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Delivering the world's most complex and challenging signalling upgrade

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On 18 January 2018 the South East branch held a joint session with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers at the Thales offices in Crawley to hear how Thales are managing some of the many challenges encountered on the Four Lines Modernisation (4LM) Programme that they are undertaking for Transport for London (TfL).

The 4LM Programme is upgrading many aspects of the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines and Thales has been contracted to install a modern automatic train control signalling system. Much of the current signalling systems and equipment is between 50 and 150 years old and improvements in train frequency are essential to meet the forecast growth in passenger numbers.

When it’s complete, 4LM will boost the number of trains to 32 every hour in central London. Peak passenger capacity will be increased by an overall average of 33 %, with dramatic improvements of 65% on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines.

Andrew Dalgleish, Thales Project Director, gave an introduction and described Thales’ role in the programme. Daniel Gilderthorp explained how the Thales SelTrac® signalling system works and how it controls the signalling based on the dynamic location and speed of the trains instead of the traditional system of ‘fixed block’, thus allowing trains to run more frequently. He also explained the approach that Thales have developed to progressively implement the new signalling across the four underground lines.

Successful completion of this programme presents some massive challenges and Lily Blake described how Thales are working to cope with delivery of materials to site, and the constraints of working on an operational system where the restrictions of ‘engineering hours’ and difficult access can mean that only about three hours work can be completed in each day’s shift. Site safety is given an especially high priority while working in these difficult conditions.

TfL have procured new trains that are already running on the four lines and Thales are responsible for designing, testing and commissioning the ‘on train’ signalling equipment. The equipment is being retrofitted by Bombardier, who is the train manufacturer. Alex Stockill explained that TfL had set a ‘contract cancellation’ milestone for ‘system proving’, for which Thales had to demonstrate that the system provides accurate positioning of the trains, accurate minimum stopping distances, automatic door opening and performance monitoring capability. This milestone had been successfully achieved earlier in 2017. A total of 192 fully equipped S-Stock trains will be deployed on the four lines by the end of the programme.

Training TfL staff to operate and maintain the new trains and signalling system required the construction of a training facility, and the development of comprehensive training courses. An overview was provided of some of the challenges that this presented, particularly with regard to the fact that it needed to be built in parallel to many of the system design activities.

The complexity of the 4LM Programme means that there are multiple stakeholders not only in London, but spread around the world from Vancouver to Hyderabad, and including suppliers, contractors, local authorities, the Mayor of London, and not least of all, London’s commuters who expect to be able to continue to use the underground throughout the programme. Andrew Dalgleish described how, by implementing collaboration through the NEC contract, a joint leadership programme and co-location of teams they have been able to overcome many of the stakeholder issues.

The complexity of the reporting structures and management of the many parties, including Network Rail and Bombardier, to enable safe delivery of the programme is something many Senior Engineers and Project Managers will recognise; though maybe not on such a large scale. Hearing four members of the team present their part helped in giving an understanding of the different roles and challenges members of a large complex programme experience – an excellent story for young engineers and project managers to hear when they are looking to develop their careers and gain an understanding of the roles and opportunities on offer as they progress.

The evening was an excellent opportunity for everyone to make contacts with others delivering similar projects and shows the value of engaging with the wider professional community. I am sure many attending were impressed by the work undertaken by Thales and the impressive facilities in Crawley, not to mention the excellent pre-talk buffet.

The size of the audience and number of questions and the chatter of the attendees afterwards showed how stimulating the presentation was and also the interesting engineering and project management points it raised.

Whilst this informative presentation gave a good insight in to some of the engineering aspects of the programme, it also demonstrated how successful delivery is dependent on effective use of the project management functions: planning, risk management and stakeholder management.

Jacky Ward



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