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Signalling the passenger

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The exciting plans for signalling the Thameslink railway, including the introduction of the European Train Control System (ETCS) and Automatic Train Operation (ATO), were described in issue 109 (November 2013).

However, introducing impressive new technology to run a 24 train-per-hour (tph) service through the Thameslink core could be frustrated by the very object the systems are ultimately provided for – the human passenger.

During a recent visit to the project offices, Paul Bates, Network Rail’s Thameslink programme director, high capacity infrastructure, was keen to explain that his portfolio included optimisation of the station infrastructure to facilitate swift movement of passengers off and onto trains, minimising train dwell times. This work is underpinned by extensive human factors research assessments and workshops which are being progressed within Paul’s internal team.

Level access is coming to Thameslink

In addition to the heavy commuter and leisure flows of passengers, 117 million per year, the Thameslink route serves the airports at Gatwick and Luton as well as the major hub of St Pancras International. Thus, travellers lugging huge suitcases around the Thameslink network could be a serious impediment to the efficient and rapid train dispatch necessary to meet the 24tph throughput of trains. And then there are wheelchairs and pushchairs to consider.

Train companies usually require advance notice of travel in order to provide assistance in dealing with Persons of Reduced Mobility (PRM). A wheelchair requires a member of the TOC staff to be in attendance on the platform at the right time to deploy a Mobile Boarding Ramp (MBR). Project manager Keith Jones reckons this process adds three minutes to dwell time, creating a negative impact on a service interval of two and a half minutes.

In view of the performance risk of using the MBRs, the project team are hopeful that the provision of new fixed ‘HUMPs’ will obviate their use, though this will be a decision for the train company. Thameslink platforms at stations in the core – London Bridge (Platforms 4 and 5), Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon and St Pancras International will be fitted with the PLA-HUMP®. This is an innovative pre-fabricated modular raised platform system which allows level access to the train for travellers with limited mobility, wheelchair users, families with pushchairs and those carrying heavy suitcases, by eliminating the vertical gap from train to platform.


Handy HUMPs

Pipex px®, a company based in Plymouth, will supply the fibre reinforced polymer modular units. Studs are installed and the prefabricated units brought from the factory and plugged in on site. They will be delivered with markings already moulded in as specified, such as the yellow platform ‘stand back’ stripe and the disabled sign. The HUMPs are approximately 25 metres long and are designed so that they extend to both the PRM carriage doors.

The advantages of the Pipex px® HUMP include corrosion resistance, light weight, long life 60+ years, low electrical conductivity, and virtually maintenance free. Individual panels may be replaced if damaged or worn. As you would expect, the units comply with the Fire Precautions (Sub-Surface Railway Stations) Regulations, known as the ‘Section 12’ Regulations which were introduced in the aftermath of the tragic fire at King’s Cross Underground station in 1987 in which 31 people were killed.

The specific HUMP design for the platforms at Thameslink core stations will be compatible with the floor level of the forthcoming Class 700 stock. As the trains currently in service on the route have different floor profiles to the Class 700 vehicles, the ramps will not be installed until the introduction of the Class 700 is complete and exclusive.

An unplanned bonus for wheelchair users is that they are saved the indignity of being ‘assisted’ by a member of station staff as they will be able to take the lifts and ‘drive’ the wheelchair straight onto the train under their own steam, thereby restoring self-esteem.

Detailed study

The manufacturer is currently working with Exeter University to determine if there are any implications relating to the different slip resistances of the HUMP, yellow marked area and existing platforms. Exeter has done some ground breaking research on the morphological features of floor surfaces and effects on slip resistance property. There is a Network Rail standard for this but the proximity of Underground platforms nearby may add a further consideration. Detailed design work for the HUMPs is currently in progress.

Clear signage will ensure that those needing to use the level access are directed to wait in the right place on the platform. Every train must stop with the PRM carriage (large space for wheelchair and luggage) adjacent to the ramp.

Trains will be formed of eight or twelve carriages and the stopping position will be such that the centre of the train will always coincide with the centre of the platform. The PRM carriage will be in the centre of the train, so that if a train set gets reversed, say during a Sunday engineering diversion, it makes no difference. Trains run under Automatic Train Operation (ATO) or manual driving and it is reckoned that an overshoot of 2.5 metres will still line up the PRM carriage doors with the ramp.

