There were a couple of interesting stories yesterday in the Financial Times of London about Network Rail'splan to modernize its mechanical signal box system over the next several decades. Network Rail, which operates, maintains and develops Great Britain's railroad infrastructure, has set out to eliminate up to 800 mechanical signal boxes - some dating to the around 1900 - with a more automated, centralized system.

The FT states that the new system will allow a single worker to "... handle up to 200 times the workload of some mechanical signal boxes."

According to another story in the FT, automation of the signal boxes could reduce reactionary delays - a delay to a train that results from an incident that indirectly delays the train concerned - by 50% or more and save some £250 million per year. These delays, as any regular passenger on UK trains (as I once was)  will tell you, are all too common.

The modernization project - which will begin in 2014 and is estimated to take some 30 years to complete at a cost of at least £2 billion - will also end up making some 4,000 out of the current 6,000 or so railroad signal workers redundant. The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has not been happy about the news. Mr. Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, was quoted yesterday in Scotland's The Herald as saying:

"We are not opposed to new technology but we are clear any changes that may arise should be accommodated through a shorter working week, additional annual leave and the right to retire at 55 on full pension entitlement."

The FT says that Network Rail's senior management "... hope that concentration on a smaller number of highly skilled signallers could reduce the chances of a future national rail strike - even if the immediate plans prompt the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union into industrial action."

The Herald story states that at the start of the 20th century, there were 10,000 signal boxes in operation in Great Britain, which has been whittled down to the current 800. Network Rail's new traffic management system will have just 14 centralized control centers in operation when the modernization project is finished.

The FT reports that the modernization project will generally proceed in two stages. It will take about 15 years to get 80 percent of the rail network controlled by the new control centers, and another 15 years to cover the remaining 20 percent of the network that is used the least.

You can ferret out some of the improvements planned for Network Rail here.

By the way, does anyone know if any US railroad network operator still uses mechanical switch boxes that require a human operator to physically throw the switch outside say a rail yard? The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists signal and switch operator as occupations, but seems to imply only automated operation of rail road switches in their job descriptions.

In other railroad-related news, ITNews for Australian Business reports that the cost of installing digital radios in each of Melbourne's 189 trains has climbed from an originally estimated AU$134.9 million in 2006 to AU$152 million in 2009 to a now estimated AU$166.3 million.

The Digital Train Radio System (DTRS) modernization project - which is aimed at allowing train drivers to better communicate to each other and control centers, eliminate communication blackout areas that currently exist, allow passengers real-time train status and the use of 3G mobile devices on journeys through the Melbourne City Loop - was officially begun in September 2009. The completion date had been scheduled for late this year.

However, an article in The Age states that "... work installing a new system is only due to begin next month." Partial DTRS service is now promised by the end of 2012.

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