The much-publicised advent of a Digital Railway by Network Rail has raised questions in the eyes of many engineers working in the rail industry. What does it mean, when digital technology has been in use for many systems since the late 1960s?

Virtually all the NRT telecommunications network is digital and rapidly moving to the next progression of IP (Internet Protocol). Many of the recent signalling systems brought into service use digital technology and the implementation of a nationwide SCADA system for electrification control is all digitally based. Operational systems that we know and love – TOPS, TRUST, APTIS and TSDB – have been around for many years as have systems for finance, personnel records, planning and many more, these all being computer borne and thus digital by definition.

What, therefore, is Network Rail’s motive to create a Digital Railway when much of it seems already to be in place? Rail Engineer went to meet Martin Arter, the programme development director, to find out what it is all about.

Managing growth

The railway has seen spectacular growth since privatisation. Passenger numbers have doubled in twenty years and this trend is set to continue. The rail freight business needs to change its shape with a decline in the traditional train-load consignments of coal, oil and steel but growth of multi modal, e-commerce and international traffic, and expansion to more routes and terminals.

Future rail strategies based on the four Cs of carbon, customer, capacity and cost, plus performance and safety, have to be managed as a total railway and these objectives are made more difficult in the disparate railway that now exists. Under BR, with its single departmental focus on engineering, information technology and operations, it was possible for a ‘directing mind’ to steer a co-ordinated approach in the systems needed to support the running of trains and the management of business. However, in those times, the perception of a declining railway meant emphasis was on the rationalisation of assets and the reduction of cost.

All that is now changed and the departmental ‘directing minds’ are no longer there to steer the engineering effort needed to implement the required change of direction. Today’s railway managers can only wish they had the potential capacity that once existed. Some of this is being restored – the re-doubling of singled lines, re- opening or building of new station platforms and even the building of new lines like HS1 and 2 are examples – but the selling of land and the sheer cost of infrastructure enhancement makes this a slow process and often an impossible one.

Some other way is needed if the railway is to keep pace with its current business challenges. Andrew Simmons, the chief systems engineer for Digital Railway, commented: “Schemes such as that developed for the upgrade of the West Coast main line were, by necessity, a compromise between the conflicting requirements of capacity, speed and performance. Signalling arrangements for complex areas such as Rugby were at the limit of conventional signalling capability and complexity. A step change in both operational and technical system capability will be required if the railway is to keep pace with current business challenges. Digital Railway aims to deliver that step change.”

The digital age

Media publicity and advertising has conditioned people’s mind that ‘Digital is good’ and everything else is out of date. This is, of course, rubbish since the process of digitising is nothing more than turning the original analogue functions into a code of 0s and 1s. From a railway perspective, there are some undoubted advantages in this change as the resultant control and command signals are likely to be much less susceptible to unwanted interference. If the 0 or 1 at the end of a transmission chain can be recognised as valid, then the original command can be replicated without fear of degradation.

The value of this technology should not be underestimated, but the true opportunity associated with the use of digital systems is the introduction of different processes and practices that can achieve greater utilisation of existing infrastructure. Thus, the creation of the ‘Digital Railway’ is primarily aimed at achieving greater capability from existing assets, but also recognising that the public perception that ‘Digital is good’ has benefits.

The concept was launched in 2014 and is based around economic growth rather than the prevailing renewal-driven requirement. In part, it will absorb some ongoing projects, ETCS Level 2 provision being a major one, but it also seeks to embrace technology that is commonplace in the public domain, and integrate this much better into the day-to-day task of rail operations.

There is buy-in for the vision from many stakeholders including government, the train company owners and operators, the multitude of companies in the supply chain and, of course, Network Rail as the infrastructure provider. The challenge now is how best to turn the vision into reality.

Fundamentally, the Digital Railway is not a technology programme but very much an instrument for business change with the potential for going far beyond digitising current technology. It is all about creating an integrated approach to changes in processes brought about by systems underpinned by digital technology.

So what’s involved?

As hinted, there are already many digital systems in use on the railway but most are standalone, often bespoke in design and incapable of integrating with each other. The NRT digital telecom networks (FTN and FTNx) are already in place to enable devices to be connected to host computers in a fast and efficient way, but it is not NRT’s role to develop interconnectivity.

Pulling all this together is, therefore, the objective of the Digital Railway programme and it will focus on three main elements:

  1. Enabling provision of more trains, thus increasing capacity;
  2. Providing better connections between routes and at stations;
  3. Greater convenience for the customer such as ticketing and reservation options, thus moving beyond the magnetic strip.

Of these, capacity, performance and connectivity are the first priorities. To achieve this means collective engagement of customers, the infrastructure provider (Network Rail) and the train operators. Future projections extend this to multimodal travel, thus bringing in airlines, buses, trams and taxis.