Further significant high-frequency work is being undertaken by ergonomist Kate Moncrieff in conjunction with studies by the University College London. UCL runs a project for the empirical evaluation of door-open times for high-demand rail systems using their fully equipped Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory (PAMELA) facility. This work is to demonstrate that the dwell times could be met.


Mind the gap

A significant consideration for the Thameslink project team is PTI. This relatively new acronym in the railway industry stands for platform-train interface and refers to the gaps both in terms of width and height between a station platform and a train, but also includes risks relating to electrocution and falls from platforms without trains being present.

Ian Prosser, director of railway safety at the Office of Rail Regulation, wrote in issue 107 (September 2013): “An area where there’s been a lot of focus from ourselves and the industry is PTI where serious injuries and fatalities occur. Some of it is down to passenger behaviour issues, but much is quite predictable. So to manage the risks it is important to have a good understanding of your location particularly with how people move around stations. Whenever work is done at a station, it’s important that the work actually takes this into account.”

ORR’s ‘Health and safety report 2013-14’ states that there were four passenger fatalities in 2013-14. All occurred at the PTI and involved passengers falling from the platform edge on to the track.

Keith Jones explained that the project intends to equip Thameslink station platforms with gap fillers, where required. There are two types of gaps the project team are looking at, vertical and horizontal between platform edge and train floor at the location of the PRM doors. The Hump will go some way to addressing the vertical gap. To address the horizontal gap, the team are currently reviewing mechanical and passive gap filler solutions. Gaps vary in size.

Generally, passive black rubber gap fillers will be permanently fitted to the platform edge such that trains will not make contact with the rubber but the gap has been effectively closed. There is a company in Cornwall who are currently assisting the project team.

Due to platform curvature at Farringdon, for example, gaps here are larger and necessitate a creative solution. It is here where a mechanical gap filler is proposed. It will integrate with the HUMP to ensure a seamless method of boarding for PRMs and is currently under development with a company who have them installed and commissioned for Parisian subways RATP and RER.

The associated control system uses a combination of laser and hyper frequency distance indicators and speed radars to automatically deploy and retract the filler by detecting the arrival of a train in the correct dwell position and subsequent departure. The system complies with the SIL3 safety level and SIL2 for reliability. Progression is currently at project GRIP 3 stage (development). Assuming all engineering and human factors are satisfactorily addressed, they are due to be installed by 2018.

Customer Information Systems (CIS) and way finding

Due to concerns over the readability of the current TFT screens in variable lighting conditions, the team is evaluating the performance of TFT screens versus an LED alternative.

The principle is to ensure people are on the right platform, at the right time, and standing in the right position. Any hesitancy on the part of passengers soon causes back up, leading to bottleneck and protracted dwell time. The project team’s theory, validated by UCL, goes like this:

“As an intending passenger I arrive at Blackfriars station forecourt wishing to travel to Gatwick. On the route maps and CIS indicators in the foyer I determine that my train leaves from platform one and the destination is Brighton. Following the signs, I take the escalator to platform level. A big ‘1’ positively registers in my mind that I am on the right platform. As I turn to walk along the platform, I immediately see a CIS screen in front of me confirming the train I have seen downstairs is indeed the Brighton train calling at Gatwick. As I look up from that confidence factor, I see more screens further along the platform. Hence I’m certain that I’m on the right platform, I see my train listed and if I walk further along I’ll still get information.”

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There will be six screens back- to-back along the length of the platform. The idea is to spread out passengers along the platform for a 12-car train.

A further innovation will be the provision of hatching on the platforms to help ‘condition’ commuters to stand in optimal positions for the train. Research by UCL indicates that this should provide some benefit.

Consideration was given to giving Thameslink routes an identifier, for example, Bedford – Brighton could be the ‘alpha line’, as a means for passengers to identify the service required. However, the significant and changeable permutation of train origins, destinations, calling points and routing, made this concept far too complex. So, as part of the way finding process, stations will display diagrammatic route maps similar to those used on Underground stations.

