If we’re going to deliver a truly digital railway, we need to start now


The UK has always been a pioneer in delivering rail projects – after all, it was here that the railways were invented. But now, as digital technology becomes ever more ubiquitous, our railway network faces both an opportunity, and a challenge, in shifting towards a digital age.

What do we mean by digital?

Almost all parts of the railway network are seeing the impact of digitalisation. So, working together, Intelligent Transport Systems UK (ITS UK) and the Railway Industry Association (RIA) are focusing on three key areas where we believe there needs to be a greater focus on over the next decade. These are:

  • Digital signalling, shifting from trackside signals to modern, in-cab signalling systems to reduce cost and potentially increase capacity;
  • Smart ticketing and retail, allowing for more dynamic, pay-as-you-go ticketing that provide more flexibility and choice when travelling, and support a growing third party retail sector;
  • And data and AI, utilising the huge quantity of data our railway produces to create tangible benefits to those who use the network.

Improving rail services

Put together, these three technology areas provide huge opportunities in improving rail services for passengers and freight users. Greater and more effective customer information, a better understanding of how the network is used, greater integration with other transport modes and additional capacity without the need for major infrastructure interventions; these are just a few of the benefits digital technology can provide. But there is also the challenge of delivering of this shift to digital too. If rail is not to fall behind, the next decade is critical and so we need to get started now, ensuring we have a plan for the digitalisation of the railway network that is cost-effective and deliverable.

Essential shift to digital signalling

Take digital signalling as an example. There is a major backlog of signalling renewals on the network with some 60% of signalling equivalent units becoming life expired over the next 15 years. Shifting to modern digital signalling will be essential if we are to overcome the backlog, but will require continued support from Network Rail and the Government. Positively, Control Period 7 will support the sector with funding for digital signalling, and the industry is showing it can deliver effectively, to time and budget, on the East Coast Digital Programme.
Similarly, with AI and data, we've seen good progress through initiatives like the Rail Sector Deal, Rail Data Marketplace, and Rail Technical Strategy. Yet, as RIA's Data and Digital Technologies in Rail report sets out, the digital transition will require greater leadership, strategy and action, with the empowerment of the workforce to utilise these technological developments. It will also require greater consideration of areas like cybersecurity and privacy.

Investment for greater ticketing flexibility 

And in smart ticketing and retail, we will need to invest in pay-as-you-go, smart ticketing systems across the rail network, in order to give passengers the greater flexibility that they rightly expect from a modern transport system. Ultimately, this requires leadership from Government to enable fares reform, giving operators the ability to be creative in encouraging the public to use train services.

ITS UK and RIA launch campaign

The benefits of digital technology are significant, but if we are going to reap the rewards, we need to get started now. On 27 September, ITS UK and RIA will be launching a campaign to accelerate the digitalisation of the railway network over the next 10 years – a Digital Decade for Rail. At a Summit in Derby, we'll be bringing the sector together to look at the three areas we've outlined, and to ask 'how we create a digital railway over the next decade?'. The opportunities are huge – now, we just need to get started.
You can find out more about the Digital Decade for Rail Summit here.