'The most ever spent on the Welsh railway'

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2012

RTM talks to Network Rail’s route managing director for Wales, Mark Langman, about the upcoming £220m resignalling project in the Cardiff area, which also involves station and track upgrades.

Mark Langman, who runs Network Rail in Wales, says that the 1960s-era cabling and signalling infrastructure in the Cardiff area includes technology comparable to that used in Concorde – and says it is in just as much need of retirement.

The major £450m project to resignal South Wales has been ongoing since 2006/7, with areas such as Newport and parts of Port Talbot already done, and attention is now turning to the Cardiff area and the Valleys network.

In a three-year programme, 300 signals, 12 miles of track and 59 sets of points will be replaced, while seven new platforms will be built across the Cardiff and Valleys network, with station upgrades at the two city centre stations and a brand new two-platform station at Energlyn.

The project also involves the removal of the bottleneck between Cardiff Central and Queen Street, allowing 16 trains per hour. Langman told us just how important that element of these works is, saying: “We’re restricted at the moment at 12 trains per hour between Queen Street and Central. That’s a two-line railway, an up line and down line, and all of the Valley line network runs across that corridor. So, it’s absolutely vital – it’s pivotal to our service. To increase that corridor to 16tph will allow an increase in services right across the Valleys network. If we couldn’t address that, it would be impossible to expand services to the other Valley routes.”

Upgrading 1960s infrastructure

We asked Langman whether these works were more about providing capacity for forecast future growth – or about addressing urgent capacity needs that already exist.

He said: “Looking to the future, we’re seeing record passenger growth at the moment, and passengers still flocking back to the railways: we’re seeing roughly 8% growth, year-on-year. So we’re looking to meet that demand for the future.

“But also, there are some services in the peaks at the moment where you see over-crowding, and the reality is that the re-signalling that was done on this railway back in the 1960s by BR was the same technology that went into Concorde, and of course that’s already retired now.

“It’s starting to get old, and some of the wiring is starting to get quite degraded. It’s highmaintenance for us at the moment – so we need to do this work for several reasons.”

ERTMS – but not yet

Although this will be a definite upgrade, the signalling and communications is not as advanced as that seen elsewhere on the Wales network – the Cambrian line is the first in the UK to use ERTMS.

Langman said: “We planned this as part of the wider South Wales resignalling scheme, before ERTMS was rolled out onto the Cambrian network. Network Rail has got a roll-out programme for the GWML and parts of the ECML, and yes eventually it will arrive here in Cardiff.

“This kit we’re putting in is compatible with ERTMS in the future: you wouldn’t waste the equipment. But that’s still some way off and really, the condition of the signalling here demands that we do it now. We have to crack on, because of the amount of passengers using the network.”

The new signals will, however, be lightweight and easy to install.

‘Open heart surgery’ on the network

In the Network Rail announcement of the new plans, Langman compared the complexity of doing all this work on a live network to ‘open heart surgery’.

He told us: “I wish I’d gone a bit further with that analogy, actually! You could treat that corridor between Cardiff Central and Queen Street as an artery, the trains being the blood. We need to keep them moving.

“We’re going to work to keep passenger disruption to an absolute minimum, so a lot of the work we’re going to do is overnight, or during the Christmas Day / Boxing Day closedown. Where we must work during the day, particularly at weekends, we will always try to keep two lines out of four open, or provide an alternative diversionary route where we can. Our objective is as little disruption to passengers as possible.”

The contractors working on various parts of the project are Atkins, Siemens, Balfour Beatty, Birse and Bam Nuttall.

Station improvements

Cardiff Central and Cardiff Queen Street account for 67% of all passenger demand on the South Wales Valleys network, and cater for almost 12.5m passengers a year, so both are getting a facelift under this project, while a new station is being built at Energlyn between Aber and Llanbradach.

We suggested to Langman that such upgrades have the added benefit of making the project more visible to passengers, and he said: “That’s the beauty of this scheme. Often, with resignalling schemes, to be honest it’s completely invisible to passengers. They won’t really see the signals, or the cables.

“But with this, they’re going to see new platforms, a new station building entrance at Cardiff Queen Street, (see below), a new station building entrance on the south side of Cardiff Central: it’s really quite visible.”

Investing in Wales

South Wales got a major boost in the HLOS, with GWML electrification ‘re-extended’ to Swansea, following an earlier Coalition downgrade of that scheme, and Valley Lines electrification also getting the green light. Langman called the announcements “exciting” and “a strong vote of confidence in the railway”.

He told us: “I’m pretty sure that if you add this to electrification, this will be the biggest ever spend on the Welsh railway since it was built. That’s impressive stuff.”

Langman has also noted that the huge investment in the South Wales railway will need plenty of skilled people to do the work, and has encouraged people to consider apprenticeships with Network Rail. Although the bulk of that training is at the HMS Sultan facility in Hampshire, there are also chances to work on site in Wales, for example at Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways.

Minister for Local Government and Communities, Carl Sargeant, said: “This multimillion pound investment, which includes Welsh Government funding [£17m], will allow additional capacity on the rail network around Cardiff.

“This is the first tangible step in delivering electrification of the Valley Lines, as well as part of the continued investment and improvement of the rail network in Wales, as set out in the National Transport Plan.”

Mike Bagshaw, commercial director for Arriva Trains Wales, added: “This important work will lay the foundation for future extra capacity and will mean extra services and journey opportunities for passengers using one of the busiest parts of the Arriva Trains Wales network.

“When combined with the recent electrification announcement, station improvements being delivered by Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail, and the extra capacity the project will deliver, passengers in the Cardiff area will see a real transformation to their rail services.”

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