The application of digital technology onto the UK’s crowded rail network seems to be the logical answer to the pressing concerns of capacity, reliability and connectivity. More than this, it seems to be the only answer for an industry facing the existential threats of driverless cars, drones, remote working and online shopping.

With a core commuter base waiting to be seduced by market disrupters in the decidedly more proactive road sector, the time for the railways to commit to a digital future is now.

But a national sea change in our telecoms and signalling – for this is what the implementation of a digital railway boils down to – requires various parties to unite and align their objectives. It demands compromise and, ultimately, clear objectives to be set that will realise this decades-long vision. And the race is on to do so before the choice is taken out of industry’s hands – after all, 63 per cent of signals need to be replaced in the next 15 years.

So, if the industry doesn’t make this commitment now, it will be made for it, when existing architecture has to be renewed at a regional level. Is investing in more traffic lights really necessary, when the digital alternative could provide more reliability, lower costs, and that much-needed increase in capacity, and all without the need for expensive infrastructure investment?

This was the context within which WSP and the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE) held an industry think tank in 2017. Bringing together all corners of the rail industry, they sought to find common ground, gauge appetite for change and understand some of the blockages that have stilted progress in the eight years since European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) was introduced on the Cambrian Line.

Having been involved in this pilot, and as a current member of the Digital Railway programme team, it was exciting to be part of these discussions and find some consensus that will provide the impetus to make this vision a reality.

Between 1993 and 1996, the author was system safety manager on the DLR, a good example of how a strong concept can deliver the routes and ridership of a profitable system.

Between 1993 and 1996, the author was system safety manager on the DLR, a good example of how a strong concept can deliver the routes and ridership of a profitable system.

What is a digital railway?

A digital railway will enable the train operator to know the position, speed, load and even the faults of every train on the network instantly. Trains will run closer together, boosting capacity, they will run more smoothly, reducing power usage, and have the ability to work around blocked lines as they occur and schedule maintenance based on health data represent further compelling efficiencies.

This is not a ‘tomorrow’s world’ scenario. Many metro systems already operate in this way, some with an on-board attendant, such as the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), and some operate with no on-board operator, including the recent Paris Metro line one and the Dubai Metro.

For the mainline railway, it will be the European Train Control System (ETCS) that provides the trains with movement authorities (the speed and stopping positions) to ensure they stop safely.

Wireless messages will replace the conventional traffic-light signals and provide the on-board equipment with authority to move. Drivers’ advisory and intelligent traffic management (TM) will use this information to control trains in a given area or line. Unlike the conventional railway, an integrated system approach between track and train will maximise the benefits.

Both Thameslink and Crossrail will use ETCS over parts of their networks when they come online next year. However, given that these are the only new examples of this technology in the UK, it is hoped that the programme’s pragmatic approach of implementing various digital systems where there is likely to be immediate benefit to the passengers (as opposed to a national roll out), will encourage uptake.

Thameslink will use ETCS Level 2 with an ATO overlay to achieve 24 trains an hour through the central core in each direction.

Thameslink will use ETCS Level 2 with an ATO overlay to achieve 24 trains an hour through the central core in each direction.

What’s in it for industry, and who benefits?

Unsurprisingly, understanding the benefits of digital implementation and how these could translate to TOCs, FOCs, Network Rail and the supply chain was a recurring theme in the think tank.

The general benefits are well known. Certainly, some past studies – with the likes of DfT, Network Rail and RSSB – show that a digital railway would be 40 per cent cheaper to operate and maintain than conventional rail. This is largely due to there being a reduction in trackside equipment, but also because fewer employees would be needed to operate it.

Then there are the estimates that cite increased capacity of between 25 and 40 per cent, with Level 3, (or, even better, Hybrid Level 3), promising up to 25 per cent further capacity gains and greater flexibility in remodelling the layout and extending services.

While the constituents of a digital railway (including TM, ETCS, Connected Driver Advisory Systems (C-DAS), Automatic Train Operation (ATO), should enable operators to squeeze more benefits from the railway, reduce its operational cost and improve the customer experience, exactly how big these benefits will be is yet unknown. To quote Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne, the industry is probably “hugely underestimating” the benefits of a digital railway.

All eyes will be on the Thameslink programme – where the late Paul Bates, a WSP colleague, implemented ETCS Level 2 in-cab signalling – to determine whether tight timetables can be achieved at busy stations using ETCS.

ERTMS is being introduced across the entire Danish network, but not without its problems.

ERTMS is being introduced across the entire Danish network, but not without its problems.

Who foots the bill?

