Tuesday, 12 March 2013

A visit to Manchester Piccadilly Signalling Centre

Adrian, one of my fellow volunteers on the railway at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester used to work at the Manchester Piccadilly Station Signalling Centre. Tonight he arranged a trip around the centre for about fifteen of us, meeting on the station concourse at 6:00pm.

I decided to devote the day to one of my several volunteer activities; passenger counting for the Mid Cheshire Rail Users Association on the lovely Mid Cheshire line, finishing at Piccadilly in time for the tour of the Centre.

As ever, please click on a picture for a larger image.

Somewhere on the Mid Cheshire line this morning; a lightly-loaded class 142 Pacer unit making for an easy journey as far as my passenger counting is concerned

The Pacer at Chester General station....

....And later this afternoon, a similar unit at Manchester Piccadilly station, photographed just before we met up for the tour of the Signalling Centre

After signing in and getting our identity badges, the first port of call was the announcement room. Most of the announcements for train departures etc. are automatic, but the operator (in the blue shirt) can manually select on his PC screen any announcement he wants the system to broadcast, or he can make manual announcements using a microphone.

The Station Manager explains how the system works

Maps of the railway layout, with the position of trains on it, can be displayed so that announcers can update themselves on whether services are running to time. The trains are the boxes on the tracks with 4 character identification codes in them (e.g.1V29) and their position on the map represents the actual train's location on the railway. This is a map of the Piccadilly Station area, though maps of any part of the rail system can be called up to be displayed.

A closer look at the Announcer's position. On the screen is a scrollable list of announcements, which will run automatically triggered by the running of trains, or can be highlighted by the Announcer to be broadcast immediately. On the back wall are screens which cycle through the pictures from the many CCTV cameras around the station.

From the Announcing area we moved through to the Piccadilly Signalling Centre. Shift Manager Allan Lewis is seen explaining the Centre's operations to our group.

  The signallers have a display on the wall of the area the box controls. That area stretches from Piccadilly Station to Heaton Norris Junction (just short of Stockport), and to just short of Wilmslow via the Styal line including Manchester Airport station, and through to the lines out to Salford and Liverpool in the other direction. Stockport is still manually signalled from the boxes there, but the entire area will soon be swept into a single signalling centre which will control the railway from Scotland as far south as Stafford.

Using these buttons on the desk, signallers manually select routes for the trains. Trains are identified on the display by a 4-character route indicator code such as '1V69'. Signallers press a button to select the 'entry' into a section, and a second button to select the exit, together with any alternate route selections within the section which are set on the black knobs. If it is safe to allow the train into the section (i.e. it is not a movement that will conflict with a route already set) then all the appropriate points will change and the signals will set to allow the train to enter.

A closer look at the route select buttons and knobs. Note the red 'thimble'... this is the equivalent to 'stop blocks' one puts on signal levers in a conventional 'box to remind the signaller not to set up a particular route (for instance if there is a known rail fault to be avoided). These 'thimbles' are simply placed over the appropriate button as a reminder and to physically prevent it being operated.

Our tour also included visits to many non-public areas of the station, particularly in the undercroft. Here the old brick arches of the original station construction can be seen.

It's obvious that the Piccadilly Signalling Centre, although light years ahead of  my manual 'box at Consall on the Churnet Valley Railway, is actually pretty old technology. One can see how, with today's technology, routes could be automatically set according to the trains' route indicator codes with no need for human intervention except in the event of a failure. Such technology is presumably what will enable this centre, as well as many others such as Crewe, Manchester South (located on the site of the old Stockport Motive Power Depot), and those manual boxes in Stockport to be integrated in one fully automatic Centre. Indeed there is no reason why the entire UK rail system couldn't be signalled from one control centre and no doubt one day it will be, but not for a while yet. Here's an article from Rail News about the technology that will replace Piccadilly Signalling Centre:

NETWORK RAIL has unveiled plans to close nearly all the 800 signalling centres, panels and boxes which presently control the National Rail network, replacing them with 14 Rail Operating Centres and reducing the signalling workforce by two-thirds, to 2,000.

The changeover will take more than two decades to complete and cost some £1.1 billion.
However, it is expected that the annual savings will amount to at least £200 million by 2030, when 80 per cent of the project should be complete, and £250 million by the 2040s.

