The East Coast Main Line is set to become Britain’s first mainline digital rail link through a £350 million investment by the UK Government.
The investment, which is part of a £1.2 billion initiative to upgrade Britain’s critical rail networks, will see conventional signalling replaced with a new digital system that allows trains to ‘talk’ to the track.
It is hoped this new system will improve journey safety, boost network efficiency and reduce signal failures which result in thousands of delays each year.
More than 80 million journeys are made each year on the East Coast Main Line, which links London to Edinburgh. It is estimated that around one-third of the UK’s population lives within just 20 miles of an East Coast Main Line station.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has accelerated the roll-out of digital signalling as part of efforts to speed up Britain’s economic recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The project will also form part of a broader national initiative to introduce digital signalling throughout the entirety of Britain’s rail network.
“As the country recovers from Covid-19 we want to speed up our economy and reap the benefits of new transport technology,” he said.
“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. Upgrading this country’s 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,” Shapps insisted.
Through the new technology, signallers will be able to pinpoint where each train is at any time during its journey.
The East Coast Main Line is also a mixed-use railway, which means both passenger and freight trains of different sizes use the same tracks. Smart signalling is capable of recognising and identifying different trains and communicating with them in real-time.
Developers claim the ‘in-cab’ system will essentially mark the end of conventional signalling at the side of tracks – a practice which dates back to the Victorian era.
David Horne, managing director of London North Eastern Railway, welcomed the investment boost and hailed the new system as an “exciting step”.
“This investment is good news for all customers, who will see even more improvements in services, reliability and sustainability,” he said.
Toufic Machnouk, programme director of the East Coast Digital Programme, said the funding boost is crucial to developing a modern 21st-century rail network.
“Today’s announcement is a big step towards transforming the network for the millions of passengers that use the East Coast Main Line and a welcome endorsement of the partnership approach that the rail industry has adopted to deliver Britain’s first inter-city digital railway,” he said.
“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 added.