A look at the future of signalling in Wales

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Eight years after its opening in October 2010, the £16.5 million Wales Railway Operating Centre (WROC) is really starting to come into its own, as more and more of the Principality’s network falls under its control.

Situated in an anonymous and highly-fortified building, surrounded by razor wire and a bomb-proof wall, half a mile west of Cardiff Central and overlooking Canton depot, the WROC works round the clock 365 days a year, employing a total of around 180 Network Rail staff.

In addition, and in a separate first floor room from the signallers, the integrated control room sees a further 46 Arriva Trains Wales staff sitting opposite the NR team, overseeing operation of the whole Welsh network and stepping in to manage incidents as they arise.

WROC is one of the dozen planned operating centres across Britain that will ultimately assume control of virtually the entire network, with exceptions in Wales being the Cambrian Coast and Heart of Wales routes, which will retain existing radio-based signalling control from Machynlleth and key token control, overseen by Pantyffynnon Signal Box, respectively.

Earlier this year a new North Wales desk in the WROC (the Rhyl workstation) assumed control of the main line east of Llandudno Junction, following a £50 million re-signalling project that saw closure of manual boxes at places including Rhyl, Abergele and Prestatyn (as featured in previous blogs).

That workstation took up a little more of the spacious, and still largely empty, first floor room, where around a dozen signallers at a time oversee the banks of computer consoles plotting and setting train movements, as well as monitoring a host of level crossings.

Already under WROC control were routes from Awre Junction (the Wales & Borders route boundary to the west of Gloucester) to Bridgend, including both the mainline and the Vale of Glamorgan line, as well as the route north from Shrewsbury to Nantwich (south of Crewe).

It has so far seen the elimination of 26 signal boxes – 12 in the South Wales area, seven between Shrewsbury and Crewe and a further seven on the North Wales Coast.

Besides signalling, a total of eight level crossings overseen by staff in the WROC: its Severn Tunnel workstation oversees a trio at Awre, Lydney and Caldicot; the Vale of Glamorgan workstation those at Rhoose, St Fagans, St George’s and Llantrisant West; while the Rhyl workstation monitors a crossing at Tyn Y Morfa, east of Prestatyn.

Next up will be for the WROC to take control in March 2019 of the majority of the South Wales main line currently controlled by a panel box at Port Talbot, to be followed by a further phase of re-signalling in West Wales, due in 2022.IMG_5703

This latter project will spell the end of mechanical signalling on the South Wales Main Line, with closure of the boxes at Pembrey & Burry Port (left) and Ferryside (pictured below), but may not extend further west, so the boxes at Carmarthen Junction, Whitland and Clarbeston Road could live on.

IMG_5581Looking further ahead, there is no confirmed timetable for migrating the rest of the Wales network to control by the WROC, with NR’s timetable for improvements being based on economic viability and the age and condition of existing signalling assets.

Only when the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has published its Final Determination on NR’s plans for Control Period 6 (April 2019 – March 2024) – due later this year – will definitive plans be included in NR’s CP6 Delivery Plan, to be published in March 2019.

IMG_4035But expected to fall victim during CP6 are the two other remaining outposts of semaphore signalling in South Wales, at Park Junction, on the route to Ebbw Vale (pictured left) and at Tondu on the route from Bridgend to Maesteg and junction with the Ogmore Vale line to Margam (pictured below).

What is almost certain to be excluded from the CP6 plans, however, is any change to the status quo on the Marches Line from Newport to Shrewsbury, so survival of its fine array of manual signal boxes and semaphore signals looks assured, in the short term at least.IMG_5543

With big changes afoot in Wales, including an imminent franchise change and ambitious plans for a South Wales Metro, I was curious to know what if any impact these would have on the working of the WROC.

While the franchise change (on 14 October) is not expected to have any impact on the WROC workings, one aspect of the Metro/Valleys Line electrification plans currently under discussion between Network Rail and Transport for Wales (TfW) concerns TfW’s plans for development of a new depot at Taffs Well.

I would like to thank Shane Andrews, Project Operations Interface Specialist and Steve Pace, Shifts Signaller Manager at Network Rail, for hosting my visit to the WROC as well as Bryony Parry and Cerys Canning in NR’s media team for organising my visit.

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