During the 27-years I have spent in this industry, mostly as a signal engineer in one form or another, I have seen the delivery of our signalling projects evolve into the major schemes many of them are today.

While we still deliver specific targeted works to manage an ageing and sometimes obsolete asset, many of our schemes are merged with other works and become larger schemes or integrated programmes that deliver so much more; schemes such as North Lincolnshire resignalling that was eventually delivered as part of an integrated programme of works costing some five times more than the original scheme; and Cardiff Area Signalling Renewals (CASR) delivering the much needed resignalling as part of an integrated enhancement package.

During CP5 the IP Signalling team will spend around £4 billion on works ranging from small like-for-like renewals through to major schemes; our ability to work with suppliers and deliver works of this scale is truly inspiring…but it isn’t enough?

The number of passenger journeys made each year is still growing; we now move more people around the country on our railway network than we ever have. As an industry, we move more freight year-on-year, ranging from fuel to supply the country’s power stations to domestic goods and mail.

The UK railway has often been referred to as the backbone of the economy and this has never been truer than it is today. In many areas, the network is full to capacity and there is no space to build multiple new routes. Where we can, Network Rail is delivering new lines such as the Borders railway and East to West Rail, or engineering incremental capacity enhancements through both small and large schemes. However, this will not be enough to meet the growing capacity demand that we face – we need more capacity and we need it quickly.

Brave new world

Change is coming to the world of signalling renewals – revolutionary change that will alter the way we plan, develop, design and deliver schemes across the country. Devolution to the routes has created a client organisation that is closer to our customers and has a far greater understanding of their needs, while the development of the Digital Railway programme is creating a suite of tools that can be integrated and delivered to meet those needs on a route and network basis.

Not since the advent of relay based signalling have we had such an opportunity to implement a step-change improvement in the technology that allows our complex and mixed traffic railway to operate safely and more efficiently. There is a huge amount of effort required from the whole industry to make Digital Railway a reality and the humble signal engineer is at the heart of that effort; from operational rules development through to commissioning, every stage will require signal engineering input into the development/design process, or delivery of the new infrastructure.

The big question is: “Are we ready?”

We have efficient framework contracts, we have collaboration, we have alliances, but still the price of signalling renewals increases each year. There is no sign of the promised efficiency and no sign of signalling renewal costs going down. This must change if we are to deliver what is needed in CP6 and beyond.

Route based renewals plans must be robust and fixed with little or no change applied; delivery teams must support their clients, such that they can make fully informed decisions; my Infrastructure Projects signalling team must be relentlessly focused on safe, timely delivery in a cost effective manner; our suppliers must be focused on efficient delivery today while seeking further opportunity for more efficient delivery tomorrow.

Should we be worried, concerned about the need for change? Should we sit tight and argue that we have it right now and there is no need for a new approach?

Absolutely not! We must all be willing to embrace change and accept that, whilst what we do today works, we can always do better if we are willing to accept that the way we do things now may not be right for the future. To quote George Bernard Shaw: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

The future is complex

The routes are building baseline renewals plans based on a Digital Railway roll out that will deliver significant benefit to the industry from the commissioning of the first scheme through to the final commissioning in 25-years time. However, these plans also have to account for the life-expired or obsolete assets and ensure that our railway system continues to safely deliver a high level of performance to our customers during delivery of our future vision.

Working with our suppliers, we need to create new, faster and more efficient means of delivering what we do today, whist also developing new delivery models that will truly integrate the technical elements of our Digital Railway future and implement one of the most significant change programmes the industry has ever seen.

The future for signal engineers across the UK rail industry is complex and exciting. We have the opportunity to lead Europe in delivery of an integrated Digital vision. Nobody will do this for us, it will not just happen, we need to collectively pull together and lead the delivery of the UK’s Digital Railway.

There is clearly a lot to do and a need to change. I am really looking forward to the future of signal engineering – are you?

This opinion piece was written by Kevin Robertshaw, IP signalling programme director at Network Rail.