Over one billion journeys are made by rail in the UK each year. Every day, each train makes its way down the line, getting the all clear from green signals, passing over axle counters and stopping at red signals. It is likely that, as these journeys occur, no-one realises that the work of signalling engineers has played a part in getting them to their destinations.

With investment in major re-signalling projects such as the National Signalling Framework and the Cardiff Area Signalling Renewal (CASR), there is a real demand for signalling engineers.

Signalling systems that have reached the end of their useful life need to be replaced with the latest equipment to keep the network running smoothly. It is the signalling engineer’s responsibility to design, test and bring into service a new, reliable system. To find out more, we spoke to Jon Leach from Atkins who is working as a project engineer on the CASR.

Walking a mile in his shoes

A typical day for Jon consists of a variety of tasks, from client meetings to being a point of contact for technical queries. “We get asked questions about anything and everything from how the train detection system should be applied to the positioning of equipment on the network,” he said. “We also deal with multidisciplinary queries from other contractors working on the scheme to ensure everything from civils to signalling works together and matches the project scope.”

Answering these technical queries is very much a team effort. “Signalling is such a broad field so coming up with solutions requires everyone to share their knowledge and experience to work out the best way forward.”

For example, the installation of the Frauscher train detection system on CASR was the first time that this technology had been used on a British railway. When the questions came in, Jon and the team consulted the manuals, standards and manufacturer’s guidelines to find the answers needed.

They also looked at how the technology had been applied elsewhere in the world to see if something similar could be done on their project. As Jon explains: “There is no right or wrong answer; it’s about coming up with the best solution that will deliver a reliable signalling system that meets the client’s requirements.”

As part of his role, Jon also conducts regular site visits. During these weekly inspections, he looks at different aspects of the project such as how the equipment is being used on site and reviewing the control system at the new Wales Regional Operating Centre. He also monitors the performance of the signalling system that has already been rolled out to ensure it is working as it should.

Delivering innovations

The CASR project has given Jon and the entire project team interesting challenges to sink their teeth into. Stretching across 192 route miles of track between Newport and Port Talbot, the scheme is one of the first major re-signalling projects to use innovations such as plug couplers as well as the Frauscher train detection system.

As a member of Atkins’ fabric improvements team, which is a group dedicated to investigating new improvements to operations, Jon wrote the initial business case for plug couplers on CASR as the innovation could save both time and money.

From there, he worked closely with the client, Network Rail, to develop product specifications and introduce this technology onto the UK railway network.

“Plug couplers are simple in theory,” Jon stated. “You attach a plug onto one end of a piece of signalling equipment and then plug it into a location case on the side of the track. This significantly reduces the amount of time that engineers have to spend trackside installing equipment. It has taken us a few years to get to this point but it has been worth it; plug coupler technology was installed for the first time during CASR’s initial commissioning in March 2013 and continues to be rolled out as the project progresses.”

Thinking outside the box

As any engineer will tell you, rigorous planning and programme management are key to successful delivery but from time to time, challenges arise. On these occasions, how do they keep the project on track? Jon explains that in these instances, problem solving skills are vital.

“We realised in December 2013 that the Phase 4 signalling commissioning on CASR would have to be delayed. However, this really wasn’t an option as a key P-way stage, which was reliant on the signalling commissioning, was already planned and booked in. The P-way stage was huge, at least 400 wagons of materials were being brought in so it was critical that these works be protected.”

The solution? Carry out additional signalling stages and overlay a new train detection system on the existing layout, which meant that the P-way works could go ahead as planned. “From agreeing on the solution we had just 16 weeks to design, test and commission the new signalling system to ensure the P-way works could be delivered. It was a real challenge, but one that the team overcame by working together,” Jon said.

A signalling engineer’s life is varied. Whether they are in the office or on site, one day is never the same as the next. So what’s the best part about being a signalling engineer? “Working on innovations is my favourite aspect,” was Jon’s reply. “I get to work across the project from checks and reviews to helping out with the design. I like looking at a system and working out how to make it more reliable.”

Jon Leach works in Atkins’ Rail business, which has exciting career opportunities available.