Cold War to Coal Trains: TOPS – British Railways' first computer based train operating system

Speaker: Jonathan Aylen
Date: Thursday 25th October 2018 Tuesday 27th November 2018
Time: 14:30 17:30 for 18:00

BCS, 5 Southampton St, London WC2E 7HA

Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum.

This is a joint meeting with the Newcomen Society.


About the seminar

TOPS was a computer system implemented by British Railways from August 1973 onwards to control its freight traffic. TOPS allowed British Railways to keep tabs on its rolling stock across the whole rail network using IBM 370 mainframes installed at Marylebone in London.

As with many automation systems, TOPS forced the introduction of new management processes and shaped the way the railway operated. For the first time, there was a systematic inventory of railway assets with a consistent numbering system. At its heart was a “Doomsday Book” listing of every freight sidings, every operator and every cargo carried. So it was not just an automation system but a step towards modern management of railways in the UK.

TOPS was developed in the USA through a collaboration between IBM and Southern Pacific. Early versions of TOPS implemented on North American freight railroads were constrained by point to point communication along single phone lines. This was sufficient for US railroads accustomed to running a train a day from each freight yard. Whereas the British Rail version of TOPS was an early use of multiplexing for computer communication across a national network.

TOPSTRANS software was essentially a set of IBM Macros which ultimately had its origins in the US Strategic Air Command's SAGE – Strategic Air Ground Environment – system which provided early warning of Soviet bomber attacks on the US. TOPS was not so much swords into ploughshares as Cold War to Coal Trains.

About the speaker

Jonathan Aylen is concerned with the way in which technology evolves – how it shapes business organisations and, in turn, is influenced by existing routines and operating practice. He has previously written on the history of process control computers, including the development of Ferranti Argus for both guided missiles and ICI chemical plants and the use of computers in the steel industry. Jonathan says that “TOPS is at the hinge of history – it represents a shift from traditional craft based railway practice to the modern automated systems we know today.”

The research is a collaboration between Bob Gwynne of the National Railway Museum York and Jonathan Aylen of the Newcomen Society. The aim of the research is to understand the considerable history of computerisation on British Railways. This helps show how railways shaped society and their contribution to modern management.

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