How Virgin is taking trains to the future

Meet the three friends helping to ensure that Virgin Trains East Coast is a main player in the UK’s Digital Railway scheme…

“My dad says I wanted to be a train driver from the age of three,” says Paul Lartey, ERTMS Simulator and Standards Manager with Virgin Trains East Coast. “It’s fair to say I was euphoric when I was allowed in the driver’s cab at the age of 18.”  

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Paul’s friends (and colleagues) Paul Boyle, Head of ERTMS, and Neil Gillies, ERTMS Operations Development Manager, know how that felt – and the three now make up a trio who have pretty much grown up on the railway together. (Don’t worry, we’ll get on to what ‘ERTMS’ means a bit later.)

Now working together as part of the team developing the railway of the future, these three rail aficionados joined up after school, qualifying as train drivers around the same time. A few years later, they’d worked up to managerial roles in Newcastle. There, one of their projects was implementing the current electric rail service on the East Coast Main Line with its InterCity 225 trains.

Fast forward 30-odd years and they’re a key part of preparations for the exit of those very same trains and the introduction of Virgin’s new Azuma trains, as well as bringing the latest digital technology into signalling systems and train operation.

In with the new

And that’s where the ‘ERTMS’ thing comes in. It’s the European Rail Traffic Management System, no less – an initiative to standardise a cab-based signalling and train control system across Europe, and a keystone of the new Digital Railway that Paul, Paul and Neil are working hard to bring about.

“This is probably the biggest change the railway has seen since the change from steam to diesel,” says Paul Boyle. “Back then it was just the trains that changed – this is about the whole system.”

Every aspect of the rail system will be touched by the change to Digital Railway. Just to give one example, the new technology will do away with traditional track signals – the lights by the side of the rails that tell trains whether it’s safe to proceed and when to stop. Instead, this rail traffic management function will be incorporated into the trains themselves.

Not only that, this information system will ‘talk’ to the train’s systems to work out exactly when that individual train needs to begin braking in order to stop in time, or how fast it should go to get to the next train station on schedule, taking into account all the other trains and potential bottlenecks on the tracks on the way. It’s a transformation in the way the UK’s railways are run – after all, some of the current systems have been in place since Victorian times.

Virgin Trains East Coast Azuma

Virgin Trains East Coast Azuma

Operation reality

“Our role, in a nutshell, is to make sure this technology translates into something that works in practice for real drivers, real trains and real scenarios on the tracks – and in the end, a better service for customers.” explains Paul Boyle. “It’s all about making it work in the real world.”

This is where experience is invaluable. Although they’re too modest to acknowledge it, these three know Virgin Trains East Coast’s current fleet inside out – and they put together most of the driving procedures and techniques used today. They’re passionate about challenging boundaries and creating a new system that’s the best it can be.

“There can sometimes be an attitude that having lots of experience makes you a dinosaur,” says Neil. “But you need to know what has been put in place for a good reason and not undo it, as well as seizing the new opportunities.”

All are agreed that Virgin’s ethos allows them achieve their goals. “When Virgin came in back in 2015 it was a breath of fresh air,” observes Paul Boyle. “There’s a good line around here that you should sidestep the doubters and crack on, and it’s true. This culture gives you a passport to say you don’t have to accept things as they are, don’t be afraid to challenge it – and that’s important for this project.”

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The benefits work both ways. The team is not only shaping the future of operations on the east coast; many of these are industrywide developments that will shape the whole network in the UK and in Europe, too.

At the forefront

“All of us are involved with wider industry groups because a lot of this is in developmental stage,” explains Paul Lartey. “That puts us in a great position because whatever the UK decides, we’ll be able to make sure it complements and enhances what Virgin does as an operator.”

The ERTMS will enable Virgin’s Azuma trains to operate at their full 140mph, so all this work is connected. And you can guarantee that these men – who may be developing the railway of the future, but have never stopped enjoying driving trains – will be in the Azuma cab at the first opportunity.

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