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11.09.18

Digitisation: Confessions of a dinosaur

Source: RTM Aug/Sept 2018

Digitisation is taking the railways by storm. Are our staff ready to embrace it? Neil Robertson, chief executive of NSAR, talks all things technology.

How many times have you heard that the digital revolution is coming? Every day we are exhorted to embrace our digital future and live life by apps alone. For some of us, it’s not going to happen (I hope) – living life through a series of filters designed by a 25-year-old in California cannot be a sensible thing. But I am, of course, a dinosaur (more of that later). My niece came to visit and used more data in a week than I used in a year. My phone recently called me by my school nickname (how did it know that?). And the very excellent National Rail app tells me that I’ll get into Effingham Junction two minutes late.

We have a startling dichotomy: every area of life is seemingly being consumed by digital, except apparently the railway. It’s yet another challenge for our rather stressed PR professionals to explain and our customer-facing people to manage. But, as most will know, change is afoot and momentum is growing. The old adage that there is light at the end of the tunnel is of course irrelevant to a digitally-controlled Victoria Line or Cambrian train, but anyway, there is. I thought I’d try and capture in non-digital speak some of the progress we have made in preparing for this brave new world.

TfL has made good progress on digital rail, working with top suppliers. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the training centre for the next phase of the Underground digital upgrade and was very impressed by the simulation that was being used. It doesn’t have shiny graphics like a driver simulator or the latest computer game, but it’s great for problem-solving and showing how it all fits together, which is the trickiest thing to learn.

Another impressive example of digital training is Southern’s driver training centre. I was enjoying the driver simulation, until I hit a cow the size of a brontosaurus on the line (thanks, John Tomlin at GTR). But what impressed me most was the analysis that has gone into how we learn, how we think (as humans, not robots) and how digital fits in properly with that. Network Rail has considered in detail about a digital academy. Elsewhere, technology is much more a feature of existing training than you might expect – technology means training can come out of the centre and into to the depot. So, the training community are getting ready.

As the Thameslink project concludes, thought turns to what’s next on the national network (East Coast Main Line?). A commitment has been made that all new signalling will be digital-ready. But what does this mean for our 240,000 people? NSAR has recently been analysing the training need, and one thing is already clear – it will have to be a team effort, as the numbers are quite big. Early estimates are that 55% of us will need some upskilling, lasting days or weeks; 40% of us will need reskilling, lasting weeks, months or even a year; and 5% of jobs will be in mostly new disciplines to rail, such as programmers, software managers and data analysts.

Relatively few rail jobs will disappear in the near future due to automation – that will hit back office first, where large amounts of data are processed. We will ultimately need fewer engineers as new digital products get better at telling you what is wrong with them, but this will be at the margins for the foreseeable future, and will be far outweighed by our retirement losses.

Digital will not take all our jobs, at least not yet, but it will require us to change. Funnily enough, digital will actually create more work in the industry, as it contributes to reduced unit costs by increasing capacity. Digital signalling on the Victoria, Jubilee and Thameslink lines already mean more trains, more engineers, more drivers (or at least skilled people on the train), and crucially, more passengers.

Us dinosaurs will eventually become extinct, but the comet is still quite far away – and, with a bit of adaptation, the next decade might be quite good. Now, please find me a nice fern to munch on.

 

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