While RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board) is sometimes only thought of as a standards authority, the company actually has a far greater role for the rail industry. Its primary objective is to support its members (the rail industry) with improving safety and performance, and value for money across the industry. In order to do this, it is funded to manage and sponsor various research and development (R&D) programmes.

Through RSSB, the industry invests about £9 million each year in R&D to support a broad range of short and long term engineering, operations, and management activities that no one company can solve on its own.

The R&D programme has evolved from being solely about safety to include a wide range of issues. The Innovation Railway programme, a collaboration between Network Rail and RSSB, exists to support the delivery of the Rail Technical Strategy (RTS). It has cross industry support through the Technical Strategy Leadership Group and currently has over 100 active projects.

On behalf of the Future Traffic Regulation and Optimisation (FuTRO) project control board, RSSB recently arranged a networking event in Birmingham to share progress and inform its members about the Digital Railway, and FuTRO programmes.

To achieve the improvements in the railway’s capacity, quality, environmental impact and cost, the whole system has to be smarter. The more trains that can detect their position, communicate and share information, the easier it becomes to ensure everything is in the right place at the right time.

A smarter, more connected railway will have benefits for operators and customers alike. Introducing in-cab signalling in line with the ETCS will reduce capital and operating costs, and make capacity more flexible, while increasing automation will help services to react more quickly after a perturbation.

Similarly, communications between the train and infrastructure can enable intelligent traffic management systems to optimise capacity, speed, timekeeping and other priorities – and can also keep customers connected and informed through their own mobile devices.

Digital Railway and FuTRO

Digital Railway is a rail industry programme with an ambitious agenda, focusing primarily on signalling and telecoms, but also affecting other aspects of the infrastructure and passenger experience.

An example of the possibilities brought about by combining new thinking and digital technologies comes from another transport industry. A series of motorway network enhancements and expansions was originally estimated at £44 billion, with considerable land take and environmental damage.

Instead, smart motorways were constructed which have delivered 90 per cent of the benefits at 10 per cent of the cost of the original proposals. Digital Railway and FuTRO objectives are similar and are all about delivering additional capacity, reliability and efficiency using new digital technology, instead of building more of the same type of railway.

Safe railway operation by the separation of trains by fixed signals has essentially not changed since the principles developed from the 1870s until the 1950s, with drivers looking out of the front of a train to see lights on sticks. The principles of ETCS and CBTC have been explained many times in Rail Engineer. ETCS Level 1 and 2 systems are now in service across the world.

The current ‘top end’ Level 3 ETCS, with moving block radio controlled movement authorities and minimal lineside infrastructure, is still some way off but is likely to appear from 2030.

The RSSB event suggested a Level 4 ETCS by 2040 with a convoy approach of joined-up trains, similar to that envisaged for autonomous cars and using vehicle-to-vehicle communications to deliver safe separation. This would further increase capacity by reducing the space between trains.

Looking further ahead to 2050, how about a Level 5, with intelligent trains delivering their own movement authorities? This sounds very ambitious and futuristic, but the automotive industry is already forecasting something similar in five years, so why not rail? This would require virtually no lineside infrastructure, only some centralised control to manage major junctions.

Whatever level of ETCS is finally adopted it will improve service reliability, capacity, efficiency and cost. While there will be some safety benefits, rail safety is ahead of the game compared with other modes of transport and it needs to build on this advantage.

The rail industry can be slow to adopt change and new technology, but in this fast moving world this is not acceptable. The danger is that the rail industry may become complacent and assume that the spectacular growth in demand experienced over that last 20 years will continue, but this is not guaranteed and the bubble may burst.

On the other hand, shared autonomous on-demand self-driving cars could provide local transport, with rail complementing the end to end journey experience. In the future, rail could be part of mobility as a service (MaaS), with customers ordering an end to end journey via an app, and a service provider delivering a complete joined up service of road and rail. There is already a vast amount of data which could contribute to MaaS; for example station car park usage could be made available and would help to inform the most efficient split of a journey by road and rail.

Let’s assume that rail does survive and prosper. Once ETCS is fully deployed with traffic management, there are some interesting challenges that may arise. The network could be configured for more trains, better reliability, or faster trains. There may have to be a trade-off between these three outputs, but who would decide  the priority? How would this fit with the current regulation and train delay attribution system? There may be a need to delay one operator for the greater good of the system, who pays?

One more pressing challenge for the industry is that there is rolling stock being ordered now which will have a 30 to 40 year life, but is not being provided with automatic train operation or ETCS. The industry requires some quick decisions in order not to compromise the future.

Rail Technical Strategy

RSSB revealed that it is shortly to release a detailed plan for how the industry can use technology to modernise and transform the railway. It is now four years since the whole of the industry signed up to a vision of the railway of the future, which was set out in a document called the Rail Technical Strategy (RTS).

