Digital Deep Dive: the future of ETCS with Toufic Machnouk

11 min


East Coast Main Line c. Flickr, Matt Buck

A £350m announcement to rollout European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 to the southern route of the East Coast Main Line (ECML) shines a spotlight as to how British railways could be made smarter in the future. But what are the key challenges to a shift of this magnitude, and how does COVID-19 come into it all? Tangent sits down with Toufic Machnouk, programme director for the East Coast Digital Programme, to find out more

The announcement by the Department for Transport in late June of a £350m to the East Coast Main Line has been long-awaited by many, and highlighted a reaffirmation of the nation’s eagerness to digitise its rail systems – even in uncertain times of falling passenger numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The funding for the installation of ETCS Level 2 will replace and upgrade dated conventional signalling equipment along the 100-mile route between London Kings Cross and Lincolnshire, lowering long-term maintenance costs, and providing the driver with detailed up-to-the-minute insight of activity on the track, improving efficiency and reducing delays for passengers and freight.

Allowing drivers to utilise the ETCS in-cab systems already available in LNER’s Hitachi Class 800 Azuma vehicles and Siemens’ GTR Class 700 and 717 EMUs, teams have already begun ‘First in Class’ retrofitting of ETCS in-cab equipment onboard older passenger and freight vehicles to ensure all users of the line can receive real-time information on what’s going on around them on the network.

East Coast Main Line Digital Programme Director Toufic Machnouk

For programme director Toufic Machnouk, the rollout of digital signifies a “step-change” in the running of the rail network. “What underpins that is two fundamental attributes,” he told Tangent. “If you travel on the ECML now, you’ll pass those traffic-light signals that were installed in the 80s. Someone designed that location for that signalling a very long time ago for the type of trains of the day, for the mix of trains, and it’s not easy to keep re-engineering that.” Toufic added that the industry entered CP6 with a “number of critical renewals” in the southern section of the East Coast Line. “If you don’t start renewing those assets in an integrated way towards an ETCS solution, you end up renewing the equipment conventionally, and the more you start doing that, the more you sink costs to commercial renewals that you could have leveraged towards ETCS.”

In addition to a smarter and more streamlined equipment renewals process, ETCS provides the driver with a “sat-nav system”, Toufic explained, allowing them to take a helicopter-style view of the network. Currently, a train on the route going at 125mph may have to reduce as much as 80% off its speed when approaching a red light conventional signal due to an upcoming level crossing, for example – until re-accelerating when visually identifying a green signal notifying a clearing of the crossing. With the in-cab ETCS system, the programme director detailed, the driver will now be able to see ahead of time that the level crossing has cleared, the signals are green, and may only have to reduce their speed to just 100mph, extending the driver’s movement authority, and allowing the train to remain near top-speed in its journey.

“There’s a philosophy in railways just like we see on the roads now with smart motorways: the whole idea is to keep the flow going,” Toufic noted. “And it is similar with trains – trains are big and heavy, if you reduce them down to 20mph then you lose so much time and you eat up capacity on the railways. If you can keep trains going you can pick up that speed again, and that aggregate is huge. Because we lose thousands and thousands of hours every year lost in these kinds of delays.”

There’s a philosophy in railways just like we see on the roads now with smart motorways: the whole idea is to keep the flow going

More broadly, Toufic noted that the ETCS installation can allow operators to capitalise on its dynamic and flexible capabilities for an agile network: “If you want to make a signalled railway bidirectional, you will have to signal it both ways, which is double the cost. You can capitalise on bidirectionality for morning services into a city, which could be three lines one way. Or how you manage perturbation where you have problems, like a train failure or some issue, how you use the other tracks can be different.

“All of that aggregates to: more dynamic, more flexible, and better services, higher performing and potentially more trains, because you get this underlying capacity uplift, but how you utilise it – and that’s why I’m very careful with the word ‘capacity’ – is down to timetabling, and choices that people have to make.”

Toufic Machnouk will be speaking next month as part of Peloton’s Immersive Summer Series! Click here to attend our virtual seminar on Driving Innovation in Signalling, at 09:30 6 August 2020.

UK’s position in digital

The £350m commitment from the DfT is clearly a welcome one, and many are hoping for further investments in digitisation of signalling across the UK rail system in the coming years. In the next 15 years, 60% of conventional signalling equipment will need to be replaced, presenting the UK with a major opportunity to beef up its infrastructure network.

But how does the UK stack up in its shift to digital compared to international networks? European nations such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland all have made further gains on its digital “journey”, as Toufic noted, however it could be said the UK has a more complex system than some of its continental counterparts.

The UK has been a leader in aspects of digitisation – the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) rolled out on the Cambrian line in 2010 and Thameslink’s ETCS ATO operation in 2018 two pertinent examples of this – but for the UK and other major networks, where and when to invest comes down to asset condition and the value for money in replacing them.

