Rail Industry Focus


Taking control: grand opening of Manchester ROC

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2014

RTM was at the launch of the new Manchester Rail Operating Centre, and heard from key Network Rail staff involved in the successful project, including scheme sponsor Andy Scott, Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese, acting route managing director Jim Syddall, and head of National Operating Strategy at Network Rail, Simon Whitehorn.

Flexibility is the name of the game at Manchester Rail Operating Centre (ROC, as in ‘solid as a…’ – which, judging by the security measures in place, this particular building certainly is).

The building has been designed to be as future-proof as possible, with its designers and constructors fully accepting that technology changes fast. Signalling and control of Britain’s railways are being centralised into the 12 ROCs during a 15- to 20-year transition programme.

It is not possible to forecast every technology and operational change over a timeline that long. So, the ROC has been built with as much flexibility as possible, with modular solutions instead of hard-wiring where possible, more space available than current plans actually call for, and infrastructure that specifically allows for the introduction of traffic management technology.

RTM attended the official launch of the building on 21 July, not long after staff started to move in to the ROC, which is next to Ashburys station in east Manchester.


The line between Huyton and Roby, near Liverpool, is the first section of railway being controlled from the Manchester ROC following the recent resignalling and upgrade work. What will follow is everything between Liverpool and Crewe, everything in the Manchester area in 2015, and then the routes to Sheffield.

The next sections of railway to be controlled from the ROC will be parts of central and north Manchester in 2015. Ultimately, the ROC will control the whole railway within the area bordered by Carlisle, Todmorden, Crewe and the Welsh border.

Staff are moving from a number of other facilities, including signalling centres and signal boxes (800 of which are closing across the country as part of the long-term ROC integration plans) and Square One near Manchester Piccadilly. Control transfers from there in December.

After an 18-month build by Morgan Sindall, the management team occupied the building from March, and during July office staff from Square One started transferring over. The first signaller’s workstation opened on 14 July.

There will be up to 400 staff based at the ROC, operating the railway 24 hours a day, including staff from the region’s operators – currently Northern and First TransPennine Express (FTPE).  On the launch day, there were more like 50 or 60: about 40 within the office space, seven signallers, some signaller trainers and the management team.

Traffic management

Christian Wyatt, programme manager for the transfer into the ROC, told RTM that the building allows the removal of outdated signalling locations and better integration of modern technology. He said: “It’s a fantastic environment for people to work in, with great collaboration between the train operators and ourselves. The future’s looking really rosy.”

He added that traffic management could be trialled at one of the Manchester workstations, potentially within the next 18 months. “We’re looking at the benefits that traffic management will bring and whether we can accelerate other areas in here at an early stage,” he said. “But traffic management is still at an early stage.”

Although Thales has won the first contracts to implement its traffic management solution at Cardiff and Romford, all the providers – the other two are Hitachi and SSL – are bidding to provide their version at the other ROCs. You can find out much more about traffic management in the June/July 2014 edition of RTM.  

Network Rail’s sponsor Andy Scott told RTM: “We’re not dependent on traffic management for what we do here – but when traffic management becomes available, we do have the flexibility to incorporate it.”

Security and resilience

Scott, who has been involved in the work to develop Manchester’s ROC since December 2011, was among the speakers at the ceremony to mark the launch. He explained how he has “lived and breathed” the project since then, as his role is to own the business case. “Our vision has been to create an efficient, effective, great place to work,” he said. “We’ve paid lots of attention to security and resilience, plus the people working in the building.”

Resilience is, of course, a major issue for such a key node in the rail network, and lots of measures have been built in to ensure the building is secure – not many of which Network Rail wants made public. But the building has the seal of approval following a resilience review by Arup using the Uptime Institute standards.

Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese is a big backer of the region’s railways. He said he had been “dying to have a chance to look inside” the new ROC as he’s been coming past the building so often.

“I didn’t expect it to be quite so tough to get in!” he joked. “That’s the first lesson about it – ensuring that our railway network is secure is part of the job here.”

He praised the build team’s decision to use clear glass in the building’s atrium, instead of frosted as originally planned, because of the great views afforded into the centre of Manchester.

