The Department for Transport has unveiled plans for new digital signalling on parts of the East Coast Main Line.

The DfT said that the new technology would “allow trains to talk to the track” meaning an end to conventional signalling at the side of tracks.

“The new technology allows signallers to know exactly where each train is at every minute of every journey,” the department said.

“The East Coast Main Line is a mixed-use railway, with trains of different sizes and speeds, both passenger and freight, all using the same tracks. This smart signalling recognises these different trains, allowing train and track to talk to each other continuously in real-time.”

The DfT said that the £350 million investment would see the East Coast Main Line – which links London with Edinburgh – become Britain’s first mainline digital rail link, and would “smooth the flow of trains, make journeys safer and reduce signal failures that every year result in thousands of hours of delays”.

The technology is set to be introduced between London King’s Cross and Stoke Tunnel in Lincolnshire.

Figures show that over 80 million journeys are made on the East Coast Main Line each year, and the DfT said that congestion on the route is “compounded by signalling nearing the end of its useful life”.

Announcing the investment Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said:

“As the country recovers from Covid-19 we want to speed up our economy and reap the benefits of new transport technology. The Victorians gave us the world’s first great rail network and now it’s our turn to be modern transport pioneers and build on that great tradition.

“Upgrading this country’s conventional signalling system, and giving drivers technology fit for the 21st century, will boost train performance, cut delays, improve safety and support the supply chain.

“This is just the beginning. In time, we will digitise signalling right across the country to make good on our promise of better reliability and punctuality for passengers.

“Passengers shouldn’t have to worry about missing connections or being late home to see their children, and I’ve been clear that getting the trains to run on time is a personal priority.”

Rail consultant Vernon Baseley commented:

“[The improved signalling] would support 225 km/h running [of trains]. It reduces headway [separation] for trains running at the same speed [meaning more trains can be accommodated on a given section of track]. It also slightly reduces the length of time it takes a train to pass through a junction.”

“At Welwyn [a notorious ECML bottleneck] it could mean one extra train per hour could be slotted in.”

“The main benefit is a reduction in capital cost if there is no lineside signalling and so reduced technical access requirements.”

Government-owned LNER is the principal operator on the East Coast Main Line, having taken over the Intercity East Coast Franchise from Virgin Trains East Coast in 2018.

Earlier this year we reported on plans to allow open access operators to run services between London King’s Cross and Edinburgh.

London-Edinburgh open access rail moves a step closer