Digital technology will shape the railway of the future

Digital technology has transformed our daily lives. Most notably, a smartphone in your pocket can send and receive vast quantities of data at a few taps of your screen. Digital technology has made a positive impact on transport too. In London, for the first time in nearly 200 years, you don't have to turn your currency into a ticket – your contactless smartcard will give you best value, automatically.

It has transformed air traffic control by enabling busy airports like Heathrow to expand capacity significantly since the 1990s. Similarly, it has been used to reduce congestion and keep people moving on "smart" motorways like the M25, with variable speed restrictions used to manage traffic flows.

There's more to come. With the recent announcement that self-driving taxis (albeit with "real" drivers on-board) are undergoing trials in the US, the appearance of driverless vehicles on our roads is a near-term certainty.

As transport improves through these innovations, it allows us to better meet our potential. I've argued previously that improving Britain's railways is vital to economic growth, jobs and housing, but rail hasn't yet fully embraced the potential of digital technologies to achieve this.
It's a revolutionary next step in a long history of improving operations. The system of solid-state signal interlocking introduced in the mid-1980s radically improved efficiency, and its control system counterpart, the integrated electronic control centre, still underpins the network today. Meanwhile, the obstacle sensors introduced on level crossings since 2012 have improved safety greatly and reduced the time barriers are down.

But the fact remains that the basic signalling system based on fixed railway blocks – distances of between a few hundred yards and a couple of miles – has not changed since the inception of the railway nearly 200 years ago. Only one train can enter a block at a time, and the length of the block, speed, and braking characteristics determine capacity.

This surely acts as a barrier to the capacity the railway desperately needs. Passenger numbers have doubled since the mid-1990s, and in many places at peak times the network is full. The demand for rail travel continues to rise – passenger journeys grew 4% last year – with passenger numbers expected to double again over the next 25 years.

The digital railway programme was established to develop a rail industry plan to modernise the network and I am delighted that Mark Carne, Network Rail's chief executive, has asked David Waboso to join us from TfL to lead it.

David has an excellent track record in digital rail modernisation. On the Underground he was responsible for introducing modern control systems on the Jubilee, Northern, and Victoria Lines. Travel on those lines at peak times and you cannot fail to be impressed at the rapidity and frequency of trains – and they were needed, as the capacity created is already being swallowed up.

Digital train control is a cost-efficient way of increasing capacity and making better use of the existing rail network. As with London Underground, it will be based on a central intelligence system based at a number of rail operating centres. Combined with other technologies, like Traffic Management, it will be possible to control flows of trains across the network in the most efficient way.

But technology isn't the whole story. Fully realising the benefits of a digital railway will depend on close cooperation throughout the industry. Besides just signalling technology, the digital railway will affect everything from rolling stock procurement to how railway people work, recruitment, training, and how franchises are specified to align with greater capacity across the entire industry. This modernisation can't be achieved in isolation. It is vital the entire industry joins forces to produce real benefits to customers.

The good news is we have already started. From 2018 digital technology will be introduced on the Thameslink core through central London, and this will help increase the number of trains to 24 hourly on this very busy commuter route.

Meanwhile, Crossrail will be introduced with digital train control on the western and central sections. This will be combined with traffic management technology from Network Rail's new rail operating centre in Romford to optimise the flow of trains along the route.
Beyond these developments, David Waboso's team is currently developing proposals to deploy digital technology to address some of the other major pinch-points across the network. The need for capacity from both a railway and economy viewpoint should determine which areas are upgraded with digital deployment first.

How do we pay for it? More capacity equals more revenue. Suppliers should be prepared to invest, and the industry has to be prepared to reward them through incremental revenue growth otherwise unobtainable.

This is only the start. Britain's railway network has a long way to go in the way it embraces modern technology. It won't be easy to marry everyone's needs on a busy mixed-use railway, but the potential reward is too huge to ignore.

Britain could be a world leader in this vital new technology. We must modernise. Maintaining our proud railway heritage depends on it.

Reference: Transport Times September Issue

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