All new trains and rail signalling will be digital or digital-ready from next year to reduce overcrowding and cut delays, the Transport Secretary has announced.
Chris Grayling compared the move to when consumers bought future-proof digital televisions ahead of the switchover from analogue broadcasts around a decade ago.
Much of Britain’s rail signalling uses Victorian technology, with line-side traffic lights controlling trains.
With more than half of these systems needing to be replaced within the next 15 years, Government-owned Network Rail will install digital versions which will enable trains to run closer together, boosting frequency, speed and reliability.
We're at the stage with the railways that we were with digital television when everything was being sold as HD Ready
The technology is being used to enable extra capacity for 40,000 more passengers on Thameslink trains through London Bridge later this month.
It is due to be rolled out to services at London King’s Cross, London Waterloo and across the Pennines by 2024.
Network Rail has pledged that 70% of journeys will benefit from digital signalling within 15 years.
Mr Grayling said: “We’re at the stage with the railways that we were with digital television when everything was being sold as HD Ready.
“What we want to do is make sure that all new trains and all future signalling projects are digital ready.”
This will enable the transfer of trains to digital systems to be a simple “plug and play” process and “not rewiring the train”, Mr Grayling added.
The Transport Secretary will visit York on Thursday as Network Rail launches its Digital Railway Strategy.
Not since the railway transformed from steam to diesel in the 1960s has a technological breakthrough held such promise
Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne said: “Not since the railway transformed from steam to diesel in the 1960s has a technological breakthrough held such promise to vastly improve our railway for the benefit of the millions of people and businesses who rely on it every day.
“The age of a digital railway has today moved from the drawing board and into reality as we reveal a blueprint that will improve the lives of millions of passengers and freight users across the country.
“Today’s commitment is to adopt and roll out new digital technology, for both trains and track, that will deliver faster, more frequent services for passengers and businesses alike, giving our economy a massive boost.”
Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald claimed digital signalling upgrades will have a “limited impact” without more lines being electrified.
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