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Delivering change

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This month we take the title of our editorial from the address given by George Clark, the new President of Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE), who is right to emphasise that change features large on the rail industry’s agenda, as many of our features illustrate.

Introducing new technology is a particularly challenging aspect of change. In this respect, George considers that the IRSE’s engineers are both catalysts and agents for the delivery of change, and have skills that have never been in more demand than they are today.  Although this statement applies to all railway engineers, one particular challenge for signal and telecommunications engineers are the complex legacy interfaces from railway projects that are upgrading what most other industries would consider to be industrial archaeology.

By the standards of the electronics industry, in which systems are obsolete after a few years, the Solid State Interlocking (SSI) that BR introduced in the 1980s is ancient. Yet it remains entirely fit for purpose, with over 400 SSIs controlling signalling systems throughout the network, and is likely to be in use for many years. However, its technician’s terminal, with its green screen and command input, is now obsolete. We report on the development of modern terminal which will help keep SSI installations fault-free for years to come.

An even more ancient system is Automatic Train Operation (ATO), which was first introduced on the Victoria Line in 1968. At first, ATO was used only for metro operations, but, as George states in this Presidential address, the once-clear lines between main-line and metro control systems are becoming increasingly blurred. Clive Kessell explores this further in his report on a joint IMechE/IRSE seminar “ATO: Integral to achieve a truly interoperable system.”

His comprehensive feature includes a description of the complexities of Thameslink’s main line ATO system and how ATO will enable HS2 to operate 18tph in each direction between London and Birmingham. HS2 will have driver-attended ATO which is Grade of Automation 2 (GoA2). Clive’s article also describes how the diminutive Glasgow Subway is planning to introduce GoA4 (unattended train operation with no member of staff on board).

George also points out that “communications technology is fundamental to train control systems and evolves rapidly.” With the need to transmit increasing amounts of data, Paul Darlington considers the development of railway radio communications and what this means for the future. It seems the choice is between 5G or WiFi 6. Read the article to decide for yourself which will be the future.

Transmitting large amounts of data is one thing, getting useful information from it is another. We report on a conference that launched a further round of data sandbox research competitions. These are run by RSSB and aim to find novel ways of improving punctuality from the vast amount of data collected each day.

This worthwhile initiative is already providing useful information, although its focus is on trains rather than passengers. When service recovery involves skip-stopping and terminating short, the objective should surely be to minimise overall passenger disruption, for which data about the passengers affected by such decisions is required.

Speeding-up trains through Market Harborough should improve train performance. As Peter Stanton describes, its station is on a 60mph curve as a result of it previously being a junction station. After realigning four kilometres of track over the old car park and relocating platforms to straighten this curve, trains can now go through the station at 85mph. With the old car park now buried under the new track alignment, a larger car park has been provided on the other side of the tracks.

Colin Carr has been to the depths of Somerset to find out why Huntworth bridge needs to be renewed and how this was to be done. As it involved a 20-week road closure, effective community engagement was essential and included the requirement for a novel solution to get children to school. Another novelty was the use of a Kirow rail crane, which had not been used for such a bridge lift before. Its use avoided many access problems and the need for ground preparations for a road crane – it also saved £200,000.

There’s always something new at Railtex, although, sadly, space doesn’t allow us to report on everything. My eye was caught by various stands that offered ways to reduce rail’s carbon footprint. Of course, for busy lines, electrification is the best way to do this. However, it is good to see Alstom and Vivarail developing low-carbon rolling stock for rural routes.

We also feature the Hydroflex, being developed by the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, which will be the UK’s first hydrogen train, even though it is only a demonstrator vehicle. It builds on Birmingham’s hydrogen pedigree which dates back to 2012 when the University’s entered the UK’s first hydrogen train at the IMechE’s Railway Challenge.

The seminar programme at Railtex, once again hosted by Rail Engineer, was as variesd and as popular as ever – Nigel Wordsworth has tried to cover all the salient points in his review.

Rail Engineer can also announce an environmental initiative this month as we have moved to a different type of wrapper. This is a compostable potato-starch wrap which is plasticiser-free and is completely biodegradable. However please don’t ask us which wheelie bin it should be put in!

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


  1. If the hs2 pass this line the midland mainline has to be electrified please and have new faster intercity trains going different routes


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