For the present, however, it is all about getting the railway to work as a system and for this it needs System Thinking, System Integration and System Engineering. A model of the architecture has been drafted resulting in 132 strategic requirements involving 17 business services. Some of this will mean connection to data services away from the railway, such as social media, but that is part of the vision. The architecture must be such that people will understand and buy into it. It must also be adaptable and upgradeable for the future

There is a need to design and deliver all of this as a totality. The process began with five organisations, all having experience in the field, being brought in for a short period, these being CSC, TCS, BAE Systems, Accenture and Cognisant. They were tasked with giving support to suitable experienced people within Network Rail, ATOC and the FOCs. The current framework suppliers for traffic management and ETCS have also been engaged along with some other qualified companies. European railways are also showing interest with DB, Prorail (Holland) and others being engaged to some extent.

Getting started

As with all visionary projects, a degree of pragmatism has to exist in order to get started and the Digital Railway team knows that it must deliver some early results to ensure the bigger project is allowed to progress. The ETCS Level 2 programme will be this catalyst as it already sees a number of disparate systems being swept up to improve the efficiency of the command and control activity.

In addition to the basic ETCS Level 2 package, the Digital Railway needs to absorb TMS, the ROC programme, the provision of C-DAS, the train planning operation and train crew deployment activities. Some of these represent challenges that must be studied and resolved:

  • Train fitment, and especially retro fitting;
  • Driver recruitment, training on simulators, confidence building and driving techniques;
  • Day to day rosters and rulebook/signalling principle changes;
  • Signalling data in terms of quality, integration and design;
  • Control office rationalisation and training of controllers;
  • Commercial considerations of train planning and delay attribution;
  • Infrastructure reliability of signals, track circuits/axle counters, power supplies and possessions;
  • Safety protocols and cyber security.

The learning curve will be from where projects are at the moment – ROC construction and commissioning, TMS at Cardiff, Romford and Three Bridges, ETCS Level 2 for the GWML, ECML, Thameslink including ATO in the central core, and the various DAS projects either in being or planned. These projects already in delivery have been categorised as Phase 1 of the Digital Railway programme.

Phase 2 is the development of a full ‘toolkit’ of systems planned for completion by the middle of 2016 and includes the full integration of ETCS Level 2, TMS and C-DAS, along with telecoms and the necessary interfaces. This phase will need an early deployment site upon which the system integration can be tested, not necessarily with all features but enough to give confidence that the concept is robust and able to demonstrate the benefits that can be delivered.

Thought is being given as to where this might be but it must not be a section of railway that, if it goes wrong, the front pages of the newspapers will be full of damning comment.

Phase 3, to be developed by 2019, is the future vision and includes the development of ETCS Level 3 plus open architecture and automated design, along with the broader customer expectations as to the ‘railway experience’.

Funding and future reality

A project like this needs commitment and belief from those who hold the purse strings and to this end, an Executive Industry Steering Board has been established with membership including the DfT, ORR, ATOC, TfL, Rail Supply Group, Rail Delivery Group and, of course, Network Rail. All of these are committed to modernising the railway with the benefits of integrated digitisation, and are helping steer the programme through its formative phase.

It is recognised that the Digital Railway has to be meaningful to many different types of railway, ranging from metro-type operations around big cities, secondary and rural routes, long-distance intercity trains, and finally to freight traffic in all its forms. Equally, the data applications that make up the project will not all be able to progress at the same speed. Data networking and the interfaces to social media must keep pace with the rapid changes that happen within the information technology industry.

Ticketing and reservations are likely to be built around a common platform from which the TOCs and open access operators will be able to build in their own style, branding and information – a complexity that will restrict the amount of change that can take place at any one time. Command and control systems, with the many factors involving infrastructure, train fitment, safety and security, will only change slowly, likely to be in excess of 10 years.

If the vision delivers the benefits predicted, then the original plan to deploy ETCS over a 50-year period could be accelerated significantly, not necessarily waiting for signalling assets to reach the end of their serviceable life.

All this has to be realised, managed and accommodated within the programme that will thus never have a completely stable situation. The Digital Railway must continually move with the times whilst still keeping the total system operational integration as its guiding principle.

There will be some who view the whole concept as a pipedream. This would be defeatist since, in the immediate time frame, it does not involve new systems being developed – they all exist right now. Even systems envisaged for the future are developed in concept and are underpinned by proven technology.

It is a brave move to make ERTMS the starting point since there are many factors that will impact on the deployment plan and these were detailed in the September edition of Rail Engineer.

But as Martin Arter says: “The job of the Digital Railway is to be honest and realistic about the hurdles and challenges but then to set about systematically and thoroughly developing solutions to make the Digital Railway a reality – that’s the whole reason for being here. The prize is huge and this is a time to be brave and bold, and not to accept the status quo. Our customers expect a modern railway fit for the future and we are determined to deliver.”

The Digital Railway is essentially about getting systems to work together such that information can be used much more effectively to improve the running of trains and the services the railway offers to its customers. Surely, no-one can argue with that, but the assembled team – now numbering over a hundred – will have to work hard both from an engineering and publicity perspective to deliver the promised vision.