Digital 66 about to revolutionise UK East Coast freight operations

DB Cargo UK class 66 (DBCUK)Image source DB Cargo UK

The first freight locomotive has entered fitting out with an advanced digital communications package, necessary for the step-change upgrade to the prestige London – Scotland main line. Rail freight operator DB Cargo UK and technology specialists Siemens, together with infrastructure project lead agency Network Rail, have begun the complex retrofitting of a workhorse class 66 diesel locomotive. 

The partners are installing the latest version of the European Train Control System, the necessary on-board part of the system-wide European Rail Traffic Managment System, which is set to radically upgrade the management and capacity of the East Coast Main Line.

A first-in-class fitment of ETCS is now underway on a DB Class 66 locomotive, the most common motive power unit on the British network. The project, to install the latest version of the European Train Control System (ETCS) to a UK freight locomotive, is a critical stage in transforming the iconic route of the Flying Scotsman into an even faster artery, capable of handling mixed traffic on a greater frequency than at any time in its 172-year history.

Radically redesign the locomotive systems

After several years of design and planning, freight operator DB Cargo UK has released from duties a familiar Class 66 locomotive (designated 66039). The unit has now been delivered to the Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) engineering workshop in Doncaster, roughly midway between London and Edinburgh on the East Coast Main Line, where the technological transformation will take place.

It is a complex retrofit that will radically redesign the systems within the locomotive. The ‘first-in-class’ fitment will take around six months to complete and is a significant milestone in the roll-out of the new European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) in the rail freight sector. It will create the blueprint for the roll-out to this, the largest class of locomotives operating on the British railways.

Future roll-outs of the system

The roll-out is being coordinated by the East Coast Digital Programme, a cross-industry partnership led by Network Rail . The national infrastructure agency is managing the introduction of ERTMS on the East Coast Main Line and is setting the path for what they call the Long Term Deployment Plan (LTDP) of future roll-outs of the system.

Earlier this year, the UK government announced an additional one billion pounds (1.2 billion euro) of funding to facilitate the first phase of ERTMS on a 100-mile stretch of the East Coast Main Line from London Kings Cross to just south of Grantham in Lincolnshire, the fastest and busiest stretch of the route.

Twenty-first century and beyond

“DB Cargo UK, working in close partnership, is playing a pioneering role in the roll-out of ERTMS and ETCS which will create a more dynamic, more reliable, and more flexible railway here in the UK”, said Marie Hill, the freight operator’s Chief Transformation and Digitalisation Officer. “Increased digitalisation and automation of our assets and processes will ensure we can continue to deliver, fast, efficient, reliable services fit for the twenty-first century and beyond. That’s what ERTMS will help us to deliver.”

Visionary. Marie Hill DB Cargo UK (DBCUK)

As well as leading on the first-in-class fitment programme, DB Cargo UK say they are also introducing a revised set of operational and business processes to support the switch to digital signalling. Their fleet, the largest in the sector, offers a testbed for all the common classes of motive power in the UK, including class 66, 67, and 60 locomotives. They are also eager to upgrade their fleet of class 325 express logistics electric multiple units, currently dedicated to serving Royal Mail operations.

Still a great deal of work

The rapid growth in the express logistics sector makes finding network capacity all the more imperative. Critically, the safe ability to run more fast trains closer together is the lynchpin of the East Coast Digital Programme. “[We are] closer to creating a more dynamic and reliable railway for all those using the East Coast Main Line”, said Ed Akers, Network Rail’s ECDP Principal Programme Sponsor. “Commencing the installation of ETCS on this freight locomotive marks a significant milestone on the East Coast Digital Programme.”

Given the scope of this single locomotive refit, there is still a great deal of work to be done. “This first installation is a key milestone marking the first of over 700 locomotives to be fitted”, said Ian Macleod, Siemens’ Project Director. “We are proud to be working together with Network Rail and DB Cargo preparing the first vehicle for its testing and operation in 2023.”

Trials have been underway in the UK for some time. There are currently freight vehicles fitted with ETCS on the Cambrian Main Line, connecting central Wales and the north west of England. These are fitted with an earlier version of ETCS. The current version (3.6.0) is recognised as the modern standard. The older version cannot operate on ECML.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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