As any regular user of the London Underground will tell you, the engineering work to replace outdated signalling systems is a long job. The current phase, resignalling the Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee Lines, is scheduled to be complete in 2014, by which time the Crossrail project will be in full swing.
The resignalling is being handled by Thales, and is headed by the managing director of the company’s UK transport and security business, Peter Batley. It is a formidable task, not helped by the age of the Underground and its infrastructure.
‘It takes a long time to do these jobs, because of the access to the track,’ he said. ‘It’s very different from just building a new railway and signalling it.’
Thales is installing its SelTrac IS system on the Underground, which differs significantly from the existing systems, which control the entry and exit of trains to the various parts of the track.
‘The product we’re installing is called a moving block system,’ said Batley. ‘It has a computer onboard, which reads where the train is, where the train in front is, and controls the speed of the train to keep a safe distance all the time. That increases the number of trains you can run at any one time, as it reduces what’s known as the headway.’
It is a complex system, but the installation is more complex still. ‘Of course, we have to interface the new system with all the existing hardware, and you have to have both systems running in parallel; while you’re installing, testing and commissioning the new system, you still have to have the old one operating, so the trains keep running,’ said Batley.
‘There’s some very old equipment that we have to interface into — 19th century technology and engineering. It’s not as though it’s an easy job; it’s very complex. London Underground quite rightly has some very rigid regimes for insurance and safety, and there are hurdles you have to get over before you even get clearance to proceed.’ And even then, the Tube shutdown period is short. ‘You only get four hours a night to actually do the engineering work.’
The current political situation makes the situation even more uncertain, with the new London Mayor, Boris Johnson, promising in his manifesto to keep the Tube open later at weekends.
‘Boris can say that he’ll open the Tube late so you can get your train home at 2am on Friday or Saturday, but that means that our engineering hours for those nights are gone,’ said Batley.
This, he says, could mean that the project will take even longer than the scheduled completion dates of 2009 for the Jubilee Line, 2011 for the Northern Line and 2014 for the piccadilly.
Line closures are an option, he said, although unpopular with Tube management. ‘If you’re asking for a closure of half the Northern Line or even a quarter of it, Tim O’Toole [London Underground managing director] quite rightly wants to protect his customers and doesn’t like doing that on a regular basis,’ said Batley.
However, he believes that the advantages of the new technology will justify the inconvenience caused by any closures. ‘When people see the benefit of the investment that’s happening in London, when they see the new, longer trains arriving and the increase in frequency because of the reduced headway, they’ll forget that they were inconvenienced because the Victoria Line was shut early on a particular weekend.’
Thales is now to embark on another London Underground project, equipping the system’s largest and most complex depot, in Neasden, with a modular interlocking system that will allow it to set and confirm routes, manage train movements within the depot, and control and monitor signalling equipment. This will allow the depot, which is owned by Metronet, to house more trains without affecting the traffic in and out.
Batley claimed the contract puts the company in a strong position to provide further signalling to London’s transport system in the coming years.
And they will be busy years. Crossrail, which Batley said is ‘a phenomenal opportunity for London and long overdue; it’s been talked about for over 30 years’, is now in its early stages. Also, the Olympics is entering its main construction phase in east London, and this will require upgrading of infrastructure not only in London but also on the routes into and out of the capital.
While Batley is confident that Thales would be capable of handling the workload which it will surely undertake, he admits that getting people into the industry can be difficult. Trains are not seen as the glamorous end of engineering, and signalling in particular is a hard sell.
‘Train signalling used to be a black art, but it actually isn’t like that any more,’ he said.
‘More and more, our best product in the area is a computer-based control system. It’s all about IT, it’s very hi-tech. People can come into this area as electrical engineers and acquire a whole range of new skills, which are very transferable.’
This means that Thales is looking for specific types of people in its recruitment activities. ‘You do need people who can look strategically across the issues and engineering problems and solutions, but you also need your experts.
‘The type of graduates we’re after are the ones that are excited by looking at very complex problems; give them a problem and they will work on it and focus on it, and that’s their motivation. They don’t necessarily want to see that interfacing work; they want to move on to the next critical and challenging problem.’
When it comes to the critical moments for London’s new infrastructure, there is a definite air of challenge, he said. ‘Everyone has to be prepared, by then, to make certain that the engineering resource is available to London to deliver these massive projects.’
Meanwhile, Thales is also looking into other IT-related transport projects. ‘A lot of our activity has been around what a lot of people believe is politically unacceptable, which is road user charging,’ Batley said.
Thales has recently worked with a consortium including Halliburton Brown & Root, and Atkins, looking at different technologies for road charging, he said.
One area where this could bear fruit is in Manchester, he said, where an extension of the current tram network could be funded by a road charging scheme. ‘It’s the sort of scheme that will allow organisations to start ploughing money back into infrastructure, but it has to be done the right way,’ he added.
Electronic communications can also be used in other ways, he said. Thales is in a partnership with Alcatel to build a high-bandwidth broadband network, called the South Yorkshire Digital Region, covering the Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham regions. It is funded by the EU, the local authorities and the Yorkshire Forward RDA and Batley believes it could provide a range of advantages for the region.
‘It’s a massive network, and it’s going to provide infrastructure for so many things that require high bandwidth.
‘We can talk about video on demand and all that sort of thing, but there’s also e-monitoring of the health of the elderly, linking libraries and schools together, giving people more direct access to local services and pulling businesses together.’