A £350m investment in new signals on the Great Western main line Rail route marks the next step in a programme which could eventually see trains as far away as Cornwall controlled from Oxfordshire.

As reported in the Oxford Mail last Wednesday, Network Rail is to renew signals on routes between Didcot, Oxford, Swindon and Bristol over the next three years in conjunction with the project to install overhead power cables for electric trains, which are due to start running in 2016.

The company is investing £5bn over the next few years to make the region’s railways fit for the 21st century.

The signals will be run by a state-of-the-art computerised system at the Thames Valley Signalling Centre, near Didcot Parkway station, which already controls trains from Moreton, east of Didcot, to London’s Paddington station, and Reading to Westbury.

Installation will be carried out in five stages, to minimise disruption, with work starting at Didcot this year. Signals in Oxford will be replaced in 2015, with the station’s signalbox closing.

The new equipment is expected to slash delays to trains caused by signal faults – with equipment dating as far back as the 1960s phased out – and increase capacity, to handle extra trains.

Network Rail is forecasting further growth of 50 per cent in rail traffic by 2020, on top of a 60 per cent increase in freight and 40 per cent in passengers in the past decade.

The new technology will support the introduction later in the decade of the first application of the European Train Control System (ETCS) on a main line in Britain, with trackside signals eventually replaced by a display in the train driver's cab.

Patrick Hallgate, Network Rail’s Western route director, said: “This programme is a vital building block for the transformation of Great Western, boosting performance, paving the way for electrification and supporting enhancement plans in Bristol, Swindon, Oxford, Reading and Newbury.”

Speaking exclusively to the Oxford Mail, Mr Hallgate said lessons had been learned from an ETCS pilot scheme in Wales.

Initially the Great Western system will be ‘overlaid’ with the conventional traffic light-type signals, to ensure the in-cab signalling is reliable before it takes over.

In Wales, installing the system in existing trains proved a major hurdle and delayed its introduction.

But with new InterCity Express Programme trains – designed from the start to carry ETCS – due to work most services from 2016, Mr Hallgate is sure the transition to in-cab signalling will be smoother on the far busier Great Western main line.

He said: “It’s not something we will say has to be done by a certain date, so there’s an element of learning as we go on, but the way we have staged the programme to be an overlay system means we don’t have to say that on day one it will all work.

“If we have problems in testing, we won't turn it on until we are happy with it.”

Looking further ahead, Mr Hallgate said that under plans to operate the entire rail network from just 14 sites, the Didcot centre could eventually replace every other existing signalbox in an area bounded by London, Oxford, Worcester, Bristol, Westbury, Plymouth and Penzance.