Britain urgently needs new rail capacity. The rail industry must be bold in its vision for the digital railway and install it on a busy main line, where its benefits would be most visible. Because the UK has the most pressing capacity problems, it should not shrink from taking the lead.
Those were the views of a recent Transport Times business breakfast organised in association with Thales, on the subject.
The digital railway is shorthand for the introduction of advanced signalling: European Train Control System levels two or three plus traffic management, all enabled though Network Rail's telecoms system, and linking to existing systems such as C-DAS. The digital railway can already be seen in metro form on London Underground's Jubilee, Victoria, and Northern Lines, where new CBTC signalling is permitting up to 24 trains hourly.
Head of planning for London Underground and TfL Rail Geoff Hobbs said, in opening remarks, that to cope with London's increasing population new lines such as Crossrail 1 and 2 were not the complete solution: "We have to get more out of the existing railway as well."
"A good deal of thought" was going into what programmes should be in TfL's next business plan. The south London metro area was "one of the great areas where the digital railway can come into its own". The Centre for London report Turning South London Orange had suggested it should come under the auspices of TfL as part of London Overground.
Mr Hobbs added that lines into Victoria main line station have a peak capacity of 14 trains hourly which itself was "not great". Outside the station lines diverge. "At Streatham Hill you end up with four trains an hour. A mile away, Brixton on the Victoria Line has 30 trains per hour."
Improvements to infrastructure such as grade-separating junctions, and metro-style rolling stock with bigger doors were also needed. "When a train stops at Clapham Junction, a third of the passengers get off and a third get on, in single file. The train is stationary for two minutes."
Automatic train operation is to be installed on the central section of Thameslink using a form of ETCS: "That's a start. Why stop there?" he asked.
David Waboso, at the time London Underground capital programmes director who has since moved to Network Rail as digital railway managing director, joined TfL 11 years ago from the Strategic Rail Authority. TfL had taken the "brave and really tough decision" to install digital signalling, starting with the Jubilee and Victoria Lines. This introduced automatic train operation and automatic train control – in-cab signalling that dispenses with much lineside equipment.
Subsequently the Northern Line was upgraded; soon the Victoria Line will be operating at 36 trains hourly, and the sub-surface railway is now being digitally re-signalled.
Capacity had been increased by up to 30%, largely through digital technology which included train supervision, a system that can predict where delays will occur and allows quicker recovery. The challenge was how to repeat this on national rail. Mr Waboso said what is needed is a clear and stable plan setting out cost and benefits and describing how the risks would be managed. Although he was keen to emphasise that his remarks were very preliminary thoughts, automatic train operation on the central section of Thameslink "should be built on", he said. "In my experience, building on a successful first implementation greatly reduces risks. There are ways of managing risk to allow digital signalling to be installed on the big main lines without disrupting services." Test tracks and simulation could be used. There were also potentially big gains for Transport for the North by using the technology.
People questioned whether the UK should take the risk of being the first country to go digital. But Mr Waboso said: "ETCS is being rolled out in many places in Europe and elsewhere, although only the UK has such a significant capacity challenge."
Thales vice-president of ground transportation systems Alistair McPhee said using digital technology would produce a great deal of data for the benefit of train operators, infrastructure operators and passengers. "The digital railway is a great technology," he continued. "We've got to grasp the opportunity as an industry." The Shaw report called for a clear vision for the industry: "It should be brave and bold and push forward. It's the obvious thing to do as far as I'm concerned."
Transport for the North chief executive David Brown said: "Capacity into and out of cities is a big issue. We're working on the Northern Hub – that sorts Manchester out but it still doesn't look at capacity into the other big cities."
The new Northern and TransPennine franchises would add significantly to capacity into city centres in the next seven years, but he predicted that the new capacity would be "swallowed up fairly quickly."
Electrification would get more out of the existing railway through faster trains and more capacity, but only on main lines. "We need to consider whether technology or new infrastructure is the answer to getting more capacity between cities," he continued. TfN's core ambition was for six trains hourly between the main cities of the North, he said. "Our initial work says you can't do that by tweaking the existing infrastructure. But all our work with Network Rail has looked at infrastructure. We haven't looked at technology. There's an opportunity there," He warned against looking at the problem from the perspective of each mode individually. "There may be an optimum solution looking at rail and the motorways together." Taking up this point, Andrew Adonis, chairing the session, asked whether driverless vehicle technology could provide part of the solution. "Could you put freight on convoys of lorries on motorways overnight, more systematically, with marshalling yards at each end?"
Rail, he said, was not particularly successful for freight except for cargos such as bulk aggregate, for example. "If I was at the DfT now it would be something I'd be looking at. Driverless technology on motorways has none of the safety issues it has in towns. The motorway network is largely empty for seven hours of the day."
Greengauge 21 director Jim Steer cautioned: "You can't just bring in digital technology and immediately get a capacity gain. There are a lot of other things involved. "It's no good putting the digital railway in if you don't replace the trains to get people on and off more quickly." Significant infrastructure improvements would also be needed. "The London Underground is well designed, and in effect self-contained." National Rail was on a different scale – a much wider system, with a wide mix of train types. Freight had to be accommodated.
However, he concluded, "I think we can build on the success of London Underground. People accept it's as a metro it's different, but it shows how it will work. Otherwise people will struggle to grasp the concept."
Lord Adonis asked where the process should start. Mr Steer said "You've got to start by solving some problem where there's a driving imperative – the Brighton main line or the East Coast main line where there's real pressure. You have to concentrate on the big problem areas."
Reference: Transport Times, July/Aug 2016 Issue (Subscribe for the full length article)