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Computer Conservation Society AGM and Cold War to Coal Trains: TOPS – British Railways' first computer based train operating system

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

Thursday, 25 October 2018 from 14:30 to 16:30 (BST)

Computer Conservation Society AGM and Cold War to Coal...

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24 Registrations 24 Oct 2018 Free  

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Event Details

Speaker:  Jonathan Aylen

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.

The session will start with registration at 14:00pm, talks starting at 14:30pm,  finish by 16:30pm.

Refreshments will be provided. 

The event is free of charge, but will require registration to ensure there are no capacity restrictions.  

For overseas delegates who wish to attend the event please note that BCS does not issue invitation letters.

Organiser: BCS Computer Conservation Society -

Do you have questions about Computer Conservation Society AGM and Cold War to Coal Trains: TOPS – British Railways' first computer based train operating system? Contact BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

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When & Where

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT
Davidson Building
5 Southampton Street
WC2E 7HA London
United Kingdom

Thursday, 25 October 2018 from 14:30 to 16:30 (BST)

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BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

We are all responsible for ensuring technology-led change is safe and positive for everyone in society. At BCS we’re committed to meeting this responsibility under royal charter.

That’s why we set the highest standards of professionalism and best practice in the industry, share knowledge, and develop skills and capability tuned to our evolving digital world.

We’ve been supporting the technology industry since 1957 and our 73,000-strong membership spans 150 countries. Every member actively promotes IT professionalism and we provide them with career development opportunities and bring the community together to address the professional, ethical and economic challenges facing technology today.

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