A Day in the Life of York ROC

To get an inside view of how the modern railway operates, Rail Express was given exclusive all areas access at Network Rail’s Rail Operating Centre (ROC) at York for a full 12-hour day shift on November 16.

All text/images by Mark Simmons

Slink into York station by train from the south and the ROC is hard to miss. Sitting in the ‘V’ between the East Coast Main Line and the ‘York avoider’ the brightly coloured ‘Y’s and giant ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ hoarding facing the main line make the most modern of the UK’s 11 ROCs something of a standout building.

Cheery as the exterior may be, entering the 76,000 sq ft three-level main building, which started operating in 2014, is no mean feat. Large concrete anti-vehicle blocks protect the main front gates, which are surrounded by tall, barbed wire-topped fences.

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Pedestrian access is via a full-height turnstile and only after showing ID via a CCTV camera. Inside, security is equally tight, with access to individual rooms and sections controlled by key tags and staff encouraged to challenge faces they don’t recognise (later in the day of our visit, when the Rail Express day pass tag has slipped off into a pocket, a concerned member of the team alerts their manager).

06.38: It is still dark outside as staff for the day shift make their way into York ROC. Access from York station on foot takes just a few minutes, so many of the ROC’s staff commute in by rail.

The original rationale behind the creation of the ROCs was refreshingly simple: to put control and signalling staff under one roof so that they could communicate directly with each other and improve efficiency on the railway.

At York, training rooms and IT equipment fill the majority of the ground floor, with the control functions based on the first floor and signallers on the second. In normal times the ROC is populated by around 129 staff, the majority of whom are Network Rail employees, but, as we discover, third party staff are also based in the building.

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Control Staff Reduction

The pandemic means recent times have been anything but normal, acknowledges Mark Hayles, route operations manager (ROM), who says social distancing restrictions meant a reduction of control staff in the building of 50%. Now, as the situation gradually returns to normal, typical railway-related problems are kicking in.

07.13: Route operations manager Mark Hayles, who began his career on the railway as a signaller at Halifax, checks the logs from the previous night. As daylight breaks outside the tracks of the ECML outside his office are just becoming visible.

Despite significant preparation ahead of leaf fall season and up to 95% success in getting Rail Head Treatment Trains (RHTT) out on their dedicated routes, this autumn there has been a significant problem with leaf fall contamination-related wrong-side track circuit failures (WSTCFs) – where a train fails to display on signalling screens. Remote condition monitoring is allowing engineers to see where problems are occurring before line sections actually fail, but the reasons for why so many incidents are being recorded is still under investigation.

07.21: The view of the first floor control room from the senior network delivery manager’s desk. Route diagrams show live train movements (left to right) for the King’s Cross, Sheffield and York areas, while the green boxes on the right show forecast rainfall levels.

The ROC operates a two-shift system, with the day shift nominally taking over from 07.00-19.00 and the night shift 19.00-07.00. In practice, individual handovers take place at varying times in the hour before. By 07.00 on the day of Rail Express’s visit senior network delivery manager (SNDM) Alex is already well up to speed on the issues of the day. Her desk faces the middle of the control section, occupying much of the first floor. For most of the day the room is a hubbub of activity as staff liaise with each, responding to incidents as they occur.

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07.31: Any of the route diagrams can be instructed to show all individual signalling positions (highlighted green), though normally this feature is switched off.

Control at York ROC extends from London’s King’s Cross, up the ECML as far as Berwick, with routes east to the Tees and much of North Lincolnshire, and west across to Leeds and Sheffield covered. To help maximise efficient communications staff from relevant passenger train operating companies (TOCs) – LNER, Northern and GTR – as well as other bodies such as Azuma manufacturer Hitachi and the British Transport Police are ‘embedded’ (ie have desks) in the ROC.

Four large flat panels facing Alex’s desk show live train running positions in three locations (they can be set to anywhere on the route, but normally show lines around King’s Cross, Sheffield and York) plus rainfall alert markers (coded green, amber, red or black) from over 30 locations. This Tuesday morning all weather markers are reassuringly green and train services are largely running normally across the network. Banks of eight super size flat screens are sited well above head height on both sides of the control room to display live route and other data during an incident; in normal circumstances they show (silently) live news channels.

