Prompted by the major timetable change on Southern Railway in May 2018 and the first stage of an enhanced Thameslink train service across London, Govia Thameslink Railway recently organised an event to explain the purpose and implications of implementing a digital railway. With an impressive line-up of speakers, it proved a good opportunity to set out the transformation that digital technology can achieve when applied to all aspects of rail transport.

Hosted in the Digital Catapult building opposite St Pancras, the headline of ‘From the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution – Exploring the Journeys of Tomorrow’ listed some of the elements that are (or will be) part of digital technology – AI (Artificial Intelligence), Machine Learning, Remote Condition Monitoring, Internet of Things, 5G Radio – all aimed at producing greater connectivity.

Charles Horton, the CEO of GTR, stated that 20 per cent of all European rail passenger journeys are in the UK, a remarkable statistic that shows how the rail business has grown in recent times. However, with growth comes growing pains, and Southern has taken its fair share of criticism from both government and press. Investment benefits are now being realised and the Thameslink programme will see a transformation of north to south London journeys.

The claim that this is the UK’s first mainline digital railway is not quite true, as the Cambrian line has run under ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) digital technology since 2010. However, with Automatic Train Operation (ATO), it is indeed a first, and the increase in capacity to 24 trains per hour when finalised in 2019 will make a huge difference to reliability and frequency.

The advantages of digitalisation

The work does not stop there, as digital technology will eventually enable end-to-end journey opportunities by interlinking the various modes of transport.

Taking up this theme, David Waboso, who heads up the Network Rail Digital Railway Group, emphasised the benefits that integration of technology can bring. Whilst ATO is important to overcome the limitations of defensive driving, the optimum train service will only come about when Traffic Management Systems and Connected Driver Advisory Systems (C-DAS) are all linked together. The adoption of ETCS (European Train Control System – the main control element of ERTMS) in itself will enable shorter block sections and thus more capacity.

Much will depend on the availability of reliable digital radio to the trains and, although not stated, the limitations of the present GSM-R specification mean that a replacement system will soon be needed. Yes, there will be problems with the implementation process, but these can be managed. The key to success is keeping the project teams together to retain knowhow, and from this will come a reduction in costs.

So what do the politicians think? Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the previous Secretary of State for Transport, remarked on the view overlooking St Pancras and Kings Cross stations. Not too long ago, these were run down and there was even the threat of closure, but they have now become destinations in their own right. Transport has risen up the political agenda, with both Crossrail and Thameslink considered to be revolutionary improvements to rail services.

A world of uncertainty

An IT industry view of the digital world, given by Irina Parsina from Microsoft, suggested the modern workplace has seen a transformation which needs to impact on the rail industry. The prediction that smartphones will be used for complete journey planning, including routing by different modes, ticketing, reservations, taxi or vehicle hire, and even fall-back plans if things go wrong, may well become possible, but is it enough?

Transformation means change, which brings about fear, and thus culture and human factors, not the technology, will become the critical issues. An awareness is needed as to how individuals’ lifestyles will change. Digital adoption is currently creating an age of uncertainty and disruption, whereas it should be an age of opportunity – surprising words from a company that has been at the forefront of computers for decades.

Questions from the audience reflected some of this unease. The uncertainty of mobile phones and associated ticketing came across, as did the need for customers to be much more in control of their train journey.

A recognised public fear of driverless taxis could spill over into automated and driverless trains. Equally, whilst safety is important, it may need to be a little more relaxed if progress is not to be impeded.

Network Rail can rightly be accused of over-promising what it can do, but lessons have been learned. For the ECML (East Coast main line) digitisation, a development partner will be employed to ensure realism from the supply industry. The digital railway should help to minimise the hated blockades and bus substitution – taking the railway out of service for engineering work will become more difficult.

Congratulations to GTR for staging the event, timed to coincide with the arrival of ATO on Thameslink. Franchises have had their fair share of criticism in recent times, but they are the opportunity for innovation. Those who see the re-emergence of BR as the way forward should remember that this was the biggest franchise of them all – food for thought.


Read more: Understanding the commitment to the Digital Railway