It’s easy to be cynical about the Digital Railway. For a start, the technology and the terminology are difficult for the uninitiated to understand.

As an example, one core technology of the Digital Railway is ERTMS, with its component parts of ETCS, GSM-R and ETML. ETCS Level 2 with an ATO overlay is being introduced on Thameslink, but GSM-R, being an out-dated 2G system, is struggling for capacity. It is likely to be replaced by a 4G/LTE/5G system in the future but may well be used with GPRS in the interim. ETML is yet to be properly defined, but other TMS solutions are being introduced, supported by C-DAS to improve reliability and efficiency.

See what I mean? Regular readers may decipher those acronyms correctly, but even non-signalling railway engineers may struggle. And I didn’t even mention DMI, RBC, MA, EVC and the dreaded Eurobalise.

Another problem with Digital Railway’s credibility is that it is seen, in some quarters, as the solution to life, the universe, and everything. You want to fit more trains onto an already-overcrowded route? The Digital Railway will do that for you. The increased number of trains running into Manchester Piccadilly over the Ordsall Chord will necessitate building extra platforms? No they won’t, Digital Railway will optimise the utilisation of the existing platforms. How will we better inform passengers of train running times? The Digital Railway… What’s the best way of getting services running again after an incident? The Digital Railway… How do I make a better cup of tea? The Digital Railway…

And the Digital Railway is not new. ETCS (or is it ERTMS?) has been running on the Cambrian Coast line since 2010 – plans were announced in 2006 – and the test facility on the Hertford Loop has been in operation since 2013.

As you can see, the Digital Railway is fair game for cynics, critics, doom-mongers and the “it will never work” brigade.

Which is a shame, as the combined technologies have the potential to increase performance dramatically while saving the railway a load of money.

The future of digital

So when Rail Engineer was invited to meet with the Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling and Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne to hear “key policy announcements and some detail of our rollout plans for the digital railway programme”, there was really no choice, it was off to York to find out what was going to be announced.

It was quite a gathering, as well as the rail industry press, there were representatives from a number of Network Rail’s suppliers and members of local authorities and interest groups. All busily drank Network Rail’s coffee and wondered what was about to be revealed.

Rob McIntosh, route managing director for the London North East & East Midlands Route and the host for the session, introduced Chris Grayling first.

As is normal, the Secretary of State spoke about the “surge in passenger numbers over the past twenty years”, adding: “We need a railway that is sustainable, reliable and delivers a better experience for our passengers – one which accommodates more trains, faster journeys, with improved safety and reliability.

“Well – that is exactly what the Digital Railway will help us do.”

“It is no coincidence that we awarded £450 million for digital signalling in the National Productivity Investment Fund,” he continued. “It was because we recognise the essential contribution of a well-performing, efficient rail network to our country, and to the working lives of millions of commuters.”

Grayling went on to list some of the Digital Railway’s key selling points – better information, quicker incident recovery, and in-cab signalling.

He then touched on the “three important challenges” that the railway is facing – the pace of delivery, funding and integration.

“By the end of 2018,” he added, “we will have fitted around 200 trains with specially designed digital in-cab signalling systems, including Thameslink Class 700s and Hitachi trains in the South West and on the Great Western line. And we’re funding state of the art test facilities to trial and approve the latest digital technologies away from the working railway.

“Given the clear benefits, I am as impatient as anyone to see the Digital Railway delivered. I want these technologies to be commonplace on the network within a decade. But we do need to be pragmatic about timing and pace.

“Where possible, improvements must align with signalling renewals, and must be deployed where they deliver the most benefit. That is why I want the industry to make plans for all signal renewals and upgrades – from next year – to be digital, or at least digital-ready. This will mean we are making best use of funds already earmarked for renewals, and we will also consider the best way to use the franchising process.

“And whenever new passenger trains are being ordered, we will have already ensured that those will be digital or digital-ready.”

The Secretary of State then went on to restate the benefits of, and the need for, a digital railway. He did have the grace to state: “Frankly, government doesn’t have a great track record when it tries to control every aspect of major rail projects. Costs can spiral. Deadlines can be delayed.

“We will change the way we contract work, so suppliers are incentivised and focused on the best way to deliver results for passengers without government trying to manage every detail.”

The next 15 years

Mark Carne then took the stand, telling his audience: “We are here today to launch our National Digital Railway Strategy and set out our fifteen year roadmap for the technological transformation of Britain’s railway.”

He also reiterated the benefits of a digital railway, and stressed why going digital was so important. He enthused about the recent successful introduction into testing of digital signalling on Thameslink (ETCS with ATO for those who can cope with the acronyms), and asked four questions.

Is the technology ready? The Thameslink introduction shows that it is, and countries such as Denmark and Norway are already implementing it across their entire networks.

Can we afford it? Yes we can, as 60 per cent of the country’s signalling system will be time expired within the next fifteen years. Money will have to be spent on signalling and control anyway, so it can be spent on digitisation as easily as on like-for-like replacement. With the benefits that can be achieved, the actual question is – can we afford NOT to do it?

Do we have the capabilities we need? A lot of people will need to be retrained and upskilled, but Mark added: “There is no doubt that we will need a new cadre of engineers to help deliver the Digital Railway. So harnessing our existing training centres and established academic partnerships, we will create a Digital Railway Academy.

