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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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