A less congested, better performing railway comes a step closer to reality today, with the signing of a major, multi-million pound contract that will ultimately see freight trains in Great Britain upgraded with technology to make them safer, make better use of the network, and provide greater flexibility in the timetable.

Freight trains – which can be up to 775 metres long – carry goods and materials all across the country. They support the economy by connecting British businesses to the world through direct links to ports and reduce road congestion by taking 7.6 million lorry journeys off the road each year. New digital technology will support this essential industry – which directly contributes £870m to the nation’s economy every year – by enabling more efficient and reliable running of freight trains alongside passenger services.

A landmark contract has been awarded to Chippenham based Siemens Rail Automation by Network Rail to start installing European Train Control System (ETCS) in-cab signalling on Britain’s freight fleet with an ultimate ambition of equipping around 750 vehicles, creating skilled jobs within the UK. This technology forms part of the country’s ‘Digital Railway programme’ – the industry’s improved plan to tackle the growing demand and strain on the railway by accelerating its digital modernisation – and will mean eventually, freight trains will have improved operational performance on a mixed traffic network. The Government has announced £450m in funding for digital railway schemes, as part of its National Productivity Investment Fund.

The initial focus will be on the heaviest used types of locomotive and the learning from this first stage will be used to inform the wider potential fleet roll-out from 2022 onwards.

With more than a million more train services running every year on our network than a few years ago, tackling congestion and crowding on our railway is a daily challenge. Our railway carries twice as many passengers as it did just two decades ago and demand is still rising. Upgrading the network’s railway signalling – the equipment used to manage and coordinate train traffic across the country – is the cornerstone of the Digital Railway programme, as switching from lineside signals to on-train will allow more trains to run on existing tracks, reduce crowding, provide better connections, and improve performance and safety for passengers.

The technology

The initial phase is expected to lead on to become one of the world’s biggest ETCS retro-fit programmes; Siemens will install its Trainguard 200 ETCS on-board solution on freight locomotives which operate across Great Britain. Siemens’ Trainguard Level 2, Baseline 3 system will be installed to align with Network Rail’s proposals for deploying ETCS to the rail network. The contract will see Siemens working with Network Rail and the six Freight Operating Companies (FOCs).

ETCS ensures trains always operate within safe limits and speeds, providing safe movement authority directly and continuously to the driver through a driver’s display. The system permits the driver to operate the train, but should the ETCS distance or speed limit be exceeded, or be in danger of being exceeded, then the on-board equipment intervenes to control the train, bringing it to stand if necessary. Siemens Trainguard 200 is a proven, lower power and reliable solution with highly robust fall-back odometry and radar configuration, and features ‘Automatic Warning System’ (AWS) and ‘Train Protection and Warning System’ (TPWS) functionality which is integrated into the ETCS driver display. With a small footprint and flexible hardware configuration, the system is ideally suited for design and installation across multiple freight classes.

Freight trains are at the forefront for ETCS fitment, as unlike other trains, they are able to travel across the entire country, passing many ‘route’ boundaries and interacting with various types of train traffic and signals.

Future jobs

The design, testing and approvals stage for each class of vehicle starts now and work to retrofit the entire freight fleet will begin in 2022 and continue through to Control Period 7 (CP7, 2024-2029). Additionally, around 2400 drivers will require additional training on how to use the new solution. Siemens and Network Rail will provide support to the Freight Operating Companies during this time, and it’s expected the programme will involve more than 150 skilled engineering jobs across the UK, with the installation teams being based at the Holgate and Eastleigh depots.

Industry reaction

Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Transport said: ‘We are making the biggest investment in the railways since Victorian times and this includes £450m for integrating digital technology on our railways. This technology has huge potential to improve journeys for passengers and to boost our freight industry by cutting delays and increasing the number of services. Today is an important step towards our future as a digital railway that is fit for the 21st century.’

David Waboso, managing director at Digital Rail said: ‘This is another hugely important milestone for digital rail technology on the railway, following the Crossrail and Thameslink deployments. It is a key enabler for a modern network and we have to address these go-anywhere vehicles first. It will support our future deployment of infrastructure with no lineside signals, more capacity and increased safety’

Pieter Rypma, Key Account Manager at Siemens said: ‘This programme provides confidence to the supply chain that there is a strong market for digital railway technology in the next railway period. It is a framework for long-term commitment to investment throughout the supply chain and provides job security across the UK. We are delighted to win this major contract and look forward to working with our freight sector partners’.

Rob Morris, Managing Director of Siemens Rail Automation in the UK said: ‘We are delighted to be working closely with Network Rail and the Freight Operating Companies (FOCs) on this landmark digital railway project, which will ultimately be one of the largest ETCS onboard retrofit programmes in the UK. This solution will allow the freight operating companies to continue to safely deliver a reliable service as ETCS technology continues to be rolled-out across the UK. Having proven our equipment and delivery capabilities in a number of similar projects in Europe, our experienced teams are now looking forward to working collaboratively with Network Rail and the freight operating companies to deliver this digital railway project.’

Paul McMahon, freight managing director at Network Rail said: This is a significant investment and underlines our commitment to the freight sector. It will assure long-term competitiveness through increased performance and is a key part of a cohesive portfolio of freight investment for CP6 and beyond.’

Nigel Jones, chair at Freight Stakeholder Group said: ‘Freight operators recognise the need for the digital railway transformation and have come together in a spirit of co-operation to support modernisation. This programme is the most efficient way of getting the freight sector ready to operate on digital infrastructure’.