What’s the National Operations Centre and how does it help passengers?

Passengers looking at departure boards in Birmingham new street station

At the heart of the railway is a little-known team of dedicated specialists.

How does it help keep trains moving? How does it plan for severe weather? And what does it have to do with football?

Whatever happens on the network, the National Operations Centre (NOC) is always among the first to find out. It plays a critical role in contingency planning and resolving incidents, working 24/7 to help keep train services running.

The railway’s hub

The NOC receives information from Network Rail staff nationwide to help manage the impact of incidents and large planned events on train services.

It liaises with teams from other organisations, including British Transport Police, Rail Accident Investigation Board, Office of Rail and Road and the Department for Transport.

Incident response

Cows on the line. Fire by the railway. Trespassers. These are just some of the incidents that the NOC - and Network Rail employees in control centres and local work teams - may have to deal with on any one day.

It’s the NOC’s job to use oversight of the whole network to help with incident responses planned by teams on the routes. It analyses the cross-country impact and uses expertise, including knowledge gained from previous incidents, to help route control centres plan for and manage any knock-on effects.

Trespass on the railway

With 20,000 miles of track to watch over, it’s helpful to be able to zoom in on critical areas. The route teams and Network Rail’s Infrastructure Projects division, which manages major engineering projects across the country, send the NOC a list of high-risk sites to monitor over the weekend.

The NOC has direct lines to teams on the track so it may know about other incidents to add to the list, such as a potential problem discovered during a bridge or overhead wire inspection, or extreme weather forecasts.

The NOC also monitors the nationwide incident log, which is updated by route incident controllers and gives a picture of the whole network situation.

Weather

Strong wind blows a trampoline onto the railway

Seasonal railway maintenance is scheduled throughout the year, but, as anyone living in Britain knows, weather can be unpredictable.

From gale-force winds to several feet of snow, weather can cause delays, especially in the winter months.

Trains might have to run slower for safety reasons, or teams on the tracks might have to clear the railway and repair any damage. For example, removing snowflooding or debris that’s been strewn across the tracks in high winds.

Delays explained: what causes delays on the railway

Forecasting and emergency response

A bespoke weather forecasting service allows us to plan for incidents that could affect rail travel. Before 03:00 every day, the NOC receives detailed three-day and five-day forecasts and alerts for routes and local areas.

A colour-coded system alerts controllers to the response needed over and above Network Rail’s planned seasonal preparation.

Why weather and climate change matters to the railway

Once a real-time weather alert comes through to route control rooms, the teams must decide how to respond.

The NOC sends a summary weather report to teams in all routes when weather will likely affect many areas of the network.

Strategy for when the worst weather hits is pre-agreed with trade body the Association of Train Operators (ATOC) and the National Task Force (NTF), a senior cross-industry representative group, to ensure an effective response.

Our seasonal track treatment fleet

Planned events

The NOC knows about all the events across Britain where more than 15,000 attendees are expected, such as football matches and large concerts. Once it is aware of any major events two to three years ahead, it makes sure Network Rail teams are aware, so we can plan engineering work around these where possible.

crowded station

The NOC also informs event organisers if there are likely to be difficulties with accommodating the flow of passengers after an event. For example, on the planned date of one football match, the last train service was at 19:00, so the date of the match was changed to give attendees a better chance of a smooth journey home.

If an event and engineering work are planned for the same time, and there’s no way around it, the NOC and Network Rail route communications team works with the event organiser and other stakeholders to plan communications to passengers well in advance. This involves advising on alternative routes and transport options.