AT FIRST sight it looks like just another of the business units that have sprung up around Didcot in recent years.

But its location, wedged into the triangle of railway lines just west of Didcot Parkway station, and the small Network Rail sign on the outside hint at its real purpose.

This is the Thames Valley Signalling Centre, which will become the ‘brain’ of the railway network from London’s Paddington station across Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire to the outskirts of Bristol, over the next few years.

Construction work began in 2008 and it took charge of its first trains at Easter on what is known as the Berks and Hants line, from Southcote junction at Reading, through Newbury to the edge of Westbury, in Wiltshire.

Last month it took over the short section of the Great Western main line between Pangbourne and Moreton cutting, east of Didcot, but the tracks surrounding the centre are still controlled from Swindon.

At the moment, the operations floor is almost empty, with just one signaller and a shift manager on duty at their desks in a corner of the room but by 2018 it will be a hive of activity when it replaces signalboxes at Reading, Slough, Swindon and Oxford and along the Cotswold Line to Worcester.

Control of lines around Bristol, Gloucester and Westbury could also eventually transfer to Didcot.

The staff who operate the centre are enthusiastic about its capabilities. Shift manager Phil Gomersall said: “Once you’re used to it, it’s a better system, allowing us to handle more trains.”

Rather than the signallers setting a route for each train, much of the work is done by computers programmed with timetable information for passengers and freight .

About 80 per cent of services are routed automatically, with the signaller accepting the decision or over-riding it and setting a route manually if necessary, which is also done when extra trains are running.

Mr Gomersall said: “You have to think 10 minutes ahead of what’s happening and decide what to do, whether to accept the computer’s setting or do it yourself.”

Network Rail’s top regional manager, western route director Chris Rayner, is enthusiastic about the possibilities for the centre.

He said: “What I want to do is fill this place up. If we put a desk in here, we’ve potentially got half-a-dozen signalboxes out there which we can close. The saving is large.

“We’ve got vast amounts of signallers out there and to be honest we’re going to need a lot fewer in 10 to 15 years’ time.”

By then, the technology is likely to look very different. Mr Rayner said: “The scary thing about this stuff is almost as soon as you put it in, it’s out of date.”


THE Great Western main line is set to become the first major rail route in Britain to be fitted with the new radio-based European Railway traffic Management System.

The system does away with trackside ‘traffic-light’ signals in favour of radio transmitters which send information about the route and speed of a train from a signal centre for display on a screen in the driver’s cab.

It will also replace the line’s existing automatic train protection system, to stop trains passing red lights, which will soon become life-expired.

Trials of the UK’s first ERTMS system will start soon on the Cambrian Line between Shrewsbury and the Welsh coast at Aberystwyth and Pwllheli.