Virgin East Coast will, in just over a year’s time, begin operating its new fleet of high-speed Azuma trains, currently being built by Hitachi and assembled at the recently constructed Newton Aycliffe factory in County Durham.

These trains embody all the latest technology, most of it being controlled by software-dominated electronic systems, for which driver and maintainer understanding will be a challenge in itself.

They will be delivered with all the necessary control systems already fitted, even if some of these will not be needed until the infrastructure elements are also provided. ERTMS (or more pertently, the ETCS – European Train Control System – signalling system element) is to be the future method of controlling the East Coast main line (ECML), but the contract for the control system and trackside equipment has still to be let. Thus, initial operation of the trains will be dependent on the existing lineside signalling including AWS and TPWS.

The initial phase of ERTMS will be from Kings Cross to Stoke Tunnel (just short of Grantham) and will be linked to the first stages of York ROC (Rail Operating Centre), which will replace the ageing Kings Cross and Peterborough power boxes. All this should start to happen in 2021/22, and thereafter ERTMS will be extended northwards as the existing power boxes at York, Newcastle and Edinburgh fall due for replacement. The ETCS equipment on the train will be isolated until ERTMS becomes operational.

The trains will also be fitted with C-DAS (Connected Driver Advisory System) supplied by TTG Transportation Technology, for both Great Western and East Coast IEP fleets. This system is already proven on Great Western and numerous other train operating companies in the UK and internationally.

Initially, this will be used as a networked-DAS which can give near real-time information to the driver on optimum speeds to reach stations or junctions at the correct time, thus avoiding excessive high speed running or harsh braking to achieve the best fuel economy while maintaining precise timetable compliance.

Later, the system will be used in C-DAS mode, which will take account of real-time train movements so as to get the optimum flow through junctions and pinch points. Providing TMS (Traffic Management System) at York ROC will be an integral part of this.

The trains will have automatic and manual SDO (Selective Door Operation) for any stations that have short platforms, this being triggered by GPS location and eurobalises coded with Packet 44 as part of eventual ETCS operation.

Bi-mode operation

The new trains will also be bi-mode, meaning that, as well as being powered from the overhead 25kV electrification system, they will incorporate MTU diesel engines for operating over routes not equipped with the overhead line and for when engineering work or disruption renders the electric traction supply unavailable.

These Azumas (along with similar trains being supplied for the Great Western route) are the first bi-mode trains that Hitachi have designed and built, so there is an element of a learning curve for both supplier and operator.

The trains will come as either a nine-car or five-car formation. In the nine-car version, there will be five under-floor diesel engines and the five-car unit will have three diesel engines. The five-car trains can be coupled together to make a 10-car unit. A ‘hotel services’ supplementary diesel engine will also be provided on each electric train to maintain air conditioning, information systems, door operation and provide limited traction power to clear the line if the main power supplies have failed.

Changing from electric to diesel operation and vice versa can be automatic (APCO) or manual for the timetabled changeover points. For fuel efficiency and maintenance considerations, start-up of the diesel engines will take place before they are actually needed for traction power. This is to ensure the engine coolant is pre heated to 45ºC.

All this takes place by GPS positioning information and eurobalise, which is then fed into the train management system. A typical example would be a through train from Kings Cross to Aberdeen, requiring diesel power after Edinburgh. The diesel engine preparation will thus need to happen before the train arrives in Scotland’s capital. Should diesel power be required in an emergency or unforeseen circumstances, then the start-up process may have to be shortened.

Simulating the Azuma

With all this new technology, training the drivers will be a lengthy and complex business. To achieve this on real trains on the actual ECML is not a practical proposition, as not only would it need additional train paths, but many of the conditions to be encountered would not be able to be experienced on a live railway or test track, such as major fault alarms, emergency situations or emergency GSM-R calls.

Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) has had simulators for the Class 91 and HST cabs for some time (issue 146, November 2016). Supplied by Corys, a French company well-versed in rail and power industry simulation, these simulators were purchased primarily for training and assessing drivers on train operation and signalling systems. It was a logical step for Virgin to extend the contract for provision of an Azuma simulator, the first one of which arrived at Kings Cross in September, with later ones earmarked for Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Whilst there are a few similarities between the Azuma and the earlier Javelin Hitachi trains in use on Southeastern, the trains are much more complex with bi-mode operation and there will be many new types of control and alarm conditions that have to be understood. The exact simulation scenarios that will be needed to train and assess drivers are still being worked out as training modules are developed, but sufficient progress had already been made for Virgin to invite Rail Engineer to view the system.

The HST simulators at VTEC have been retired, all locations will all have Azuma and Class 91 ones going forward. One HST simulator has been transferred to East Midlands Trains, which envisages continued HST operation for some time, one is being retained at Edinburgh and two are in storage.

The Azuma cab is impressive, with many screens for the various functions. The single power and brake controller is conventional, as is the GSM-R radio, but most set up, condition selection and alarm monitoring activities are by touch screen operation. Personal identity, train description, train formation, start signal number, operation mode (ETCS or AWS/TPWS) information has to be entered correctly before any traction power can be applied.

A modelled representation of the ECML from Stevenage to Peterborough, with the existing signalling system superimposed, is shown on a large screen commensurate with the driver’s forward view. As is normal on simulators, weather conditions can be changed and include thick fog and falling snow. However, new on this version is a cracking thunderstorm!!

All of this can be controlled at the fingertips of the instructor using Tactis, Corys’ innovative new tablet-based control application. The picture is not quite as good as real film but the images add immense realism to all the essential elements of the railway. Should any aspects of the track layout, countryside or buildings change over time, it is easy to amend the associated graphics using the Corys track builder tool.

Having the four simulator locations gives a good geographic spread for VTEC and makes it easy for drivers to access the sites, as they are based at their driver depots. However, the amount of training required cannot be encompassed within just the simulator suites’ driving desks. The Corys system allows the basic elements of the Azuma controls to be put onto a “Laptop Sim”, such that training can then take place at any convenient location using any screen in a classroom, or even the boardroom. The laptop screen shows the same portrayal of the Azuma cab, all of the screen-based controls being identical, but with controls such as the power controller adjusted by a touch screen movement.

The laptop alternative is not the end of the story, as a further development SODA (Simulation on Demand) allows the same training to be achieved on a tablet device using cloud-based technology. VTEC is the first deployment by Corys of this innovative tablet-based training technology.

The training process

Around 400 drivers, supervisors and managers will need to be taught the many aspects of driving Azuma trains. The training sessions will focus on individual elements of the controls, which will include:

  • Train operation;
  • Data input and login;
  • ETCS and AWS/TPWS operation;
  • Alarms, fault finding and circuit breaker control;
  • Electric and diesel operation and changeover;
  • Emergency procedures;
  • Fire suppression;
  • Wheel slip/slide and sanding operation;
  • GSM-R radio and DAS observance.

Groups of drivers will attend each session for group and individual learning. The design of the simulation technology allows excellent observation by all of the action, thus students can mutually experience the actions and mistakes that others make. An enthusiastic consensus amongst the driving community has emerged with the earlier Class 91 and HST simulators, and this is expected to continue.

Thereafter, regular re-training and re-certification of competence will take place at the prescribed intervals that Virgin Trains East Coast determines. It is also likely that new requirements from lessons learnt in operation and operational methodology will occur from time to time, such as the introduction of ERTMS and 140mph running, whence the simulators will be invaluable to facilitate such new skills.

Into operation

Whilst an Azuma train has already traversed the ECML as part of the manufacturer’s proving process, the first VTEC train proper will not be introduced until summer 2018. This, and subsequent deliveries, will undergo a period of fault-free running during the autumn of 2018, with the first ones entering passenger service in December 2018. This gives time enough to train sufficient drivers for the new service. It’s going to be fascinating to watch the next 16 months of East Coast operation and witness the transition from the present 30-year-old trains to the new Azumas. Thanks to Paul Boyle and Paul Lartey from the Virgin Trains East Coast team and to Richard Stanton and Neal Smith for facilitating the visit.

This article was written by Clive Kessell. 


Read more: EXPO 1520 – From the past to the future at Scherbinka