Some ROCs will control an entire Network Rail route so that, for example, Didcot ROC will regulate the entire Great Western network in England, from Penzance to Bristol and Paddington, and as far north as the outskirts of Birmingham, where Saltley ROC would take over.

The West Coast Main Line will be run by just four ROCs -- Glasgow (Cowlairs), Manchester, Saltley and Rugby, while East Anglia will be controlled from a new ROC at Romford. The largest ROC will be at York, which will cover north east England from The Wash to the Scottish borders, and also all the East Coast Main Line in England.

Wales will be run by a single ROC at Cardiff, and Scotland by two -- at Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Network Rail says train regulation will become more efficient, thanks to new traffic management and control systems which will improve capacity.

The changes will also be compatible with the spread of ERTMS, because the equipment in the new ROCs will be 'agnostic' about the signalling systems to which they are connected, and in the case of ERTMS will link directly with its layer of train control functions.

But it will be the end of the line for the remaining mechanical boxes and their associated semaphore signals, which will be replaced by modular signals.

After the tour I caught a train home, thinking of its progress across the display on the Signalling Centre wall... and thankful to have seen an era of signalling on the railway which will soon seem as out of date as my manual signal box at Consall does today.

Thanks Adrian for organising such an enjoyable and informative outing.



  1. Interesting article and fascinating insight to the inner workings of this most 'secret' of railway operations. Not often the public gets to drop in on this to understand the process either, but one thing you could have brought up whilst inside the control room is the seemingly pointlessly rambling automated annoucements which so many people who use the trains (and even station staff) are so sick and tired of because of their sheer frequency and - in some cases - 'stating the obvious' patronising tone. Surely we don't need to be told every minute how to keep an eye on our personal belongings or that the station is '24 hour CCTV operated' etc etc.... or indeed how we must take care in wet weather even when it isn't raining !!!

  2. I absolutely concur with your comments about the excessive and nannying announcements at some Manchester stations, including Piccadilly. It's even worse at Deansgate, where the sound system misses the first second or so of the announcement.. "not leave bags unattended. Unattended bags may be taken away or destroyed by the security authorities". "ext train does not stop here. Please stand clear of the platform edge", etc.

    However, I was far too interested in the explanations about how the signalling centre operates to bring it up then. Perhaps you should write to the station master?

  3. Been there, done that, several times over. In fact my issue with them on this subject has spanned an unbelievable seven years now! And they still choose to live in their ivory tower. For example, have you heard the rambling one regarding the 'left luggage' at Manchester Piccadilly, whereby they have now added two extra sections to the original standardised announcement, thus extending it to almost 18 seconds in length? If not, then here is the entirety of that extra bit which has been appended since 2007: ".....a secure LEFT LUGGAGE facility is located on Platform 10.....to enable passengers to store their Luggage...."

    Well I never! Obviously, its not there for us to use as the toilet or changing room is it? Talk about stating the bleeding obvious and being of the patronising assumption that all passengers are total plebs who don't know what a left luggage facility at a railway station is used for.

    Having told the Station Manager this and pointed out to him how inane this pointlessly verbose announcement is (I mean, train operators' way with the English language isn't exactly brilliant is it), he just dismissed my criticisms out of hand, saying that it sounds perfectly okay.

    I rest my case.

    *Incidentally, when I used to work for Merseytravel (based in Liverpool), I was able to at least have the satisfaction of seeing my written feedback and recommendations for Merseyrail's [also excessively needless] PA announcements to be re-scripted and edited. And for a while they actually carried out these changes. However, since I, and several others, moved on and left the company, I have noticed to my indignity, on my occasional returns to the Merseyside area, that they seem to have reverted back to their tediously trite, cliched, and 'tried and tested' standardised jargon which most passengers and train users find so annoyingly insincere and meaningless....

    So much for being innovative eh?

    I wish I too had the honour of being shown around the inside workings of Manchester Piccadilly's station announcements/signalling nerve centre, because I would certainly have raised this issue of excessive noise pollution, whilst at the same time marvelling at the sheer magnitude of the tasks in hand to ensure that the railway is at least being kept running as smoothly as possible.

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