The capabilities of digital signalling with John Doughty, LNER

8 min


As the government seeks to encourage passengers back onto the rail networks, London North Eastern Railway (LNER) is focussing on its core user market of leisure travellers to utilise the beauty of the East Coast Main Line (ECML). Now, following the £350m investment in continuing the digitisation of the route, LNER hopes the European Train Control System (ETCS) will lead to greater punctuality, reliability, and safety on the rail networks. Tangent sits down with John Doughty, engineering director, to find out more on the prodigious potential of a digital rail network.

Could you walk us through how recent months have been for your teams in managing passenger numbers, and what the next few months ahead could look like?

JD:  We made sure that we are working within the guidelines that have been laid down; quite early on in the year, when it was apparent that the COVID-19 was getting closer and closer, we set up a working group, bringing a number of managers out of their normal roles to work full-time on this project.

There’s quite a lot of activities we suspended. For a period, we closed our travel centres at stations, we stopped all catering on trains, lots of things that we did that perhaps weren’t absolutely essential, and therefore the safest thing to do was to not do them at all – and there’s people that stayed at home and worked.

John Doughty, Engineering Director, LNER

We’re still not running a full train service – probably about 75-80% of the train service running at the moment – but that is providing a good service to serving all of our destinations, just not quite at the usual frequency. But it’s certainly got plenty of capacity.

I think the only thing we’re looking at at the minute is weekends. We probably need to run a few more trains at weekends, because the leisure market is coming back. Unlike a lot of the railways where perhaps they’re focussed on commuting people into London, on LNER commuting is a tiny percentage of our customers.

The majority are leisure customers, and then people travelling for business meetings, and then commuting is a very small proportion. We do see that coming back surprisingly well, actually – it’s ahead of our estimations in terms of the numbers of people, and indeed, on some trains, we’ve got quite a few trains at the weekends that have reached their capacity, or their revised load capacity, because we’re still maintaining a metre in social distancing in terms of the layout of the train.

We’ll have to continue to see how they evolves over the next six to 12 months – and clearly we’ve needed the government support that we’ve had, because all of our revenue was gone within a couple of weeks. So, we’ve relied on that support that has thankfully been there for the rail industry, which we’re very appreciative of.

John Doughty will be speaking 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.

From a provider perspective what kinds of capabilities are unlocked by a fully-functioning digital East Coast Main Line?

JD: The benefits that we are going to get out of this are huge – and do fit in with what we are aiming to achieve. There are lots of different aspects to it, but it should help us improve performance in the railway, in terms of the reliability of the assets – because you are removing what ultimately will be life-expired signalling equipment.

c. LNER

It means that our braking and approach control procedures can change compared to what they are today, because we’ll be able to see into the future faster than we can today. And so I think we’ll get improved punctuality of that, and better operational recovery as a result.

There’s also big safety benefits as well; whilst we’ve got the Train Protection Warning System (TPWS) that was installed a number of years ago nationally on the network, the first stage of ETCS automatically has train protection, which really helps remove a number of the remaining potential human error risks – and so it really helps drive safety.

This is part of a philosophy to try and convert the railways into ‘smart motorway’ style systems where congestion is eliminated, is that right?

JD: Just to give you an example – there’s a flat crossing at Newark where the trains on the different route go across the ECML at the same level. So if you can see you’ve got a freight train and a passenger train that would potentially conflict, obviously, the existing signalling prevents that from happening. But you can’t see very far in advance. Whereas, with ETCS in-cab equipment, you could be in a train in Peterborough and you could be forecasting a problem at Newark, and therefore instead of accelerating the train to 125mph, you might accelerate it to 100mph, or 110mph.

By the time you get to that point of conflict, the conflict has gone – the other train has passed, you don’t have to stop 400 tonnes of train and then start it again. And so by doing that, as well as probably running slightly slower in approach, you cease having to stop the same to start it again – and all of that significantly reduces energy.

There’s no doubt about it – it’s one of the biggest and most fundamental changes to railway operations, I wouldn’t quite say since the invention of signalling, but it’s an absolutely massive landmark change

So it gives us a lot of performance benefits, energy-saving benefits, and capacity: we’re not reliant on ETCS to give us the capacity we need in the future, but it certainly removes one of the key obstacles to capacity on the national rail network.

There’s no doubt about it – it’s one of the biggest and most fundamental changes to railway operations, I wouldn’t quite say since the invention of signalling, but it’s an absolutely massive landmark change. Anything where you’re going to challenge the operating procedures and say ‘right, we’ve operated like this for the last 100 years or more, but now we’re going to do it differently’, you don’t do something like that often.

The Hitachi Azuma Class 800 vehicles used by LNER already come equipped with ETCS in-cab equipment – however other commuter vehicles using the line will need to be retrofitted with the equipment. How much work has LNER done in training drivers and other providers to ensure a smooth transition to ETCS?

JD: It requires lots of teamwork, whether it’s with our own operations staff, but also other industry colleagues and other train operators, to make sure that we’ve got a common set of principles. There’s lots of cooperation between all train operators on this project – and we have got some sort of common approaches towards it, so that’s a really important feature of this.

Even ourselves – we’re not the first in the UK, we’ve had a project team on this now for around six or seven years. We’ve spent quite a bit of time over the Cambrian route, which was the first route where this was trialled a number of years ago. We have a number of our own drivers on LNER who have retained their competencies for driving over the Cambrian route – they’ve evolved to driver champions that were involved in the tasking.

c. LNER

That is a really important part of it – we have very much been working as an industry here. So this isn’t LNER’s project. This is an industry digital programme, and we certainly will be sharing our experiences with working closely with the operators who are on our ‘patch’, if you like.

You’ve led this ETCS project for the ECML on behalf of LNER – with digitisation projects due to be rolled out elsewhere in the UK, how important is knowledge-sharing in this project with other stakeholders in the industry?

JD: We’ll certainly be making sure that we’ll communicate this to everybody else in the industry. We’ve also got our driving cab simulators. We’ve got four driving cab simulators spread along our route that are fully ERTMS-equipped, so we can already drive an ERTMS railway just in our driving cab simulators. That means we can do a lot of training in that way.

It’s still going to be a sizeable programme to train the drivers, and it’s a big change to what they’ve been used to, but there’s been an incredible amount of interaction with the drivers, union reps, and also drivers themselves, as I said we’ve got driver champions who are fully engaged with this project. We will be absolutely happy to share our experience on that with rest of the industry as this gets rolled out across the country.


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