The RTS is now to be accompanied by a ‘Capability Delivery Plan’ that will be published at the end of November and will set out the steps needed to be taken in order to bring about the modernisation of the railway. At the centre of the delivery plan is a set of twelve key capabilities that have been developed following detailed consultation with industry experts to provide a framework which can enable the transformation of the railway.

Taken together, the twelve key capabilities will deliver a railway of the future,. This will feature trains running close together with more space inside, fewer service disruptions and self-regulating trains arriving and departing precisely on time, quicker boarding and alighting for passengers who will enjoy a personalised customer experience and better connectivity for freight movements. All delivered for less cost and with less damage to the environment.

Each key capability is then broken down further into a sequence of milestones and a programme structure. The milestones provide the industry and suppliers with a clear set of near-term delivery priorities that can deliver benefits to the railway and also start the journey of realising the future vision in the RTS.

The RTS Delivery Strategy Manager, Trevor Bradbury told the audience that, “Britain needs a technologically-enabled railway that delivers efficient, affordable, flexible, and attractive transportation for the record number of customers who now use it. The amount and speed of change needed to meet
the challenges faced by the industry requires looking beyond conventional solutions and toward the transformative power of technology.”

Mr Bradbury admitted that achieving all twelve capabilities would take concerted and coordinated effort from all parts of the railway industry and those in the supply chain. He said that RSSB was developing a new website which will offer all stakeholders a chance to contribute to the development and delivery of the RTS. It will also serve as a portal providing updates and new information, opportunities to engage with the team developing the CDP and new materials to support organisations and companies in joining the RTS journey.

More detail on the RTS will be revealed in the next issue…..


The research projects instigated by RSSB FuTRO are wide and varied and are a mixture of academic research by universities (for example Southampton, Newcastle, University College London) together with specialised technology companies. Two examples are DITTO (Developing Integrated Tools to Optimise Rail Systems) and DEDOTS (Developing and Evaluating Dynamic Optimisation for Train Control Systems). These aim to deliver optimisation tools and methods, applications, algorithms, artificial intelligence decision support systems, and demonstrators.

DITTO will provide a greater understanding of the safety implications as a result of changes in traffic regulation. Near real-time dynamic simulation tools are used to develop an understanding of the relationship between capacity utilisation, reliability and recovery from disruption.

DEDOTS will be used to develop optimisation at network level, using near-real-time data within a control area and across control area boundaries. The effect of control area decisions on capacity and the effects of constraints (such as environmental, climatic, rules, regulations) are assessed as test cases on a simulator, against a number of objective functions (such as delay, energy usage, capacity utilisation).

SafeCap+ aims to further develop novel modelling techniques and tools to support and explore integrated and efficient dynamic capacity and energy of networks and nodes while ensuring whole systems safety. It will provide the ability to deploy tools and a framework that allows independent control rules for multiple, mixed traffic operational scenarios.

Being fundamental research, the route to market for all three projects is long and will include the need to further test and refine algorithms, and the development of industry appropriate software for integration into the Network Rail traffic management systems.

Video train positioning

A key requirement for any railway is to accurately identify where a train is on the network. This includes knowing precisely which track, of potentially many parallel combinations, the train is currently on. This requires reliable and definitive tracking so that the train’s track position can be followed through junctions. The obvious solution is to use a global satellite navigation system (GNSS) such as GPS, however this will not work in tunnels, will not provide reliable accurate positioning of which track the train is on, and any system will not be under the control of the railway infrastructure manager or operator.

There are methods of improving the accuracy of GNSS, which were discussed, but tunnels are still a problem. Other solutions such as laser tracking have been evaluated, however two specialised technology companies, Reliable Data Systems Technology (RDS) and Gobotix have, in parallel (and both sponsored by RSSB), concluded that the answer is to use video analytics from a forward facing camera. The video camera, and equipment installed inside the train, is used to measure speed using video pixel analysis to accurately provide information to position a train from known reference points. The systems have been proven to provide great accuracy and with no external infrastructure required.

RDS has used their location technology to enable a driver’s support system (DSS) in order to provide route knowledge via a tablet displayed to the driver.

This has been successfully trialled with favourable feedback from drivers. Gobotix has used similar positioning technology to develop a roll-back mitigation device which would automatically apply a train’s brakes in the event of a roll back being detected. Both systems could form the basis of simple and cheap signalling systems.

A video train positioning system could provide the answer to the ETCS level 3 problem of checking if a train has lost a vehicle, with a camera at each end of the train. If one detects more movement than the other, then the train must have split. For a freight train, power at the end of the train to support the camera would be an issue. However, camera technology is improving all the time, with more sensitive cameras needing less light and power to operate. Could a rechargeable camera provide the answer?

This is a summary of only some of the subjects discussed at the Innovation Networking Event, and there are many other interesting R&D projects that time did not allow for on the day. These include work to develop a more reliable and efficient train braking system, which is another key requirement to enable more trains on the rail network of tomorrow.

Written by Paul Darlington