Interviews

01.09.13

Thameslink – the next steps

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2013

The recent confirmation of the official class number and livery for the new Thameslink fleet to be delivered by Siemens prompted us to check in on progress on the wider upgrade programme. First Capital Connect’s projects director Ian Duncan-Santiago explained how much has been done – and how much is yet to do – to achieve a nominal 24tph capability through the Thameslink core from 2018.  

“It’s a brilliant time to be working in the industry,” says FCC’s projects director Ian Duncan-Santiago. “Most of us railway people would agree. We’re seeing a fantastic, unprecedented level of investment.” 

The Thameslink programme, now four years in and expected to be completed in 2018, accounts for about £6bn of that investment. 

He said: “It stems from the need to improve capacity. We’ve already done an awful lot of work thus far in terms of increasing the capacity on our network: more trains, more coaches, lengthened platforms.

“But the real step-change for us will be when the Thameslink programme comes fully online, planned for December 2018.” 

New fleet 

The new train contract was finalised in June, and Duncan-Santiago explained the passenger benefits of fixed-formation sets, which cuts the number of cabs, equipment and thus weight. “It gives the opportunity, over a longer train, for a wider walkthrough – à la the S Stock on the Metropolitan Line. You get a lot more circulating movement, more comfort, more security – there’s many advantages for the customer on the train.

“We’ve done our own research on this, to help the DfT. Passengers were clearly saying no 3+2 seating layouts, for example.” 

This message was forcefully reiterated by Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith in the previous edition of RTM. 

Linking Thameslink and the Great Northern 

Duncan-Santiago also described the “physical engineering challenge” of joining up the Thameslink and Great Northern routes, and said Network Rail and its contractors have done a “fantastic job” – though the infrastructure works have created challenges for FCC as an operator in terms of maintaining services. “Look at the amount of work that’s been taking place at Blackfriars, for example, and St Pancras International, and now bits of London Bridge are missing (see below)

Arches demolition 190613 004

“But we need to get more trains through the core, from St Pancras to Blackfriars and out to London Bridge. We need to get services from the Great Northern route and the Thameslink route through that core and out the other side. London Bridge is the key bottleneck we’re trying to unblock at the moment, hence the works at the station and its approaches, east and west. That gives us the opportunity to run 24tph through the core route. We’re currently running 15tph during the peak. It’ll be a massive change.” 

He said achieving such a dense, metro-like frequency of services will depend on the track infrastructure, new traffic management system and the new signalling all working well together. 

Duncan-Santiago said: “The new signalling helps to close the trains up, so you can maximise the use of the track space you’ve got.” 

The new signalling system will function as an overlay on top of the existing physical infrastructure (as is happening on the Great Western Main Line, as opposed to stretches of the East Coast Main Line where a complete conversion is taking place). Duncan-Santiago said: “There’d be a huge cost associated with changing all your rolling stock and your signalling over at the same time. It’s better to have a phased approach.”

FCC spokesman Roger Perkins explained: “There has been no indication that existing trains will continue to use the core route once the new Thameslink fleet has been fully introduced; however, the new fleet will be introduced alongside the existing fleet, so the two need to work alongside one another, hence the overlay.” 

The next phase of the signalling works is being delivered by Invensys, which won the contract in 2011, including the country’s largest-ever resignalling scheme at London Bridge. 

Its subsidiary Westinghouse Rail Systems Ltd carried out the earlier enablement and commissioning works from 2008-11. 

Invensys’ rail signalling division has recently been acquired by Siemens – meaning it is part of the same corporation that is delivering the rolling stock. 

The importance of ATO for 24tph 

Thameslink services will run in ETCS condition, under ATO (automatic train operation) through the core.

Duncan-Santiago told us: “ETCS is not just us complying with a European standard; it gives us a platform, which is the most important part for us, to operate under ATO conditions. It’s that which gives us the capacity, because it gives a consistency of approach for every single train operating under ETCS conditions. It helps to ensure a robust delivery of the timetable through the core, which is the critical part for us. It’s all about getting the customers from A to B and using it essentially like a Tube line. 

“Nothing like this has been done to this capacity requirement on a British main line railway, it’s going to be a real ask! 

“There will be technical issues to overcome, and the driver-machine interface to deal with. We’ve got guys who have only recently seen a step-up to modern trains, the Class 377s.” 

He added: “As an industry, we’ve spent the best part of 20 years training drivers to be cautious to prevent accidents; to err on the side of caution on approaching red lights, for example. But the trains will now have the ability, through ETCS, to compute variations and build a safe buffer between itself and the train in front, and run at the optimum speed.

“The driver stays in the cab, because this is only for the central section and they’ve still got a role to play, both in overseeing the journey and at the platform. It’s a belt-and-braces approach with the overlay of ETCS Level 2.” 

‘Material help in making decisions’ 

He pointed out that FCC is also working with Network Rail on ATSS, the Automatic Train Supervisory System, which is, in effect, an upgrade to ARS (Automatic Route Setting). Duncan-Santiago said: “ARS is rather old-fashioned…it doesn’t take into account the effect of delays on trains, because the system doesn’t make choices to minimise delays across the entire network. We need an upgraded ARS. ATSS would calculate a massive range of possibilities, and what the effects will be on a big network like ours, which with the franchise amalgamation will be about 22% of the rail network in the UK. It will give the signallers material help in making decisions, based on the net result of their decisions in terms of delay minutes.”

Control will pass from London Bridge to Three Bridges, which will become one of Network Rail’s 14 national centres under the centralisation plan to replace 800 signal boxes. 

Three Bridges is also the site of one of the two new Siemens’ depots for its Thameslink trains – the other is at Hornsey in north London. VolkerFitzpatrick signed the construction contract for the two depots in July 2013. Mark Ruddy, Network Rail’s route managing director for Sussex, said: “The new operating centre and train depot will make Three Bridges one of the most important places on the railway in the south east.” 

Milestones 

Looking ahead to 2018, Duncan-Santiago said: “I’m confident that we’ll get a great train service for customers. 

“It’ll be a great way of getting through London without interchanging with the Underground. The key to it is the technology that we’re pushing through.” 

He said it was hard to detail the next milestones on the programme because “there’s so many!” 

These include getting the train design details spot on with Siemens and the DfT, the work with Network Rail on the ATSS system, and adapting train operations at existing sites ready for the future. “There is so much work to do,” he said. 

“The first thing passengers will see is the new trains, then the benefits that arise from having ETCS through the core, then the combination of the two routes – the Great Northern and Thameslink, the roll-out of new trains on the Great Northern, then ATO going live. There’ll be step changes in the timetables to utilise the benefits of each of those and the infrastructure that’s been delivered.”

Work already delivered under Phase 1 of the Thameslink programme 

•  47% more four-car train units since 2006, from 76 to 112, including 26 Class 377 Electrostars with air conditioning.

•  Over 14,500 more seats a day in the peak (morning and evening combined).

•  Typically overcrowded peak four-car services reduced from 25 in March 2009 to 11 today.

•  New routes to Sevenoaks and Orpington, joint with Southeastern (they take over at Blackfriars heading south) with a few services to Gillingham and Ashford International.

•  15tph in the peak between St Pancras and Blackfriars, up from 7-8tph.

•  Lengthened platforms at 12 stations on the north Thameslink route as well as the more extensive reconstructions and upgrades of Farringdon and Blackfriars.

•  Borough viaduct has been built ready for the 2018 project completion.

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