Over the next few years, Network Rail is replacing the traditional signal box with 12 Rail Operating Centres (ROCs) and an advanced traffic management system which will make the railway safer, more efficient and easier to run. Six of the ROCs are brand new and that presents a number of challenges.

Virgin East Coast carried its first passengers on 1 March. The following day train company staff arrived at York ROC to work alongside Network Rail employees. It’s an example of the collaborative working structure that will be recreated around the country over the next couple of years.

‘At the moment it’s still very much early days,’ said Simon Whitehorn, Network Rail’s head of network operating strategy.

Bringing TOCs together with Network Rail in the same building will in part help reduce the impact on passengers in times of disruption, at least that’s the plan. For some, the transition will require them to adapt from using mechanical levers to digital displays and from occupying lonely signal boxes to busy offices.

Simon said, ‘That’s a big cultural shift for people, so people who have been used to working as a lone signaller in a remote signal box somewhere [are] suddenly coming into a nice new building.’

He added, ‘The process of engagement with staff, both our own staff and train operator staff, has been paramount throughout all of this because when you’re creating these facilities you have to create them with a view as to how people are going to work in them. What’s the environment going to be.

’We’re doing a lot of work around the cultural change aspects that sit around this because actually we’re going to be taking people who are used to working alone and putting them in an environment where they’re working as part of a much bigger team. That’s something I think sometimes gets forgotten about. People focus on the facilities.’

A wide-reaching training programme is currently underway to bring signalling staff from some of the older facilities into the ROCs.

‘Clearly everybody knows that over time the number of signalling staff that we have operating the network is reduced, and we’ve always been upfront and honest about that,’ said Simon.

‘We have made sure with the trade unions that we’re not just casting people aside. Where we have to, where one particular signal box or group of signal boxes closes because their area of operation has gone into the ROC, we are looking at how we re-deploy signallers within reasonable boundaries.

‘We can’t obviously expect people to uproot and commute to locations that are too far away from their home area but we have a migration strategy.’

manchester roc balcony [online]

Over the next 12 months more of these operating centres will go live and begin to take over signalling responsibilities. Rugby goes live in April and will have its first signalling scheme migrated over in August. Romford opens in May and will be one of two centres to become the first to deploy ERTMS in December. Basingstoke will be ready for operational use in June at which point all six of the new-build ROCs will be up and running.

Says Simon, ‘If we have to think things through slightly differently or change our approach and equally even if as a result of getting people into these buildings, we find that we’ve got things wrong in terms of how things have been designed then we will work with them in a collaborative way to adjust and learn lessons.

‘This is not something that’s just going to go in and that’s it get on with it, end of story. We will continue to work and keep the dialogue going.’

The leadership structure across the ROCs will vary from region to region. Generally, there will be a ROC manager, usually a Network Rail employee, who oversees the day-to-day running of the facility.

Manchester ROC was the first facility to open in July last year. In December, Northern Rail and TransPennine Express joined Network Rail. Once fully operational, up to 400 people will work at Manchester.

Asked about whether Network Rail would have to step in to manage the interests of the network with two competing TOCs either side, Simon said, ‘Clearly there are always issues to be worked through and particularly when there is disruption…’

He added, ‘I know from my previous roles, I was general manager on the West Coast Main Line for four years, at times of disruption the implementation of contingency plans, which train operator might be able to run certain services and which train operator might have to curtail certain services, that’s already pretty much pre-planned through the contingency plans.’

‘Whilst they might work for different organisations they are effectively sat side by side in the same group of desks and it doesn’t matter whether one works for c2c or Network Rail, they know they need to work closely together to deliver the service for the end customer,’ said Simon. ‘It’s like a lot of these things, we have to plan. The proof will only come when we actually implement, and I guess it will be interesting to review at some point and we will continue to review and learn lessons as we go.’

Ultimately, these facilities have been built for people not computers. Although the need for a signaller pulling a lever will soon go, people are still, and will be in the future, essential to providing a reliable, punctual, quality rail service.