This will enable passengers to quickly determine the likely train destination that will serve their own alighting point. Signage in general will be consistently applied at Thameslink stations from London Bridge to St Pancras International.

Reliable displays

Passengers need to have confidence in the accuracy of information displayed by the CIS screens. The display “07:15 ON TIME” still displayed at 07:20 doesn’t look good.

Hitherto train information displays have relied upon outputs from the signal box train describer system, a rather limited raw source of data. Enter project DARWIN which was described in issue 84 (September 2011).

Promoted as a Real Time Train Prediction system, Darwin draws data from a number of sources, assesses the information and then intelligently predicts what this will mean to the ongoing train service. The success of the new CIS displays will thus lie in the ability of DARWIN to predict the future to a high degree of accuracy. DARWIN will know exactly where the 07:15 is. DARWIN will cover perturbation but the train company will have local control in the event of major issues.

At the time of writing, unit size, font size, displayed content, sequencing and type of technology (LED/TFT) is being evaluated by trials in conjunction with supplier Infotec of Ashby de la Zouch. Zoning, such as First Class, is being considered and departure indicators will show the number of carriages as boxes on the screen lined up with the zones.

On the computer demonstration it was intriguing to see that each box contained a different level of infill. Keith Jones explained that the Class 700 has the capability to report back the loading of each carriage. This might be useful to help passengers position themselves adjacent to the doors of the least-full carriages.

Unfortunately there is a problem with using this concept on Thameslink. During the peaks, trains are likely to arrive in the core from the country already full and the system cannot predict how many passengers are likely to alight at any one station. So this facility will not be taken forward at present. There is, however, a plan for the TOC to gather the data and use this in the future.

The platform CIS displays will be in pairs. The left hand unit will show train in platform or about to come in, with destination, time and stopping points, whilst the right hand unit shows the next train to come. The all-new CIS screens are going up in 2016, way finding and signage in 2018. Laser scanning has been deployed to evaluate the visibility of existing signage and facilitate development of new signage as part of the plan to create a much more user-friendly passenger environment.

Train driving and dispatch

This article has focussed on the work undertaken by the infrastructure owner to manage dwell times efficiently. Needless to say, the train operating company has been heavily involved with the various factors of train driving and dispatch to ensure 24tph is delivered through the core. Crucial to this objective will be a highly-disciplined approach to the dispatch of trains.

The new Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern franchise management contract commences on 14 September and will be known as Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). Franchise incentives are linked to delivery of the Thameslink Programme, reflecting Govia’s role in collaborating with Network Rail.

Thanks go to Network Rail’s Paul Bates, Thameslink programme director – high capacity infrastructure; project manager Keith Jones; Kate Moncrieff, ergonomist and human factors specialist; and Paul Bull, designated project engineer, for their help in preparing this article. 

David Bickell MIRSE
David Bickell MIRSE

Signalling and signalling programmes, signalling and rail operating centres, ERTMS and ETCS

David Bickell joined British Railways as a student engineer in 1968, undertaking a work-based training programme covering all aspects of signalling and telecommunications. His career took him through various roles in Derby, Crewe and Nottingham before, in 1996, he was posted to London as Standards Engineer, Control Systems at Railtrack headquarters.

A spell as Signal Area Maintenance Engineer in Kent was followed by that of Regional Signal Maintenance Engineer at Liverpool Street and York. His responsibilities included the management of general safety regimes, including SPAD mitigation, and being Chair of the Signal Sighting Committee.

David retired in 2005 as Signal Standards & Assurance Engineer for Network Rail, managing its portfolio of signal engineering standards and sitting on the RSSB Group Standards Signalling sub-committee.

Since then, he was a visiting lecturer on railway signalling at Sheffield Hallam University and has been writing for Rail Engineer on major signalling projects since 2013.


  1. Surely the place to put the gap fillers is on the trains? They are a standard fitment on trains on the continent and have been around for about twenty years.

  2. Can someone please explain to why the brand spanking new platform 7 at Gatwick Airport station wasnt built with level access between the train and the platform ?

    If the London Underground and other systems can do this on new build surely Network Rail can as well ?


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