07.42: Senior network delivery manager Alex reviews emails alerting her of likely issues in the day ahead. The previously open layout of the control room has changed considerably with the installation of heavy-duty Covid-related protective screens around each desk.
08.14: Train running controller Sandra has just been informed by the GTR contact in the ROC that a train is blocking the down slow line at Hitchin. Sandra can use various software systems (including TOPS) to gather details about affected workings. In this case the driver of 700133 on the 9S04 King’s Cross to Cambridge cannot work the train forward as he is not passed for lines north of Hitchin. A misunderstanding meant he should have left the train earlier.

Train running controller (TRC) Sandra has switched one of her screens to the southern end of the ECML after the GTR controller appears at her desk to report an incident of a train that is blocking the down slow at Hitchin (see photos at 08.14/08.29 next page). Sandra discusses the issue with colleagues as she assesses how severe the incident might become.

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Each station has a contingency plan, available at the click of a mouse, which specifies to controllers which actions to take in a variety of circumstances. Today the situation at Hitchin is relatively easily resolved, but a signal failure at Sheffield the day before created significant disruption, and kept the control team busy as they worked to mitigate delays to passengers.

08.29: Unfortunately, train 2C04 (highlighted red, top left of the screen) has become trapped behind 9S04 (in purple). The headcode background highlights are colour coded to indicate degrees of delay. Relief drivers are dispatched from both north and south to take 9S04 forward, while 2C04 sets back wrong line to Stevenage. Eventually a replacement driver for 9S04 takes the now cancelled train to Letchworth carriage sidings, where it waits to head south with its corresponding working also cancelled between Cambridge and Letchworth. Signallers and control staff work together throughout to allow accurate customer announcements to be made.

Route control manager and incident controller (RCM/IC) Les is keeping an eye on routes around Middlesbrough following the closure of two signalboxes in the area the previous weekend and the transfer of signalling to the ROC that morning.

09.51: Route control manager Les keeps an eye on delays around Middlesbrough as teething issues related to recontrol from two local signalboxes to the ROC over the weekend mean trains are running late leaving the station. Although each train is delayed only a few minutes, the cumulative effect of these delays in both directions is beginning to add up.

Although the signalling switch has been largely successful, incidences of late running are occurring at Middlesbrough as Northern and TPE traincrews wait for signals to clear, that now require operation of the TRTS (Train Ready to Start) button on the platform, which the traincrew have not yet been authorised to use at this location. Les liaises with the signallers upstairs and his TOC counterparts to understand what is happening and who needs to be informed so that the situation can be resolved.

10.00: A conference call dedicated each week specifically to tackle issues relating to autumn and leaf fall focuses on wrong side track circuit failures. The team is also looking into claims that adhesion incidents spike just after Bonfire Night.

Dedicated Autumn Desk

While Les keeps the Middlesbrough situation under control, lead freight manager Mark is about to get on a group telephone call. Mark runs the dedicated Autumn desk which is set up each year between September and December to deal with leaf fall related issues. Today he joins a weekly conference with a team that includes operations response staff, signal engineers and representatives from the TOCs.

11.40: Lead freight manager Mark is seconded away from his normal role for three months (September-December) to run a dedicated autumn desk to focus on resolving issues caused by leaf fall. Although RHTT trains run daily, and some problem areas are included in two circuits, low adhesion incidents have become a significant issue in 2021.

A weather forecaster details weather events for the week ahead, highlighting times and areas where adhesion may be poor, while one of the season delivery specialists on the call summarises incidents in the previous week. It was tougher than expected, with 54 WSTCFs reported and adhesion issues resulting in 3700 minutes of delays. Subsequent discussion includes questions about vegetation removal, the effects of warmer than normal weather, and on-going analysis into whether a perception that adhesion and contamination events increase just after Bonfire Night (November 5) is supported by data.

12.52: Shift signalling manager Ady gives Rail Express a few pointers on how to operate the Scalable signalling software system. Even to a lifelong rail enthusiast, the amount of information and speed of events at a busy location mean the screens look formidable to start off with.

Another weekly conference call, which takes place later that day, involves issues related to British Transport Police in the area. BTP inspector Richard, who is ‘embedded’ in the ROC, is joined by external specialists, a BTP sergeant and performance managers from local TOCs to talk through recent incidents. Though the number recorded in the previous week is down (22 in total), it sadly includes serious events, including a suicide, and a dangerous trespass at Drax, when an environmental activist occupied the roof of a freight wagon for five hours as part of a protest timed to coincide with the COP26 climate summit taking place at that time. Richard points out that in the latter case, with no intelligence to suggest a trespass attempt and with access difficult to patrol due to open countryside, it is hard to see how the event could have been prevented.

