How smart transport can reduce infrastructure pressures

In the second session at the UK Transport Infrastructure Summit, last week, speakers focused on digital technology and how smart transport can reduce infrastructure.

David Fowler reports on the session below...

The railway is at a tipping point, said Network Rail Digital Railway managing director David Waboso. Over half the network's signalling would need replacing in the next 15 years. Replacement signalling from now on must be digital or digital ready – not to do this would be "to lock in analogue for the next 35 years".

With many areas of the network full at peak times, digital technology was needed to create more capacity, or there would be a gradual decline in performance.

The basic principle of signalling blocks had not changed since the railway began. Using blocks to keep trains apart is safe but not very efficient, he said. New technology would allow a fundamental change.

Digital technology had released 20% more capacity on smart motorways and 20-40% on the London Underground; digital air traffic control had unlocked 60% more.

Mr Waboso outlined the components of the digital railway. The European Train Control System (being introduced on Crossrail) would allow trains to run closer together, while maintaining safe braking distances. At the moment, he said, the infrastructure doesn't know what's running on it – a passenger train or freight – or conditions such as inclines, so the worst braking distance is assumed.

A connected driver advisory system would provide information and decision support to drivers to optimise performance, working with traffic management systems which would constantly recalculate where trains are on the network, advise drivers on what speed to travel at to maximise throughput, and allow plans to be constantly updated. An improved telecoms network will underpin these systems.

New trains were making possible the upgrade to the digital railway. A thousand trains currently being built or on order will be fitted with the necessary equipment to make them digital-compatible.

By the middle of CP6 in 2022, ETCS-ready trains will be operating on the Cambrian Line, Thameslink, Crossrail, the East Coast main line, Trans Pennine Express and Northern, Anglia and Wessex Inner Suburban Trains.

Given the growing volume of signal renewal work, Mr Waboso argued that to take advantage of a once in a generation opportunity, all new schemes from CP6 onwards must be based on digital railway technology or be digital-ready. But, based on discussions with the supply chain, this could be cheaper than conventional resignalling, taking a 20-year view and based on establishing long-term relationships with the supply chain. On the London Underground upgrade programme, resignalling the Jubilee Line had taken eight years and cost £750m. By retaining the same team, the Northern Line had subsequently taken three years and cost £350m.

Andy Bell, Thales UK vice-president for urban rail signalling, had been for several years responsible for the signalling upgrade programme on London Underground – initially the Jubilee and Northern Lines and more recently on the Four Lines Modernisation programme (4LM) for the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines. Thales had replaced signalling on 600km of Underground track, and 192 S-Stock trains had been fitted with equipment to allow them to work with the new signalling system.

Fixed block signalling had been introduced to the railways in 1889 and had "remained essentially the same" until around 30 years ago: the first moving block system was installed in Vancouver using the Seltrac communication-based train control system.

CBTC allows more trains to operate per hour, and a 20% faster service, he said.

The latest technology uses radio communication to communicate with the train, in a similar way to Wi-Fi, rather than an inductive loop down the middle of the track.

"That's the technology we're currently implementing on the 4LM," he said. "The first section goes live imminently." When it is extended to the whole 4LM network, over the next few years, "that will put around 70% of the LU network on a modern technology-driven signalling system," said Mr Bell.

Looking ahead he said: "We see the future as being about integration – not a standalone signalling system and a separate power system or a separate communications system for displaying passenger information. We see the future as combining those systems so that you have better decision-making, better intelligence, so the people taking decisions about how we run our transport networks are really empowered to have the full picture of what's going on."

Volterra Partners associate Lucy Dean turned to the subject of roads, and autonomous vehicles. She said that autonomous vehicles would relieve congestion, improve speed and reliability, allow productive use of travel time, create greater accessibility, and improve safety. But difficulties included public acceptability, potential cybersecurity issues, and the potential to encourage trip generation or urban sprawl. "If car trips become more accessible or more productive, they are likely to increase," she said.

Should this be addressed through adding capacity or constraining demand, she asked. Where transport is constraining growth, especially in a highly productive location, the there was a need to invest in capacity, she suggested: Crossrail was justified on the grounds of London's competitiveness, Ms Dean pointed out.

"If you're talking about AVs it's a little different," she continued. "If you invest in capacity without managing demand, that can eradicate the benefits that you could get from the AVs. In my ideal AV world you would have an effective increase in passengers on the existing road network and so, rather than increasing the capacity, you could restrict it to the point it is today and use some form of road pricing, set for an equilibrium where you can reduce that road space and give some of that spare capacity to active modes."

She added: "You should also think abut how you make public transport autonomous, and then you could have, in an ideal world, buses reacting to demand."

Fujitsu client managing director for the transport sector, Russell Goodenough, made a plea to the industry "to be open to the hyper-personalisation of transport".

Digital disruption had become the new norm, he said. But transport was lagging behind other sectors. Companies in retail and financial services get very high adoption and satisfaction rates for web-based and smartphone services, with 70-80% satisfaction rates common. "If you look at what we do in travel transport and logistics, our research says it's down in the 30s.

Transport was behind other sectors but could learn lessons quickly, he said.

He added that: "A lot of the thinking we put in into digital and transport mirrors the way we think about infrastructure projects: big, monolithic systems. In other sectors those sort of systems co-exist with a more organic process of digitisation." Companies were opening up their data, and new entrants were finding new ways to unlock new value.

He said: "While we continue to invest in major infrastructure, we need to really fling the doors open to new methods of using smartphone interaction and the web interface to our services."

Transport did not exploit the information it had about passengers. "We know individuals' intentions, their preferences, their patterns of behaviour and we can use that to drive loyalty to our services. We don't think twice about adopting that in retail. We need to reimagine the way we interact with the travelling public," he said.

He gave two examples. TfL analysed anonymous Wi-Fi data to see in detail how passengers moved around the Tube, and was using the information to improve the timing of services. But it was also using it to drive up revenue streams, because it knows what kind of demographic groups are using a given Tube station at any particular time, and this can be used by advertisers to tailor their ads.

The railway in Japan was using data from the web interfaces on their ticketing systems to gain insights into the loading of individual trains and the impact on individual train schedule adherence. It was then using predictive analytics to forecast, if a train is delayed by three minutes in Tokyo, what the impact would be elsewhere on the network in two hours' time.

"We need to bring those technologies into the UK – we need to tell passengers two hours ahead of time if their train is going to be delayed, not just your train is delayed right now, and give them time to adopt alternative methods of transport and tell them what those methods might be."