The digital railway: a case of when, not if

Thirty years ago, had you asked the board of British Rail for their vision of the railways in 2016, I don't know whether they would have predicted the huge passenger growth we've seen. However, I am certain they wouldn't have dreamt that we would be using the same technology to signal and operate our trains. As it stands, the network can hardly meet existing passenger demand, much less cope with sustained growth, and our existing signalling is part of the problem.

Block signalling is safe and simple, but we pay a huge price in the form of underused capacity. The essence of the digital railway is to address this by maximising our existing infrastructure. The widespread introduction of digital, in-cab signalling via the European Traffic Control System (ETCS) would allow trains to run more closely on existing tracks, with automated traffic operation and digital traffic management ensuring safety and optimal frequency. This is tried and tested technology that is being adopted by new railways throughout Europe and Asia and has already made an impact on the Victoria Line of the London Underground, increasing the number of trains per hour by more than 20%.

The alternatives are problematic. Longer trains demand platform extensions, double-decker rolling stock would require track to be lowered or bridges raised – with modest benefits in return – while the addition of more track would come with a hefty bill for land acquisition.

In the March issue of Transport Times Jim Steer argued that capacity on our railways is controlled by junctions and what happens at stations, limiting the positive impact the digital railway could have. I take Jim's point that digital is not a panacea for all capacity issues, but it would ensure that trains arrive at junctions at optimal times, minimising conflicting movements and the resultant capacity crunch. And while implementation would not completely eliminate the need for investment in new infrastructure, it can result in a lower overall cost solution, as well as providing a platform to make future improvements simpler.

It is necessary progress, and the lower maintenance costs arising from fewer critical trackside assets would arguably allow for greater investment in transformative infrastructure projects. Without a digital railway we risk reducing the sustainability and potential growth of the rail network and UK economy, and therefore it must be seen as a key part of the overall strategy to respond to growing demand.

Capacity isn't the only consideration. Reliability would also be improved, as digital networks have been shown to reduce delay minutes by 10%. There are also significant customer service benefits on offer, with newly available data which could be used to develop apps and other digital solutions to provide information and services for passengers.

The UK is on the cusp of a revolution in integrated transport. The new fiscal and transport
powers on offer for metro mayors, along with the possibilities represented by the forthcoming Buses Bill, mean regions may soon be able to emulate the model that has been successful in the capital under TfL. The digital railway will be an important piece in this puzzle, opening up the opportunity for real-time data to be used to improve connectivity between modes, for the benefit of passengers and operators. When you consider this potential in the context of smart cities and the pace of innovation in the internet of things, it's also a chance for the railways to be part of something much greater.

Of course, I have made this sound wonderfully simple, when in fact implementing the digital railway will take careful consideration and planning. Significant capital investment will be needed to build new control centres and to fit existing rolling stock, and it will have to be considered alongside continuing investment to keep the current network functioning.

Perhaps more profound, though, is the level of cultural change it will require from the industry. We're talking about fundamentally revolutionising the way things have been done in this country for the last 40 years. It will demand a wholesale transformation of procedures and protocols, not to mention investment in digital and cyber security skills and new training for key operational roles. This requires cohesion and collaboration from the industry to plan, adapt and lobby for the right decision to be made in the best interests of the future railway.

Network Rail's plan for the digital railway is currently the subject of a new inquiry by the Transport Select Committee. I would urge you to make your voice heard in supporting something which stands to benefit UK rail and, importantly, our customers.

Reference: Transport Times, April 2016 Issue

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