ATO on the main line (RailEngineer)

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Automatic Train Operation (ATO) is nowadays a given technology for metro operation and, although it is still in its infancy when applied to main lines, it is often a chosen option for self-contained industrial or freight railways. But is ATO being used to maximum advantage and what are the criteria for optimising the benefits?

A recent seminar staged in London by the IMechE and the IRSE was aimed at creating a better understanding of ATO, not only its technology but how it needs to be integrated into other systems. Some of the output proved revealing.

The London Underground perspective

George Clark, the director of TfL Engineering and the recently elected President of the IRSE, reminded everyone that the ATO story began on LU when the newly constructed Victoria line was commissioned between 1968/71. This was ground-breaking technology in those days, especially as the system used was invented in house. Based around different frequency-coded track circuits, the system was operational for over 40 years, which is a testament to its good design and maintainability. The system was, however, just that – an ATO application that optimised the driving of trains.

Introducing ATO on to a main line railway is several degrees more difficult. However, two linked successes can recently be chalked up. The biggest of these is the completed development of layering an ATO package onto an ETCS-equipped railway, the second is the deployment of such a system on the London Thameslink central core section. Press releases claim this latter as a main line first but, in truth, it is more akin to a metro operation with the same type of trains all stopping at the same stations. Nonetheless, it is a milestone and Imtithal Aziz from Network Rail described the need for an ATO package in order to achieve 24tph. It took five years of work to develop and test the system including live running on the Network Rail Hertford Loop test track at Watton-at-Stone.

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Written by Long Branch Mike