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East Coast Main Line to get £350m digital signalling boost

Government accelerates the roll-out of electronic signalling, pumping £350m into a digital signalling system on the East Coast Mainline

The government is investing £350m into electronic signalling on the East Coast Main Line as part of plans to upgrade to digital systems across the entire rail network.

The cash boost will see conventional signalling replaced with a digital system, allowing the trains to “talk to the track”, according to the government.

Announcing the funding, transport secretary Grant Shapps said that upgrading the “conventional signalling system, and giving drivers technology fit for the 21st century, will boost train performance, cut delays, improve safety and support the supply chain”.

“This is just the beginning. In time, we will digitise signalling right across the country to make good on our promise of better reliability and punctuality for passengers,” he said.

“Passengers shouldn’t have to worry about missing connections or being late home to see their children, and I’ve been clear that getting the trains to run on time is a personal priority.”

The roll-out of the digital system has been accelerated due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, as the government hopes the digital signalling upgrade will boost jobs across the supply chain, and in turn boost the economy.

“As the country recovers from Covid-19, we want to speed up our economy and reap the benefits of new transport technology. The Victorians gave us the world’s first great rail network and now it’s our turn to be modern transport pioneers and build on that great tradition,” Shapps said.

The digital system will be able to recognise different types of trains in real-time, allowing train and track to “talk” to each other throughout the journey.

Toufic Machnouk, programme director for the East Coast Digital Programme, said the government announcement is a big step forward in transforming the network and a “welcome endorsement of the partnership approach that the rail industry has adopted to deliver Britain’s first inter-city digital railway”.

“The funding detailed by the secretary of state is very significant and will enable the vital building blocks needed to build a modern, right-time railway,” Machnouk said.

The £350m boost is on top of £1.2bn already set aside to upgrade the mainline over a 10-year period between 2014-2024. According to the government, a third of the UK’s population, which account for 41% of GDP, live within 20 minutes of an East Coast Mainline station.

Together with Network Rail, the government is aiming to introduce digital signalling across the UK, including sections of the West Coast Mainline, Midland Main Line and Anglia from 2026. It has also invested £12m to fit digital signalling equipment on 33 trains on the Midland Main Line.

Will Rogers, managing director of East Midlands Railway said the investment is “great news”.

“Our new state of the art bi-mode trains will now come into service during 2023, with digital signalling technology ready to take advantage of the greater efficiency and flexibility this route upgrade will offer,” he said.

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  • Operator Network Rail will tap into its £357m R&D fund to back innovation competitions aimed to improve assessment of more than 600 rail tunnels and station surveillance.

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