Thameslink driver Clint Almeida made UK rail history when he took his passenger train through the heart of London using digital in-cab signalling and self-drive ‘automatic train operation’.
It was the 100,000th digitally-signalled journey and 80,000th self-drive trip between St Pancras and London Bridge made by Thameslink in a Siemens-built Desiro City train since the technology was first introduced in 2016.
Thameslink is the only mainline UK rail route to use the digital-signalling system but there are plans to roll it out further (please note, the self-drive element is not part of these roll-out plans as they are only required on this high-frequency section of the Thameslink route – see ed’s notes).
Today, just over a third of all journeys between St Pancras and London Bridge run using the digital ‘European Train Control System’ (ETCS) with extra added every week as more drivers are trained in the state-of-the-art system.
Trains travelling this way can run much closer to one another, making it easier for Thameslink to keep trains running on time and providing a more reliable service for customers as they pass through the busiest part of its massive network.
Experienced Thameslink driver Clint Almeida, 40, a father-of-three from Croydon, was in the cab of the 08:48 service from Bedford to Brighton on Friday 13 October being assessed in using the technology at the end of a five-day course delivered by Mark Webb, one of Thameslink’s in-house team of Testing and Commissioning drivers, who are experts in the system. Switching over to digital signalling on the approach to St Pancras, he then selected self-drive ATO for the journey to London Bridge. He passed with flying colours!
Clint said:“It’s much better, I can see why it’s termed ‘the railway of the future’. Digital ETCS shows me what’s up ahead up to about 2,000m away in central London and that’s safer. I know it’s going to be clear coming into the station and that helps us a lot.
“It takes a lot of getting used to, not looking at signals on the trackside and taking instructions from within the cab, but it’s good.
“Self-drive ATO takes digital ETCS to the next level and pretty much drives the train to its limit with faster acceleration and braking. We all drive differently so this makes it consistent and I’m there to manage the overall safe operation of the train.”
Drivers aren’t advised to stop and go by signals at the side of the track. Instead, they drive according to a target speed set by the system in their cab, using information relayed from beacons along the track that tells it the location of other trains. It allows drivers to ‘see’ what’s ahead up to 2km away and has added safety benefits.
All this is essential given there are trains converging on the route across London from as far afield as Peterborough, Bedford, Cambridge, Brighton, Rainham, Sutton and Sevenoaks – and any delay in the middle of the network will have a knock-on impact elsewhere.
Self-drive automatic train operation takes ETCS digital signalling one step further. Once the driver has transitioned to digital signalling, they can press a button and the system takes over, braking and accelerating automatically at optimum levels before bringing the train to a halt in the next station and opening the doors. The driver then checks the platform is clear, closes the doors and selects ATO again, and manages the overall safe operation of the train.
Grace Roche, ERTMS Thameslink Operations Manager at Govia Thameslink Railway, said:
“Reaching the 100,000thjourney in ETCS is a significant milestone and demonstrates we are moving towards digital signalling becoming our standard method of operation on this critical part of the network – and that we’re striving to deliver the most reliable service possible for our customers.
“As the biggest ETCS operation in the UK, there is a lot we can learn from our experience here. We are working closely with our colleagues at Network Rail to ensure that lessons learned are being applied to the introduction of ETCS on the Northern City Line, as part of the East Coast Digital Programme, where digitally signalled operations are expected to commence later this year.
“I’d like to thank everyone involved in getting us to this key milestone.”
Mark Merrydew, GTR’s Testing & Commissioning Driver Manager said: “My team of testing and commissioning drivers have been instrumental in helping our driver colleagues get to grips with ETCS, sharing their knowledge and experience of the system. We’ve come a long way since first introducing ETCS back in 2016 and the 100,000th digitally signalled train is a significant milestone to reach! We’re looking forward to seeing that number increase as we support more drivers to become competent in the system.”
Kevin Clark, Fleet Operations Director at Siemens Mobility, said: “It is fantastic that so many passenger journeys have been improved by this technology on our trains. The ‘core’ section of the Thameslink network is very demanding with the slightest delay having the potential to cause further delays to following trains.
“We have worked with GTR and Network Rail in fitting the ETCS signalling system which provides continuous, real-time information to the driver’s cab and allows all trains to run safely and efficiently with an optimised headway and speed profile, smoothing the flow of trains and resulting in a more reliable service for passengers.”
“We’re proud to have delivered the trains and signalling systems that have transformed rail travel for millions of Londoners.”
Ed Akers, Network Rail’s Principal Programme Sponsor for the East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP) said: “This milestone shows the experience now accumulated in the use of digital signalling. We continue to build on that knowledge as the Desiro City fleet involved is put through an upgrade to the latest version of the ETCS. That fleet, and others, will in future be making millions of digitally signalled journeys through the ECDP - Britain’s first deployment of ETCS on an intercity mainline.”