Delivering a digital railway that truly benefits taxpayers, who fund most of it, and the freight operators, who are keen to de-congest our busy road network, requires those who implement, operate and maintain the railway to align their objectives.

However, as the think tank evolved, it became clear that alignment is no simple matter. The partially privatised model under which the UK rail operates means there is little incentive for Network Rail, a regulated entity and owner of the programme, to improve the network to the material benefit of train operators.

Instead, its focus is understandably set on maintaining the network, reducing operating costs and improving reliability.

Similarly, passenger train operating companies have a healthy obsession with providing services that meet timetables in accordance with the Public Performance Measure.

It is therefore good to hear of Mark Carne’s market-led vision supported by the DfT of a digital programme being pulled along by TOCs, each eager to lead the digital space and deliver better performance and win more franchises.

But for progress to be made, each party will need to accept that they may not see a short-term return on their investment and, in some cases, that it might benefit another part of the industry entirely. For example, on non-electrified lines, a TM system, installed largely at the cost of the infrastructure owner (albeit with some on-board equipment to optimise the process), could benefit the operator by reducing fuel usage.

Network Rail could of course charge higher access fees for these services, but then the whole process gets messy. There needs to be a better way of dealing with costs and benefits which cross these commercial boundaries. Early adopters will, therefore, need to look to the long term, up to 15 years after their initial investment is made. To ease the transition, incentives must be injected into the system, with alliances helping parties share the short-term burden, and outcome/output performance based contracts providing strong assurances.

While the Government can inject some of this cash, it is the private sector that really needs to take the lead. In keeping with the Hansford Report, TOCs and, more importantly, their owning groups and suppliers, must adopt private funding initiatives and shared risk-reward partnerships between clients and suppliers to help us cross the current impasse.

A cultural shift within our industry would underpin these changes by promoting consensus and collaborative behaviours between clients, and suppliers. Equally, we mustn’t lose sight that at the heart of the digital railway will be the people who design, build, operate and maintain it. So, initiatives that bring people together, such as the University of Birmingham’s centre of excellence for the digital railway, are to be applauded and encouraged.

Traffic Management is being introduced to make sure Thameslink trains enter the central core in the correct sequence.

Traffic Management is being introduced to make sure Thameslink trains enter the central core in the correct sequence.

Why widespread adoption trumps a piecemeal approach

So why has the industry failed to agree on an overall implementation plan in over 16 years, in particular one that combines train and track fitment? The think tank tended to agree that 25 to 40-year visions, while providing a long-term commitment, prohibit take-up owing to the scale of the task and the size of the bill. The current approach of looking for incremental short-term wins is better.

In helping the programme to develop its strategic business plans for key routes, the overriding flavour is one of incremental improvement with known technology to minimise disruption. TM is high on the list of ‘nice-to-haves’, as it can operate with conventional signalling first and then with ETCS. But TM is still a minor subset of the digital vision – the real prize is actually ETCS.

An incremental, route-based approach will no doubt encourage action and provide benefits, such as the 40 per cent energy saving promised with C-DAS. However, a patchwork quilt of systems would come with a more expensive maintenance bill and lower economies of scale, because there will be an array of expensive operational and maintenance regimes rather than a common one that can be trained for and shared. And it would require a larger pool of expertise, spare parts and interface systems to support and maintain different versions of train control, with the potential loss of any benefits of sharing data across systems. Cyber security would also be easier to manage under a planned system.

Most individual, route-based projects will affect other routes, or the fleets that operate on them, and therefore need to be planned in a broader context and towards an ‘end state’. Enabling work and development at the programme level will be vital to realising the full benefits of a digital railway.

Lessons from beyond the UK

From my personal experience, having helped implement ERTMS in the Middle East and Denmark, I am convinced that a long-term vision and commitment to an overall programme are essential. This commitment needs to be consistent; the recent lack of cooperation across the Gulf State governments, and the subsequent stalling of their joint railway plan for an interoperable railway in and around Abu Dhabi, attests to that.

In Denmark, EU funding and a political will to transform its ailing rail system kept its digital railway programme on track. But, despite there being just one national train operator, even Denmark has recently encountered issues with funding and implementation.

Building long-term relationships with a small number of suppliers through outcome-based contracts, and uniting teams of international experts to design, develop and deliver the operational and technical systems, is a recipe that we should look to imitate.

Of course, UK railways is a far larger and more complex proposition, and features predominantly Victorian infrastructure. With nearly half of Europe’s congested railways found here, now is the time for industry to work towards a digital future and, once again, lead the way for others to follow.

Written by Steve Denniss, technical director at WSP.

The IRSE report “Making a Success of the Digital Railway” is available for download on the IRSE website.

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