13.21: Just when Rail Express thinks it is beginning to get the hang of the Leeds West workstation, it sets the route (shown in red, bottom right of the left-hand screen) for 6M52, an eastbound freight train heading towards Leeds station (platforms in yellow on the Leeds East workstation screen on the right). Flashing white dots at the platform ends indicate passenger trains ready to leave, but now delayed by the route set for the slow running freight

By lunchtime in the ROC some staff are making use of the bright breakout kitchen areas, which look out over the ECML, but many are lunching at their desks, as monitoring activity continues round the clock. Also busy at lunchtime are training stations for signallers, with most positions occupied. Signalling software at the ROC is provided by two separate companies: Resonate (Scalable) and Siemens (Westcad).

Ady has a separate workstation (with trains passing on the ECML just outside his window) with which he can create any scenario from a derailment to OHLE damage to test the competency of trained signallers.

Shift signalling manager (SSM) Ady, a former signaller, whose full-time job is now assessing competence of other signallers, offers to let Rail Express have hands-on experience of using the Scalable system, after assuring us it isn’t connected to any live signals. Any workstation can be called up on the simulator and Ady kindly chooses Leeds West, one of the busiest on the network.

14.44: On the second floor, in the Sheffield sub-ROC, signallers have found a temporary fix to allow the newly commissioned Middlesbrough workstation to pass trains through the station without the delays that they were incurring in the morning. A permanent fix will have to wait for later in the week

With the route diagrams clearly set out on the screens (see photo previous page at 12.52) everything is controlled by moving the cursor and mouse clicks. The deceptive simplicity of the system quickly becomes apparent when Rail Express sets the route for a freight train too early, blocking the exit of numerous passenger trains waiting to depart Leeds. Had this happened in real life, it would have been a performance improvement matter for the signaller involved.

16.37: As darkness falls outside, the lighting levels in the Leeds sub-ROC (as with all the sub-ROCs) remain at a constantly dim level to allow signallers to concentrate on their screens. Unlike Rail Express, the professional signallers have not experienced any issues allowing freights out in front of passenger trains!

Live Signalling Software

Suitably chastened, Rail Express heads up to the second floor to spend the afternoon with the signalling team, operating the live signalling software. Whereas the control room downstairs is bright and noisy, the atmosphere on the signalling floor is altogether different, with muted lighting to prevent glare on the signallers’ screens and quiet hush, broken only occasionally by outbursts of chatter as signallers discuss an unfolding event.

17.20: The evening rush hour begins across the network and while King’s Cross may be busy, there is barely a whisper in the South sub-ROC as signallers focus on ensuring long distance high speed trains and local commuter services run in the right order.

There are currently three groups of signalling workstations at York, each designated a sub-ROC: Leeds and Sheffield each cover lines around their respective areas, while South is the bottom-most section of the ECML from King’s Cross to Peterborough, which transferred to the ROC from King’s Cross as recently as April this year.

Dan is shift signalling manager (SSM) at the Leeds sub-ROC, which uses Scalable software and includes seven live workstations. He explains that the pandemic stretched the signallers to their limit, particularly when the ‘pingdemic’ caused staff to be unavailable for duty at short notice. With numbers on the ROC’s second floor down to a bare minimum, it is testament to the commitment of the team that no workstations were closed down (resulting in trains being unable to run over parts of the network) during the pandemic.

Steve is SSM at the Sheffield sub-ROC, which now totals nine live workstations running the Westcad system after the inclusion, earlier that day, of the new Middlesbrough workstation. By early afternoon the issue with trains departing Middlesbrough has been solved by a temporary signalling-side fix, with a permanent resolution still to be agreed.

18.29: Back in the control room on the first floor the day shift team is beginning to hand over to their night shift counterparts. In half-an-hour the changeover will be complete and many of the day shift will be on a train heading home.

Jim is SSM at the South sub-ROC, where the five live workstations also run the Westcad system. His desk contains one of the few processes that has not yet been digitised. A Northern City Line Occupation Book contains entries written in manually every day to confirm when the power supply to the third rail DC-electrified Moorgate branch is isolated and reconnected.

As the evening rush hour gets into full swing, control staff on the first floor are relieved to see that most services are running normally, with no major incidents reported. From 18.00 the team working the night shift begin to appear, with most verbally handing over to their opposite daytime number. By 19.00 all of the day shift has left a building which never sleeps.

A Night in the Life of… York ROC is planned for later in 2022.

Rail Express would like to thank Network Rail operations director Chris Gee and all of the staff at York ROC involved in this feature who gave freely of their time and expertise

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