GTR EMU 700, c. Flickr, c. Hugh Llewelyn

“Everyone is on a journey, and it just depends on where they are on that journey, and how big of a challenge they face,” the Network Rail director said. “The journey and cracking on with that is all about how you tackle renewals, and every country is different with that.

“When you look at some of the bigger countries like France and Germany, they’re on that journey as well. Places like Spain have done it on high-speed lines, so anywhere people have built high-speed lines they’ve done it to ETCS – but on a conventional network like us, they’re identifying a rolling long-term programme that leverages the renewal need.

“If you just did that on a 20,000-mile railway, and added up the whole costs involved in that, the trains themselves would be a sliver at the top, and the mountain would be the infrastructure costs. So, you want to leverage where you do your renewals so you’re not having to renew the equipment twice.”

A mental shift

For Toufic, not all the challenges his team faces in a project of this scale are technical. The programme director highlighted that a key challenge for this programme may actually be the ideological shift from working with conventional signals towards unlocking the capabilities of ETCS. “Designing operating rules for how you do bi-directionality and how you benefit from that, that needs a lot of imagination and thinking and development to create the rules to do that,” he explained.

“The first bit is this immense challenge of the scale of change that needs to: this isn’t just a Network Rail thing. You’ve got four-train operators, seven-train operators, other operating entities like Heritage and Charter, on-track maintenance trains – these entities, for the railway to function properly, all need to be on ETCS – so the scale of change is a central and is the biggest challenge.”

The digital programme team has implemented what is known as Managing Successful Programmes (MSP), a change framework to drive home this evolution in methodology for drivers and operators on the network. Additionally, the team sought inspiration from different sectors – the delivery of change programmes in aviation with the National Air Traffic Service, for example – to identify how to properly orientate their change framework. “You’ve got to start that change early; it takes time, and it is ambiguous to scope up and bring all of these businesses along on a fairly challenging journey for how they need to adapt to staff up to deal with that, and to figure out what new capabilities they need and so on,” the director said.

Class 800 Azuma c. LNER

On the nuts-and-bolts side of the operation, retro-fitment and ensuring older vehicles harness the ETCS was a key priority for Toufic’s team from the beginning. ‘First in Class’ retrofitting development work is ongoing for older vehicles on the mixed-use railway, to ensure all vehicles are up to standard. “We looked at Denmark and the Netherlands, and they really had lots of challenges in retro-engineering old trains,” he explained. “So we said we’ve got to crack on with the trains early, because each one is going to have its own challenges.

“There’s hundreds of freight trains to fit with these ETCS systems. They were never designed to have ETCS systems, and it’s not impossible, but it’s challenging, because you have to retro-engineer that. So each one is a prototype – they call them First In Class – where you do prototype engineering by finding a solution for that train, and then it enters a production phase, and some types of trains like on-track machinery is bespoke; so you’re having to retro-engineer each one of those. So that’s a real challenge for us.”

Future plans – and how COVID-19 could impact them

The £350m announcement highlights that the government is still keen on pressing on with the digitisation of the ECML, despite a nationwide plummet in passenger numbers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside ETCS’s ability to give planners greater flexibility with its day-to-day operations, the long-term cost reduction in replacing dated legacy-style conventional signalling alone makes it a worthwhile decision to push ahead with the rollout of digital across not just the East Coast line, but potentially the West Coast Main Line, Anglia routes, and several others.

This isn’t just a Network Rail thing. You’ve got four-train operators, seven-train operators, other operating entities like Heritage and Charter, on-track maintenance trains – these entities, for the railway to function properly, all need to be on ETCS – so the scale of change is a central and is the biggest challenge

But with almost one in three British employees planning to continue to work from home after coronavirus restrictions end, and with many of those employees previously relying on the rail sector for the work commute, how will considerations for future investments change in relation to this change in demand from the ‘new normal’?

Toufic noted that the changing dynamics of the railway is something that “everyone is talking about” in government and Network Rail; particularly in relation to pre-lockdown plans to revamp the rail network in relation to rail franchising and the Williams Review, for example. “But also there’s likely to be an emerging impact on how economic cases are considered. The reality is that’s not entirely clear yet, from my perspective on how that’s going to be affected and how that may or may not change things,” the digital programme director outlined.

Future areas of investment for the digital rollout, Toufic said, may still be on track due to digitisation’s benefits including meeting objectives of the Rail Sector Deal, reducing capital costs, and getting more out of the railway – and noted that the case for the WCML and Anglia routes, for example, will come down to cost-value. “For each respective area, WCML, Anglia and various other routes, it’s about how you create that catalyst to start that route’s renewal. So for it to become an ETCS renewal, it’s part of that level of analysis – and because the big driver on costs is the asset and infrastructure, you just try and correspond that with train fitment happening or potential.”


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