Comment

27.01.17

A better railway depends on harnessing technology

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 17

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), argues that we must change the status quo and invest in technology if we are to continue to improve rail services going forward.

Recent weeks have seen much discussion among politicians and the press about how the railway should be structured. A speech by transport secretary Chris Grayling in early December prompted questions about how Network Rail and train operators can work together more closely and more effectively to manage the railway infrastructure, and whether the private sector should be more involved. 

Somewhat predictably perhaps, questions about whether the running of train services should be renationalised were raised in the wake of the announcement that rail fares would increase by an average of 2.3% in 2017. And then there were strikes by RMT and Aslef which brought services on the Southern Rail franchise to a complete halt, prompting further questions about the franchising process. 

The driving force behind all these questions is a feeling among politicians, the public and the media that the railway should be better. They are right. While our network has been tremendously successful in recent years, it could undoubtedly be better. That’s why rail companies are working together to deliver a £50bn+ Railway Upgrade Plan. This will provide passengers with simpler, easier ticket buying before they board one of 5,500 new carriages for a journey which is more likely to be on time and which arrives at a bigger, better station. 

But any solution to improving the railway, be it investment or more structural change, will fall flat unless the industry is able to harness new technology and use it to adopt smarter ways of working. At the moment, too often that is not the case. 

On Southern Rail, the RMT and Aslef have for months blocked changes to working practices which are already commonplace elsewhere on the railway, on London Underground and on other rail networks around the world. Technology on trains means the role of the guard can evolve to become more customer-oriented and give passengers a better service, without impacting safety. Yet change is being resisted. 

A crucial turning point 

After a decade of growth and investment, Britain’s railway is at a crucial turning point. We must change the way we do things if we are to continue to improve services and if the railway is to continue to play such a crucial role in growing the economy and creating jobs. 

Technology on new trains, in new signalling systems and in the way tickets can be bought and used will benefit customers and change jobs in the rail industry. Combined with changes to the way we work, it is crucial to address the capacity challenge facing Britain’s railway, and make train travel more reliable, more accessible, more affordable and more comfortable. 

It is wrong to suggest that ‘change’ is just a euphemism for cuts or for compromising safety. Train companies already employ 30% more staff than 20 years ago. Forecasts suggest that rail companies and the rail supply chain will need 100,000 new recruits over the next 10 years to take on new roles and to replace retiring workers. Britain now has the safest railway in Europe. New technology will not only allow us to maintain that proud record while improving services, but also offer the potential to make the network even safer. 

Following 10 years of investment and sustained improvement, the railway is more important to the nation’s prosperity than ever. Billions continue to be spent to deliver the modern services the nation needs. Getting the most out of that investment means adopting new technology and changing outdated working practices. You wouldn’t buy a smartphone but still walk to the local telephone box to make a call. 

A modern railway will mean more reliable, more comfortable and easier journeys. It will create thousands of opportunities for people who work in the industry in new, more highly-skilled roles. But a railway that doesn’t change will see customers missing out on better services, it will be a drag on the economy and, in the long term, it puts the very future of the industry in doubt. We turn our backs on the future at our peril.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The RDG has set out how new technology can benefit rail customers in its recent report ‘Our Customers, Our People’. This can be accessed at:

W: www.raildeliverygroup.com

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com 

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