He said it seemed odd, thinking back to when the Northern and TPE franchises were let last time, that the assumption was for a ‘no-growth’ franchise. “The assumption was that railways were dead and in slow decline – but in fact exactly the opposite has happened.

“I congratulate everyone who’s been involved in this fantastic centre, or with the work that’s been going on across the railway lines and infrastructure throughout the north west.”

National Operating Strategy

Simon Whitehorn, a north west native himself, is behind the National Operating Strategy for Network Rail. “I’m glad to be back here,” he told the audience.

“The Manchester ROC – and the other 11 ROCs that will eventually work as part of a network of operating centres around the country – is a key cornerstone in the enablement of the National Operating Strategy.

“This a major programme spanning the next 20-30 years, which will see a gradual migration of traditional signalling locations into facilities such as this. But that’s just a building block. The establishment of the ROCs is an enabler of much greater things: future development of technology to aid our signalling and frontline control staff in how they carry out their tasks day-in, day-out, and also eventually to new signalling schemes and new signalling technology, which is very much on the near horizon.

“It’s absolutely fantastic to see that Manchester is playing its part in enabling the delivery of that longer-term vision for the railways. I really look forward to coming back in the coming years to see the gradual migration into, and filling up of, this wonderful building.”

Jim Sydall is acting route managing director, taking over from Dyan Crowther, who has left Network Rail to be chief operating officer of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise for Govia.

Sydall said: “Everyone involved in bringing the project to this point should be rightly proud of their achievement. The ROC is a very visible symbol of the importance and scale of the development of the railways in the north west.”

He discussed other recent developments, from electrification in the north west to the Northern Hub and Manchester Victoria improvements.

Modern technology

RTM chatted with some of the signallers already at work, including relief signaller Jimmy Chadderton, who said it would be helpful to have everyone working together in the new environment. “I think it’ll probably help, because if you’re working as a team, rather than individually, you can give advice and help to others. Levers are antiquated and these modern systems are far better.”

Signaller Paul McVeigh was based at Manchester East Signalling Centre until the beginning of July, but has plenty of experience in traditional signal boxes. He is an enthusiast for the more up-to-date technology he’s now using.

Network Rail says the 12 ROCs’ “advanced signalling tools and technology” will “help reduce delays, improve performance, increase capacity, provide better information to passengers and offer better value for money for passengers and taxpayers.”

RTM asked Andy Scott why the transition of signalling and control into ROCs is over such a long time period, considering these advantages.

He explained: “Money is the simple answer. At one stage, it was a 30-year programme. Over the last couple of years there was a drive to accelerate that, which brought it down to a 15-year programme. But even that had to be tempered, when we came to the final settlement, because there’s only so much funding available.

“You can have a good business case, but at the end of the day you still need the money to invest. If you look at the overall investment in rail, there’s huge investment going on, and it comes down to priorities.

“Also, there’s the speed of change to consider. The supply market is very over-heated at the moment: Siemens, as our contractor, are very stretched on their delivery. That means they’ve got to prioritise and manage that.

“There’s also something about how quickly you change, and learning lessons from what you’ve done, and getting it right moving forward.

“The great thing about Manchester is that the Northern Hub is driving a lot of enhancements, making for a really good opportunity to re-control the signalling systems – either re-signal them if they need re-signalling, or re-control them to bring them into the ROC.”

Planning for the future

Scott explained that the system is split between the equipment room and the operating floor, where the control systems will eventually get replaced if and when traffic management comes in. But the link between the equipment room and operating floor is over CAT6 IP cabling, as opposed to being hardwired. That makes for a more flexible, re-configurable system. Steve Whelan, involved in the technical design of the system, told RTM: “We have a plan for the next five years, which is what we’re funded for, to deliver eight workstations downstairs that are statically, geographically defined. We haven’t neglected the fact that going forward that could change. But if the plan does change we’re not ripping the floor up.”

It means that, in essence, workstations can be swapped and changed if change is needed.

Scott said: “To change one workstation position to another is relatively simple – you disconnect the wires and plug them into the other one, over a suitable commissioning period of a number of hours, and test it. But to do a move like at, say, West Midlands Signalling Centre could cost around £500,000.”

