Railway operations: Network Rail’s nerve centre

At the heart of the rail network is a team of dedicated specialists, the National Operations Centre (NOC).

The NOC controllers are vital to keeping trains running, but little-known outside railway circles. Whatever happens on the railway, the NOC is always among the first to find out and plays a critical role in contingency planning and resolving incidents, working 24/7 including weekends.

The railway’s hub, the NOC receives information from Network Rail employees nationwide and liaises with teams from other organisations, including British Transport Police, Rail Accident Investigation Board, Office for Rail and Road and the Department for Transport.

Its eyes and ears on the ground are route control managers (see ‘NOC facts and stats’ on this page) and delivery units (local work teams). They are based regionally in one of Network Rail’s eight local routes and are the first to find out what’s happening on the tracks.

Whether it’s keeping an eye on train services’ scheduling, figuring out how to plan around unexpected incidents such as fire or trespass, or working out how to keep passengers moving during large events, the NOC is in the know about everything operational across the railway, now and in the coming days, weeks and even months.

It holds the ‘one truth’ accessible to everyone on the railway to inform their work for the most effective and efficient decisions.

The NOC’s remit over the last few years has changed with a focus on proactive measures to monitor risk and mitigate before things happen. This has had a positive impact on our operations and our customers. We have unique oversight of the network that allows us to assist the routes in the flow of passengers, which ensures disruption is kept to a minimum.

Getting ready for the holidays

While most of the country is winding down for the bank holidays, the railway gears up for major improvement work.

Preparation for planned bank holiday work begins long before this. Network Rail’s Capacity Planning team and Infrastructure Projects division work together to identify the key projects to take place over the holiday period and schedule these effectively.

Then the NOC gets involved to make sure it has complete oversight of all the work so it can make its own plans, for example considering how an overrun might affect services and what to do in this instance.

See our photo story of the NOC over the Christmas and New Year bank holiday 2017

I start looking at Christmas works from around T-12 (12 weeks before works start) and from there I get a feel of how big the works are going to be, what problems there may be and I create a stakeholder pack which includes a summary of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, the benefits for passengers and the alternative routes. On bank holidays it’s the NOC’s role to keep up to date on whether a project is going to be handed back on time.

NOC facts and stats

At any one time, there are a duty controller and a support controller in the NOC. Each works with different route control centres (duty: Anglia, South East, Sussex, Wales, Wessex, Western; support: Scotland, LNW north, LNW south, LNE&EM). These roles are all carried out by different NOC controllers at different times.

Route control managers, which provide the NOC with local, on-the-ground information, are based in rail operating centres (ROCs). There are nine ROCs in total – one for each of our eight regional devolved routes, plus a second for the LNW route (there are ROCs in Rugby and Manchester). Signalling across wide regional areas is also controlled here.

As well as the NOC duty and support controllers there are controllers overseeing the freight route (which crosses the entire country) and supply chain operations. This last group oversees the engineering trains used for work on the railway.