Testing High Capacity Signalling at Epping

A few months ago I headed out to Epping to see something a little different – a new High Capacity Metro Train testing out the even newer High Capacity Signalling system.

HCMT set 18 waiting at Epping for the first HCS test of the evening

So what is High Capacity Signalling anyway?

High Capacity Signalling‘ is a new technology that is about to be rolled out to Melbourne’s rail network as part of the upcoming Metro Tunnel.

Next-generation High Capacity Signalling technology will be installed on the Metro Tunnel and on the Cranbourne, Pakenham and Sunbury lines to deliver more trains, more often during peak times. The technology will also be rolled out on the new Melbourne Airport Rail when it is built.

High Capacity Signalling is a new hi-tech ‘moving block’ signalling system that enables trains to automatically adjust their speed to maintain a safe distance from the train in front.

This replaces the current conventional ‘fixed block’ system, which uses coloured signals to indicate when it is safe for a train to proceed.

High Capacity Signalling allows trains to run closer together and delivers more trains, more often.

With this nifty diagram indicating how it works.

Initially the scope of the High Capacity Signalling rollout was between Dandenong and Watergardens stations via the Metro Tunnel (54 km), but it appears this has been cut back – HCS equipment was only been installed between Westall and West Footscray stations (30 km).

High Capacity Signalling equipment

There isn’t much visible trackside to show that High Capacity Signalling has been installed. The first are new signal equipment rooms, used to house all of the new gear.

Prefabricated signal equipment room at Malvern station

The second are ‘Trackside Radio Assemblies’.

Signal equipment room and Trackside Radio Assembly tilt mast lineside at Middle Footscray

Just a fancy name for 2.4 Ghz radio antennas pointed along the railway tracks, to transmit signals between trains and the signal control centres.

Trackside Radio Assembly lineside at West Footscray for the new communications-based train control (CBTC) system

Some are located on new posts, others have been added to existing signal masts.

Trackside Radio Assembly installed atop signal EPP121 at Epping

Making them hard to spot.

Signal D420 for up trains departing Murrumbeena

And finally – ‘norming points’.

Norming point tag between the rails at Clayton

Located between the running rails, they are passive RFID tags that provides precise location data to the HCS system onboard a train, so they know exactly where along the platform they are.

Norming point tag between the rails at Footscray

And testing it

The High Capacity Signalling system chosen for use in Melbourne is a Bombardier’s Cityflo 650 communications-based train control (CBTC) system – an off-the-shelf product used elsewhere, but it needs to be integrated with the existing signalling systems and trains used in Melbourne.

For this reason, a multi-stage test program has been conceived.

First up – February 2020 was system integrations testing in the lab.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

Then off to the ‘Initial Test Site’ on the Mernda line between Epping and South Morang stations in June 2020.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

Using a single X’Trapolis train retrofitted with High Capacity Signalling equipment.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

And a suite of test equipment on board.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

March 2021 saw the degree of difficulty increased – introducing a second X’Trapolis train fitted with High Capacity Signalling into the mix.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

The two trains taking to each other, to ensure they kept a safe distance from each other.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

Including out on the mainline.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

And with the technology now proven, in August 2021 a HCS fitted High Capacity Metro Train was despatched to the test site to see how it performed.

Let’s pay a visit

After Melbourne’s Covid-19 curfew was finally lifted in October 2021, I took the opportunity to head over to Epping to see the High Capacity Signalling testing for myself.

HCMT set 18 fired up at Epping Workshops, ready for another night of High Capacity Signalling testing

HCMT set 18 was allocated to testing that night, departing Epping Workshops once the Mernda line had been replaced by buses.

HCMT set 18 heads onto the mainline from Epping Workshops, ready for another night of HCS testing on the Mernda line

Dust covers protected the seats.

Dustcovers protect the seats of HCMT set 18 during HCS testing on the Mernda line

The equipment cabinets were hanging open.

Open equipment cabinet onboard HCMT set 18 during HCS testing on the Mernda line

And the testing staff had set up desks in the saloon to hold their laptop computers and other test equipment.

Signal EPP126 at Epping showing stop for HCMT set 18 during HCS testing towards South Morang

A STOP board was erected over the tracks back towards the city, giving the testing staff free reign over the the line.

