Anyone visiting York by train over recent months is likely to have seen the new Network Rail building that is being constructed by the side of the track. This building is actually an essential part of a new 15-year plan that will revolutionise the way our country’s railways operate and bring signalling into the modern era.
Network Rail currently operates the rail network from around 800 signal boxes. Many of these use modern computer-based systems, but there are also lots dating from the 1950s and 60s, while over half are of the old-fashioned type with levers and bells (known as ‘mechanical’ boxes).
It’s getting harder to maintain the equipment in the older boxes – some of it is over 100 years old and spares are hard to come by! Also, whilst they are reliable, mechanical boxes only control small sections of the railway; this is not an efficient way to run trains, and limits the improvements we can make to services.
Therefore, Network Rail has developed its Operating Strategy –a scheme that over the next 15 years will see these signal boxes, as well as ‘control’ offices (which make strategic decisions about how to manage the train service) and electrical control rooms (from where power to the overhead power lines and 3rd rail are managed), migrated into 12 Rail Operating Centres (ROCs). Bringing all these elements of railway operations together in one place will enable better ways of working, as will the new technology we are installing in the ROCs. Our key aims are to improve performance and increase capacity, as well as reduce the amount it costs to run the railway.
Six of these ROCs already exist, at Cardiff, Derby, Didcot, Edinburgh, Gillingham and Glasgow. Six more are being built at Basingstoke, Manchester, Romford, Rugby, Three Bridges and York. The York ROC will include a training centre, and will be clad in brick to make it blend in better with the city’s historic aesthetic. It will be the largest of the ROCs, controlling the main line from King’s Cross to the Scottish border, along with many cross-country routes and branch lines. The building of the ROC here underlines York’s historic role as a rail hub and ensures that it will remain so for many years to come.