Network Rail boss is challenging his colleagues to implement the digital European Train Control System nationwide much earlier than planned


Pictured: Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne


Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne has set out an aspiration for signalling across the British railway network to be replaced by digital European Train Control System (ETCS) technology more than 30 years ahead of the current schedule.

In a lecture at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Carne said ETCS could hold the key to meeting the challenge Network Rail faces in catering for forecasts that patronage will double over the next 20 years on a railway which is already approaching a “choke point”.

“We need to do something because if we are going to meet demand for passenger growth over the next few years, just building new railways like Crossrail, Thameslink and HS2 will not be enough in my opinion,” Carne warned. “We are going to have to make far better use of the existing railway infrastructure. We have to run more trains on the existing track.”

The company’s assessments of ETCS capability on the British network are showing significant potential for the digital in-cab signalling and train control provided by ETCS to “liberate enormous amounts of capacity”. Modelling for the forthcoming Wessex Route Study has shown 40% more trains could run on congested urban lines.

However, Carne portrayed the current plan to roll out ETCS as existing signalling becomes due for renewal as a missed opportunity. Under that schedule, the programme to fit the British network would not be completed until 2062. He added that inherent inefficiencies in the schedule made it “even worse”. By 2024, only around 10% of the rail network is due to have ETCS capability, but two thirds of the national train fleet would run on that infrastructure at certain times and need to be fitted. The disjointed programme also means most areas with ETCS in 2024 would not connect up.

“So the provocation I have set for the team is I have said ‘What will it take to deliver a digital network by 2029?’,” Carne said.

“It is not a plan. I don’t have a plan. I have just set this provocation.”

The team, led by Jerry England, who has been appointed Network Rail’s digital railway director having previously been asset management director, has been tasked with identifying any obstacles to completing the roll out of ETCS by 2029 and finding ways to overcome them. The aim is to determine, by the end of 2016, whether a case can be made to include accelerated introduction of the system in Network Rail’s funding submission for the 2019-2024 period.

“What I have said to my team is don’t tell me it can’t be done, tell me why it can’t be done then we will overcome the barriers,” Carne said …“If in two years’ time we say we can do this, it is a huge opportunity to transform the railway in this country.”

As well as providing  additional capacity, other advantages of ETCS Carne highlighted include:

  • improved operation of the network during disruption due to ETCS’s bi-directional capability;
  • fewer signals passed at danger due to greatly reduced potential for driver error;
  • reduced energy consumption due to trains being able to regulate their speed at a consistent level which takes account of conditions on the network
  • faster journeys due to elimination of driver signal sighting restrictions.


Related coverage in the latest issue of Passenger Transport:

This is an ‘incredible’ export opportunity
‘We can become world leading in digital train control’

UK rail must overcome conservative culture
Network Rail chief draws comparison with oil and gas sector


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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