Britain to develop PTC equipment for traditional steam and diesel equipment

The first British steam locomotive to receive PTC will be Pacific # 60163, Tornado, built in 2008. It is pictured 60163 ‘Tornado’, as it approaches Coulsdon, south London, August 15, 2009. (Keith Fender)

LONDON – UK rail infrastructure owner Network Rail has appointed two specialist contractors to deliver an industry-first ‘scout’ project that adapts positive train control to heritage steam and diesel locomotives.

The consortium of Atkins (part of the SNC-Lavalin group) and Thales is undertaking work as part of Network Rail’s “East Coast Digital Program” which will see traditional color light signals replaced by the European standard PTC system ETCS (European Train Control System) on the East Coast main line between London, York and Edinburgh.

British two-tone green diesel with yellow nose
Ex-British Railways Deltic diesel D9002, shown in 2017. One of these locomotives is expected to be modernized with PTC equipment. (Keith Fender)

The project will design and test ETCS technology to determine whether it is a viable technical and commercial option for heritage locomotives. In what Network Rail says is a world first, the Pathfinder project will see ETCS cabin signaling equipment, supplied and installed by Thales, used on a steam locomotive. In the United States, Union Pacific has installed PTC equipment on its Big Boy, # 4014, which works in conjunction with the 4-8-8-4 assist diesel, but this is a form of PTC different from ETCS. [see “Union Pacific Big Boy differences from the 2019 tour,”, Aug. 12, 2021].

The first British locomotive to be tested will be Pacific-built in 2008 Tornado, while engineering design work will be undertaken for a Black 5 steam locomotive built in the 1930s, as several of them are in service for charter train operations. A classic design example of the old East Coast mainline diesel engines, the Class 55 Deltic (dating from 1961) will also be fitted.

Dark interior of locomotive cabin in tunnel with various video screens
A view from February 20, 2018 in the cabin of the Eurostar e320 in a tunnel of the HSL Zuid high-speed line in the Netherlands shows ETCS screens in front of the engineer displaying the allowed speed. The ETCS system will suppress line edge signals. (Keith Fender)

ETCS is the signaling and control component of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which will replace traditional line-side signals with in-cab radio signaling in many European countries. Line edge beacons activated by passing trains communicate with on-board and centralized computers, providing signaling and speed information to train engineers. So far, the system has only been used, without line-edge signals, on new high-speed lines, so it has not limited legacy steam (or diesel) operation.

The practicalities of installing a radio system that relies on electronics and sensitive displays to show the mechanic the allowable speeds will be difficult in the harsh environment of a steam locomotive. Several special mainline steam or diesel trains run most weeks in Britain, normally starting in large cities such as London, Birmingham or Bristol. Most travel long distances on the country’s main network, shared with regular passenger and freight trains. A successful PTC modernization trial would allow legacy locomotives to continue to operate on the mainline infrastructure.

Other European countries that also have a large number of special steam trains on main lines (e.g. Germany, Austria, Czech Republic or Hungary) are also considering replacing line edge signals. as part of the ETCS installation, so the UK trial will be of interest elsewhere.

Side view of British steam locomotive and train
The ‘Black Five’ locomotive LMS 5MT 45379 climbs Medstead Bank on the Mid Hants Heritage Railway on December 26, 2016. Several of these locomotives are also in regular use on the Mainline. (Keith Fender)

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