He added: “If you look at the lay-out Network Rail is going to put in in Rugby, there are signalling workstations down the outside of the room, and controller workstations all the way up the middle. Eventually, we envisage Manchester going for that sort of model.”

He added: “It’s important that people understand that this is not just another big signalling box. It’s not just signalling in here, it’s electric control, traffic control, it’s a rail operating centre. That’s why it’s got a new name.”

There is also plenty of room to integrate the operators’ social media teams. Scott said: “Bringing the Network Rail and operator staff together enables a quicker response, right down to the ability of the controllers on the Network Rail side to go and actually interact with the signallers if they want to or need to, to understand the real detail of what’s going on.

“Around the walls of the building, you’ll see these large smart screens. There’s a new system we’re using, a bit like Skype but a lot more sophisticated, that allows us to bring up instant pictures, control entries and so on between us and, for example, York ROC. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sure the two buildings, although very different in architectural design, are as similar as possible in terms of functionality.”


The ROC has a training room too, in use when RTM took a tour. The signallers go through a five-week one-to-one training programme. The first two weeks are the basics, explained Westcad trainer Ian Lowe – learning how to use the system, getting used to the tracker ball, the various keyboard commands, the various soft-key commands on the screen. “At the end of those two weeks, they’re not 100% and won’t know it perfectly, but they do know how to work it.

“Then, over the following three weeks, we start off very mild with a few small scenarios, and build up to a big scenario assessment that could happen on the railway, to see how the signaller copes.

“We’ll do at least two of the high-risk activities. Sometimes they don’t go right and the signaller does mess up – we want them to mess up, because that’s how we deliver the training and that’s how they learn.

“But when things go wrong, we need the signaller to step up their game and deal with it.”

Although the current five-week training period is for Huyton-Roby, Lowe said: “As this workstation grows [in the area it covers], potentially the training period will get longer.”

The trainer, sat in an adjacent room with a glass panel separating them from the trainee, has access to five screens – a replica of what the trainee has in front of them.

Lowe explained: “Using these, we can create every scenario possible on the railway. Each day they come in here, we never tell them what we’re going to do.”

Scott added: “When we recruit people to be signallers, a person’s ability to learn and to act in a certain way is part of the assessment, when we first take people into the job.”

There was an attempt to produce a smaller workstation for Manchester – Newport’s, for example, are 4.5m long.

RTM was told that Network Rail has put in 19-inch racks of equipment, so that when traffic management comes in, it can be swapped over easily.

The trainee’s workstation has some unique features – such as a little hole with a flap that lets it be switched off and re-booted without moving the whole unit.

“Little details like that have emerged as we’ve gone on with this journey,” Scott said. “On a normal workstation you wouldn’t want to be able to do that!

“We’ve tried to take the flexibility throughout the building. The building itself is flexible, as are the workstations.”


The whole second floor is essentially for contingency and flexibility – extra space if it’s needed. Scott also dropped enticing hints that the ROC could be used for the control of HS2.

“That’s not for us to decide, and that could be managed from here or Rugby, but we’ve got options. We can pitch for it when the time comes,” he said.

RTM was told: “If HS2 is not a separate network, and it is part of the national railway, then it makes sense to manage it as a coherent part of the infrastructure.”

The Rail Operating Centres

• Cardiff

• Derby

• Didcot

• Manchester

• Edinburgh

• Glasgow

• Gillingham

• Basingstoke

• Romford

• Rugby

• Three Bridges

• York

The original plans called for 14 ROCs – the others were the existing centres at Saltley and Ashford. Network Rail further streamlined those plans to 12.

What the TOCs think of the ROC

First TransPennine Express (FTPE) and Northern Rail issued a joint statement saying: “The railway across the north of England is subject to massive investment and improvement and the dedicated signalling centre at Ashburys is another example of that.

“It will allow for teams from Network Rail and rail operators such as FTPE and Northern to work more closely together thus ensuring that customers benefit from quick and collaborative decision making.

“This type of investment will allow for improved service reliability and performance which benefits everyone."

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