“I am confident that an industry with a digital vision will excite the next generation of engineers and project managers and will help us, as an industry, to attract and retain the best apprentices and graduates. So this isn’t a barrier – it’s a fantastic opportunity to continue to grow our industry!”

Can we confidently deliver this transformation? The next 15 years mentioned above covers control periods CP6-8. Mark split this down for the audience.

CP6 (2019-2024) will focus on a line of route deployment. Funding is in place for the early development phases of converting the East Coast main line and the Transpennine route upgrade will be the first digital intercity railway. Five further programmes will include Crewe becoming ETCS-enabled to interface with HS2, an ETCS-enabled renewal at Feltham to lay the ground for the Digital Railway in Wessex, and the introduction of traffic management on other routes.

CP7 (2024-2029) will build on this experience and capability and be focused on regional deployment of ETCS. Major resignalling opportunities will start to create ETCS railways – for example, the whole track, 40 miles from Waterloo, will be ETCS within 10 years, providing the potential for a metro-style service into Britain’s biggest commuter station.

CP8 (2029-2034) will see the linking of the regional routes and the coming together of a national network. By the end of the period, 70 per cent of journeys will be ETCS and traffic management enabled, in time for HS2 to arrive in Manchester in 2032.

After warning of the dangers of inaction, Mark Carne concluded with a positive statement for the future. “The case for a Digital Railway is compelling. It is a chance to deliver huge benefits for our passengers and for the freight that this country depends on. It is the most cost efficient way to deliver the future railway Britain needs.

“It amounts to the biggest transformation since steam to diesel. But, in some other respects, it’s even more profound as it demands fundamental changes in all parts of our railway.

“We have taken time to think through all the barriers that we will have to overcome to enable this transformation. We know it can be done.”

So what was new?

Both statements, from Mark Carne and Chris Grayling, had been very positive. But what was new? Seemingly, apart from a commitment to establishing the digital railway over the next three control periods, the only two ‘new’ comments had been that “plans for all signal renewals and upgrades – from next year – (are) to be digital, or at least digital-ready” and “whenever new passenger trains are being ordered, we will have already ensured that those will be digital or digital-ready.”

But isn’t that already the case? Isn’t all of the modern electronic signalling equipment “digital-ready”, and aren’t all new trains already wired up for in-cab signalling?

So what was new?

To answer that question, and those doubts, Mark Carne and Digital Railway managing director David Waboso sat down to explain.

First of all, Mark tackled the subject of digital ready trains. “What we’re wanting now is that all trains are wired and ready to run,” he stated. “There are some that we don’t believe are yet fully wired for it, but there’s the commitment now that they will be.

“It’s much simpler. At the moment, every time we have that discussion, (we) have a separate debate with the Treasury about whether that is value for money for that franchise. And now we don’t have that debate anymore because it’s a policy decision…that we only buy trains that are fitted like this.

“Now, there is a question, ‘Do you put the box in the train as well or just the wiring?’ but I can deal with that. What we want is the wiring and we avoid that whole discussion.”

So having a policy decision that all future trains will be digital railway removes the need for debate with the Treasury, business cases to be made and time wasted.

That covered the train question. But what about the signalling infrastructure? Isn’t new equipment already compatible with digital?

David Waboso answered this one. He said that the question wasn’t about the signalling kit at all, it was about the infrastructure design. Currently, signalling distances and layout are designed on a traffic-light basis, but in future it will be built and designed from an ETCS perspective. It will still be fixed block, but with potentially more blocks.

“You design it with more blocks; you design it now so that you have the capability ultimately to switch over into ETCS,” David Waboso explained. “Because, if you replace the signalling system today and put in modern traffic lights with digital control then, yes, you can make it part of ETCS but you’ve still got the limitations of the bigger blocks.

“So by designing it from the start by saying, ‘Right, actually how could you run this in a different way with smaller blocks and different systems?’ then there are other advantages.

“The interlockings, generally speaking, are all digital ready, but there’s a big difference between putting a digital-ready interlocking in and putting a full Digital Railway scheme in with the radio blocks in it, the comms, the right data and the right block layout. You’ve got to design it for train control because you design it with a different set of overlaps.”

So in future, the whole design for a signalling renewal or enhancement will be a digital design. Granted, to start with, those parts of the railway will be operated conventionally, but the basic infrastructure will be capable of being converted to digital control.

Recent programmes, such as Cardiff, have digital-ready interlockings, but haven’t been designed for full ETCS. Feltham and Crewe, however, will now be designed as full digital systems.

Paul Darlington’s more complete explanation of the term ‘Digital Ready’ can be found elsewhere in this issue.

Hidden content

Thanks to the explanations from Mark Carne and David Waboso, the picture was suddenly much clearer.

Buying digital-ready trains isn’t new, but no longer is it a matter for debate and justifications to those paying the bill. It is now policy.

And signalling designs will be prepared as if for a digital system, with short blocks and all of the ground-based infrastructure. To start with, there may still be coloured-light signals, and these may be located at the end of every third block (for example), but when converting to digital the blocks will already be there, making the transition much simpler.

So the Secretary of State’s statement, and his commitment to the Digital Railway, really was new and significant. It’s just that the detail was a bit difficult to understand and confusing.

Isn’t that where we came in?


Read more: Technology takes centre stage