of the major project which perhaps will have the greatest long term impact on the UK network have just gone live this summer. This is the combined total replacement of the railway fixed telecom network and the national roll out of GSM-R. Two years into a project that will take 10 years and £1.2 billion before total completion is achieved, the pilot project, on part of the north Glasgow suburban network is complete and the two new national telecoms network management centres commissioned.

The GSM-R network of 2,020 new radio sites will replace entirely the first and second generation train radio networks built in the 1970s and 1980s. At least as challenging will be the fitment of over 9000 train cabs while maintaining train services on a daily basis. The pilot scheme was devised primarily to test the logistics of train fitment and also to gain early experience of the revised operational and procedural rules the GSM-R system requires. Great importance is also placed on equipping operational and engineering teams with GSM-R handsets – significant improvements in safety and efficiency are foreseen from lineside teams being integrated in one secure railway telecoms network. The national fixed telecoms network is being replaced with new fibre and copper routes as part of GSM-R roll out. The existing network is nearing life expiry so the business case was strong for combining the two projects and configuring the new fixed network to future needs.

Following the completion of the pilot project in Strathclyde next year, the major milestone will be completion of the primary UK routes by 2009 and the London suburban network a year later. 2011 will see the secondary network on-line and 2013 the final rural and freight extremities covered.

The GSM-R/FTN project is the key enabler for the remainder of our future railway control system strategy, the introduction of ETCS and Eurointerlocking. Much has been made of the UK position on both these technologies but the position is clear: the UK will move to train based signalling and the technology used will be ETCS, or its developments, provided it is reliable and cost effective. There is every confidence that soon, with stability of specification and greater service experience, ETCS will become reliable. What has yet to be proven is cost-effectiveness. Careful study has highlighted that the critical factors are mitigation – both technical and operational. We must minimise expensive, parallel, duplicate fitment with existing train control systems. We must also introduce substantially different operating rules and procedures onto the UK railway whilst expecting particularly drivers to switch back to traditional rules and procedures when not on ETCS equipped route. The relatively new discipline of ergonomics, or ‘human factors’, is at the centre of designing an operational system from the basic technology.

To optimise the introduction of ETCS, a huge exercise has just been completed to determine the condition – led renewal dates for the existing signalling systems across the whole UK network. Against that baseline, a mix of premature renewal of some locations and life extension of others has been devised to create a route based plan for the next 30 years which holds the key to successful implementation of ETCS technology in the most whole life cost effective and operationally effective way. Within the next year this will be presented to the UK Government for discussion on long term funding strategy.

Meanwhile, just as with GSM-R, it is important to carry out a pilot installation; not to see if the technology works but to get early experience of the human factor aspects of the very different operational rules and processes and also the issues around fitment of existing train fleets. The pilot route is the Cambrian line in mid-Wales.

We are about to tender the fitment of a level 2 system to replace the RETB (Radio Electric Token Block) technology fitted to the infrastructure and a captive fleet of trains. The existing system has no signals and no track based train detection – it is a heritage level 3 system! For a level 2 product, the project will include fitment of axle counters. However, it remains an aspiration to achieve level 3 on at least the very low density coastal section of the route which is single line and where safety levels can be achieved for both train separation and integrity by simple technology.

Network Rail is a keen supporter of the Eurointerlocking project – and in particular wishes to see the early development of object controllers for ground based equipment such as switches and level crossings. This is the other opportunity made possible by the FTN project; the new network has the capacity and has been configured to enable introduction of object controllers. It is strongly believed these hold the key to affordable signalling over the coming decades.

So the future control system strategy has become clear, based on the opportunities of GSM-R, the emergence of ETCS and the condition based renewal needs of the network, and low cost level 3 for the remainder and with the remaining lineside equipment driven by object controllers commanded over the new fixed (FTN) or radio (GSM-R) network.


In 2004, Network Rail reviewed the way it was then organised which was in seven virtually self sufficient geographical regional management structures supported by a small policy setting and central services headquarters. There were several key issues facing the infrastructure manager:

  • The need for continuing rapid improvement in train service delivery, most of which operated over more than one region
  • A regulatory funding settlement which required cost efficiency savings of at least 30% across operational, maintenance and project disciplines
  • The decision to undertake track, signal and action power maintenance by direct labour rather than continue to contract out
  • The commencement of a series of national or at least multi-regional projects, some of which are described above
  • The need to demonstrate consistent whole-life asset management to a single set of infrastructure stewardship criteria

It was decided that the route to consistent and rapid business improvement lay in replacing the regional structure with a national functional/organisation working together through strong cross-functional management business processes, and clear objectives.

On 24 May 2004, the company was organised principally into three national delivery functions – Operations & Customer Services, Maintenance and Major Projects and Investment (including renewal works) supported by one specifying and asset management function – engineering. These were also key staff units such as finance, human resources, safety compliance etc.

Such a major reorganisation was not made lightly but the results so far fully justify the decision. Most obviously it has allowed management teams in each function to focus on their part of what is a very complex railway system. And each decision, once justified and accepted, is made only once for the whole of the network. Therefore the pace of change has increased and the improvement in business performance accelerated. Whether measured by safety, performance, cost efficiency or asset condition, the year since organising on national functional lines has been hugely successful.

After the difficulties of the early years of vertical separation, watched with concern by our friends in the rest of Europe, Network Rail has emerged organised and with management processes created from hard-won experience. Perhaps our friends can learn from us without having to report all the experiences.

Our recent track record, not only in hard service and cost performance, but also organising around clear business processes and simple focussed management structure, has created the environment whereby major investment is being authorised to create the railway of tomorrow. It is an exciting time to be in Network Rail.