News & Reviews News Wire Britain to develop PTC equipment for heritage steam and diesel equipment

Britain to develop PTC equipment for heritage steam and diesel equipment

By Keith Fender | October 20, 2021

Technology will be needed to continue mainline heritage operations as lineside signals are removed

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British train with steam locomotive
British train with steam locomotive
The first British steam locomotive to receive PTC will be Pacific No. 60163, Tornado, built in 2008. It is shown 60163 ‘Tornado’, approaching Coulsdon, south of London, on Aug. 15, 2009. (Keith Fender)

LONDON — British rail infrastructure owner Network Rail has appointed two specialist contractors to deliver an industry-first “pathfinder” project fitting positive train control to heritage steam and diesel locomotives.

The consortium of Atkins (part of the SNC-Lavalin Group) and Thales is undertaking the work as part of Network Rail’s “East Coast Digital Programm” which will see traditional color light signals replaced by the European standard PTC system ETCS (European Train Control System) on the East Coast main line between London, York, and Edinburgh.

Two-tone green British diesel with yellow nose
Ex-British Railways Deltic diesel D9002, shown in 2017. One of these locomotives is slated to be retrofit with PTC equipment. (Keith Fender)

The project will carry out design and trial fitting of ETCS technology to determine if it is a viable technical and commercial option for heritage locomotives. In what Network Rail says is a world first, the pathfinder project will see ETCS in-cab signalling equipment, supplied and installed by Thales, used on a steam locomotive. In the U.S., Union Pacific has installed PTC equipment on its Big Boy, No. 4014, that works in conjunction with the 4-8-8-4’s assisting diesel, but this is a different form of PTC than ETCS [see “Union Pacific Big Boy differences from the 2019 tour,”, Aug. 12, 2021].

The first British locomotive to be trial fitted will be 2008-built Pacific Tornado, while engineering design work will be undertaken for a 1930s-built Black 5 steam locomotive will be undertaken, as several of these are in use operating charter trains. An example of classic former East Coast main line diesel design, the Class 55 Deltic (dating from 1961) will also be equipped.

Darkened interior of locomotive cab in tunnel with various video screens
A Feb. 20, 2018, view in the cab of Eurostar e320 in a tunnel on the HSL Zuid high speed line in the Netherlands shows ETCS screens in front of the engineer displaying permitted speed. The ETCS system will do away with lineside signals. (Keith Fender)

ETCS is the signalling and control component of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which will replace traditional lineside signals with in-cab, radio-based signalling in many European countries. Lineside beacons activated by passing trains communicate with onboard and centralized computers, providing signalling and speed information to train engineers. So far the system has only been used, without lineside signals, on new high speed lines, so it has not limited steam (or diesel) heritage operation.

The practical aspects of fitting a radio-based system that relies on sensitive electronics and screens to show the locomotive engineer permitted speeds will be challenging in the hostile environment of a steam locomotive. Several mainline steam or heritage diesel-hauled special trains run most weeks in Britain, normally starting in major cities such as London, Birmingham, or Bristol. Most run long distances on the country’s mainline network shared with regular passenger and freight trains. A successful trial of PTC retrofitting would enable the heritage locomotives to continue operating on mainline infrastructure.

Other European countries which also have large numbers of mainline steam special trains (e.g. Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, or Hungary) are also planning to replace lineside signals as part of ETCS installation, so the British trial will be of interest elsewhere.

Side view of British steam locomotive and train
‘Black Five’ locomotive LMS 5MT 45379 climbs Medstead Bank on the Mid Hants Heritage railway on Dec. 26, 2016. Several of these locomotives are also used regularly on the mainline network. (Keith Fender)

3 thoughts on “Britain to develop PTC equipment for heritage steam and diesel equipment

  1. I understand that the term “PTC” gives Americans some context, but I wince at the use of the American term to describe advanced control systems elsewhere in the world. The term “PTC” more or less describes functional requirements that are codified into US law – and obviously don’t apply outside our borders.

    ETCS stands for “European Train Control System”, and is defined in terms of several levels, some of which coexist with lineside signals, and some of which do not. See

    My opinion is that the chief hurdle to deploying advanced signalling and control systems on heritage locomotives is principally that of cost, with a secondary concern being trying to find space to shoehorn the components onto historic equipment.

    1. You are probably correct that cost is main concern, though British steam railtours do make their money back (tickets aren’t cheap!), so as long the locomotive can continue to operate for years afterwards it’s probably worth it. That’s especially true for a new build like Tornado that was designed to last another 50+ years.

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