Investment in rail infrastructure continues to rise as governments recognise its potential to support economic growth, environmental sustainability and liveable communities.

Investment in rail infrastructure continues to rise as governments recognise its potential to support economic growth, environmental sustainability and liveable communities. 


For passenger rail services, increased patronage is pushing change in the signalling space locally, and quite significantly on a global scale to support high-capacity railways.  


As the number of brownfield rail projects grow in Australia, we look to international best practice on how to get more out of existing rail networks, increase capacity and improve their overall performance. 


The Thameslink Programme in London, provides a unique case study for high-capacity rail and the place that signalling technology has in upgrading to a smarter, faster and safer system. 


A New System for Signalling 

Opening in 1988, the original Thameslink route runs along the North-South plane of London and connects services through the heart of the city. Featuring 68 stations over 225 km of track, it quickly proved popular with commuters, ultimately leading to the line becoming overcrowded, and as a result requiring an increase in capacity, and an upgrade to the network. The programme needed the technology to support the safe passage of 24 trains per hour (tph) along the route and up to 30tph if required during critical times. In order to meet high capacity demands, the operational enhancement system Automatic Train Operation (ATO) had to be implemented. This also required a signalling system that could accommodate the increase in capacity. 


The use of conventional signalling was ruled out early during design as it could not support the capacity required, leaving a choice between Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) and European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 signalling, both of which could deliver the required capacity when used with ATO.


Considering the main requirements and constraints of the proposed system, along with the way in which the programme was to be implemented, the choice was made to use ETCS Level 2 which delivers an interoperable system. This would support the required capacity, enable efficient delivery, and allow the railway line (one of the busiest in London) to remain operational. The biggest risk of using ATO over ETCS Level 2 is that it has only ever been demonstrated theoretically and not on an operational railway. 


Managing Risks From Theory to Operation 

Implementing a new way of signalling does come with a level of risk, but the Thameslink Programme shows that this should not be a deterrent provided these risks are adequately managed. Thameslink’s approach focuses on extensive testing and a comprehensive staged approach to ensure that the system is proved to be safe, reliable and efficient. At the first stage an Operational Simulator has been used to showcase the proposed technology and engage stakeholders about potential risks and opportunities.


In addition to this, a Systems Integration laboratory was developed on the project whereby all real pieces of equipment can be tested and their behaviours recorded as though they are trackside. The final piece of testing is being carried out at the ETCS National Integration Facility which consists of a five-mile test track. 


Signalling for Future High-Capacity Rail 

While the programme also requires several supporting projects to bring operations to reality, including rolling stock upgrades, train control systems, communication systems, station remodelling, a new Rail Operations centre and electrification/traction upgrades – the signalling approach is arguably the key piece in unlocking higher-capacity rail operations. 


Thameslink is a pioneer project for a high capacity train control system in a brownfield rail environment and is a useful example for future high-capacity rail ventures.


For more information, click here to read: A Review of the Thameslink Programme by Georgina Hartwell.


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