The plan has been in consultations since 2015, but will be officially announced today by transport secretary Chris Grayling and Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne.
New digital technology will allow additional services by enabling trains to run closer together, help trains get moving more quickly after disruption, and improve mobile and wi-fi connectivity for passengers.
Digital signalling will mean drivers will be provided with realtime information about the network and the location of other trains. They will no longer have to rely on signals by the side of tracks, which will mean fewer train services held up, reducing stop-starting.
The technology will be rolled out on the Thameslink route through central London from next year, where services will be increased to 24 trains an hour. It is also being launched on the Transpennine route that connects cities in the north of England.
Grayling wants this route to be the UK’s first digitally controlled intercity railway. “We are investing in the biggest modernisation of our railway since Victorian times to deliver what passengers want to see – faster, more reliable and more comfortable journeys,” he said. “Passenger numbers have doubled in recent years – which means we need to invest in new technology to help deliver the reliable and frequent trains that passengers want.
“Investing in a railway fit for the 21st century will help the UK become a world leader in rail technology, boosting exports and skills. As we celebrate the Year of Engineering, this is a chance to show young people how digital innovation is opening doors to careers that will shape the future of travel.”
To support this, the government has earmarked £450m specifically for digital railway schemes, as part of an almost £48bn investment in maintenance, modernisation and renewal of the rail network by 2024.
Carne said: “Not since the railway transformed from steam to diesel in the 1960s has a technological breakthrough held such promise to vastly improve our railway for the benefit of the millions of people and businesses who rely on it every day.
“The age of a digital railway has today moved from the drawing board and into reality as we reveal a blueprint that will improve the lives of millions of passengers and freight users across the country. Today’s commitment is to adopt and roll out new digital technology, for both trains and track, that will deliver faster, more frequent services for passengers and businesses alike, giving our economy a massive boost.”
Peter Selway, Rail Segment Leader at Schneider Electric said the announcement was good news not just for passengers, but also for the UK's economic performance, citing figures from the National Audit Office which estimate that late-running trains cost the economy around £1bn a year.
"We have seen vast improvements in similar projects in cities such as Tokyo, Sydney, Beijing and across Spain and France. Some of the greatest benefits of rail digitisation come from real-time data and smart analytics allowing for predictive maintenance. By anticipating outages and problems before they occur, we could be taking preventive action to avoid unnecessary cancellations, improve commuter experience, and cut costs. This is an exciting time for UK rail," he said.