Since the early days of privatisation, the digital railway has been a holy grail, offering significant capacity increases and slashed signalling costs. Railtrack deluded itself into thinking that untried moving-block signalling could be part of its West Coast upgrade. The company’s failure to do so brought massive contractual penalties, leading to its eventual downfall.

Since then, Rail Engineer has published numerous articles on the coming of the digital railway – one such feature in 2012 described plans to start installing ETCS on Great Western in 2014. For years, there have been high hopes, but not much delivery. Yet, as David Bickell explains, ETCS will bring capacity benefits by giving drivers a real-time movement authority, as opposed to conventional signalling, which only gives them an update when they see the next signal.

The digital railway was investigated by the House of Commons Transport Committee in 2016. It concluded that claiming a 40 per cent capacity increase was “over-heroic” and that Network Rail should not promote moving block signalling until it is ready to be deployed. The committee also felt ETCS is not a universal solution and that each route needed the best mix of ETCS, traffic management and connected driver advisory systems (C-DAS). Their key conclusion was that plans must be measured and realistic, with rhetoric matched to action.

Around the same time, Network Rail appointed David Waboso to run the Digital Railway programme. This is now led by a cross-industry advisory group, working in partnership with the industry. In January it produced a strategic plan aligned to conventional signalling renewal requirements (63 per cent in the next 15 years). This incorporates route-specific business cases and shows that £450 million of its CP6 programme is funded from the National Productivity Improvement Fund.

In a feature that considers why, in over 16 years, the industry failed to deliver an overall implementation plan, Steve Denniss reviews the IRSE report “Making a Success of the Digital Railway”. He also explains why those who implement the programme and operate and maintain the railway need both to have aligned objectives and to accept that they may not see a short-term return on their investment.

Paul Darlington reports on “a very constructive public debate”, an event to consider this IRSE report at which it was emphasised that the industry had to come together to make things happen far better and more quickly. David Waboso also explained how the programme was “opening the door for a totally different and improved relationship to get things moving in a collaborative, cooperative way.”

With digital signalling about to deliver real improvements on Thameslink and Crossrail this year, it seems that, after a slow start, a framework is now in place to make CP6 a turning point for digital delivery.

Our feature on level crossings includes their implications for ETCS as well as the use of video analytics instead of obstacle detection. In a report from the IRSE’s ASPECT conference, Clive Kessell reports on how Metros throughout the world use a bewildering variety of types of signalling and control systems, with many using CBTC digital signalling in the drive for more capacity. In addition, his feature on the recent upgrade of the Central line’s communications system highlights the essential need for Metros to have effective operational communications.

From new signalling technologies to developments on the track, we have two reports from Collin Carr. In an article that reminisces about his peg-banging days whilst surveying, he reports on how drones, flying at a height of 30 metres, can now produce cost-effective track renewal surveys to a 2mm accuracy, without interrupting the train service or requiring surveying teams to go on track. Another feature considers the innovative Slab Track Austria system and explains how the EGIP and Gospel Oak electrification projects have benefited from its ease of installation.

Using explosives to join parts together rather than ripping them apart is a novel concept, at least for the rail industry. Shipbuilders have been doing this for over 40 years as they join aluminium superstructures to steel hulls. Lesley Brown explains how Alstom is using this technique to give its Coradia trains lower floors and reduced weight.

In a comprehensive article, Nigel Wordsworth explains how Network Rail’s spending plans for CP6 (2019-2024) were derived and what they contain. The £48 billion to be spent in CP6 is a quarter more than CP5 and is focused on renewals – enhancements will generally be the subject of a separate business case to be approved by government.

The Government’s wish to remove diesels from the tracks by 2040 was mentioned by Rail Minister Jo Johnson in a recent speech. This called on the industry to explain how it will decarbonise and suggested that batteries or hydrogen are the answer. Whilst this call for environmental improvements is to be welcomed, there are, as we explain, sound engineering reasons why electrification offers far greater environmental benefits than such alternative traction, which can only be part of the solution. For this reason, Rail Engineer supports the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ call for cost-effective electrification to deliver the required carbon and emission reductions.

Read more: Rail Engineer March 2018 – CP6, signalling & telecoms