STOP board beside signal EPP121 at the up end of the occupation

With a flagman standing guard.

Flagman beside signal EPP116 at Epping due to the occupation towards South Morang

The first task was a ‘sweep’ of the line as far as South Morang.

HCMT set 18 departs South Morang on a 'sweep' on the line to Epping

Followed by a second sweep move back to Epping – proving that the line was clear of all other trains.

HCMT set 18 arrives back into Epping platform 1 following a 'sweep' move from South Morang

It was now time to throw the changeover switch, deactivating the existing fixed-block signalling system, and activating the new High Capacity Signalling system equipment.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

Once the system detected a HCS fitted train was in position at Epping, the lineside signal extinguished, indicating to the driver they could proceed according to the cab signalling equipment.

Signal EPP126 at Epping is extinguished, indicating to the driver of HCMT set 18 to proceed according to CBTC cab signalling aspects

Heading along the line to the ‘Virtual Station’.

HCMT set 18 stops at the 'Virtual Station' on an up test run

One end marked by a conventional lineside signal, the other by a CBTC ‘Block Marker’ sign.

CBTC Block Marker sign at the down end of the 'Virtual Station'

And configured in the signalling system as a ‘real’ station, so that stopping and starting of trains at stations could be tested.

From a Rail Projects Victoria video

Once the test train stopped at ‘Virtual Station’, the signal extinguished, indicating that it could proceed again.

Signal T742 at 'Virtual Station' extinguished for HCMT set 18 on an up test run

And by that point it was past midnight, and I’d seen all the testing there was to see, so called it a night.

So why X’Trapolis trains and the Mernda line?

High Capacity Signalling is intended for the new HCMT fleet of trains that use the Metro Tunnel – so why test it on completely different trains on a different line?

Back in 2012 High Capacity Signalling was a standalone project, and the Sandringham line was favoured as the test site – a situation reiterated in 2015.

HCMT set 3 passes through Windsor on the down, with another trip to Elsternwick

The reason for the change – a desire to get it done fast, so in 2017 what was a $131 million signalling trial rolled into the Metro Tunnel Rail Systems Alliance contract – the Metro Tunnel website explains their choice.

A range of locations were considered for the testing site. The Mernda line was chosen because it does not share tracks with regional or freight services and has fewer timetabled night services than other rail lines.

But what about the HCS equipment installed for the testing along the Mernda line?

  • 60,000m of cable
  • 13 Wi-Fi masts
  • 29 axle counters
  • 56 norming points

It’s all going to go.

At the end of testing, all of the infrastructure installed by the Metro Tunnel Project for High Capacity Signalling testing will be removed from the Mernda line.

So we’ve gone from a trial that would be put into production, to a prototype that is going to be thrown away.

As for the decision for HCS testing to be completed using X’Trapolis trains – the first High Capacity Metro Trains weren’t even ready yet! The first HCMT didn’t leave the Pakenham East depot under it’s own power until November 2019, and they weren’t cleared to carry passengers until December 2020.

HCMT set 28 arrives into Richmond on a down Pakenham service

And not to mention testing a new technology on a ‘known’ train on the Melbourne rail network eliminates one possible variable in the test program.


Footnote: a timeline of testing on the Mernda line

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6 Responses to “Testing High Capacity Signalling at Epping”

  1. Paul Westcott says:

    Put simply, moving block signalling is similar to the way cars move on roads, except that its controlled by computers rather than just relying on drivers. It’s equivalent to maintaining a “safe driving distance” between moving vehicles on a road.

  2. Tim says:

    Hi. What do you think that it means for future timetabling if HCS is only being installed between Westall and West Footscray. Will they run additional shuttles between these stations, or will HCS allow the Pakenham trains to run express through a few stations like Murrumbeena, Hughesdale and Carnegie, or will it allow for both of these things. Maybe 6 Pakenham, 6 Cranbourne, 3 shuttles, 3 VLine to start off with.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      I suspect they’ll do something similar to what they do now, but with just more trains – shortworkings from Westall to West Footscray, with services beyond those points being limited to the headways already possible with fixed block signalling.

  3. […] a new signalling system is being installed along the nearby railway line.     Apparently only specially fitted trains […]

  4. […] Watergardens to Dandenong using Bombardier CITYFLO 650(See also: Marcus Wong’s blog on HCS) […]

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