Interviews

01.07.15

Delivering Digital Environment

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 15

Phil Bennett, commercial director for the Digital Railway programme within Network Rail, discusses the lessons that can be learned from the aviation industry in delivering a digital railway.

Network Rail is expected to establish its strategic outline case for digital acceleration this summer, outlining the opportunity and approach to building the Digital Railway business case.

And during this year’s Railtex, Phil Bennett, commercial director for the Digital Railway programme within Network Rail, stressed the importance of this 14-year transformation journey which, he says, will improve capacity, performance and safety.

“In a nutshell Digital Railway is a cross-industry programme that will transform and accelerate the way we bring digital enablement to the industry,” he said.

“It is about making it easier for the customer, operator and infrastructure owner to create a more responsive industry so that operators can be more flexible in how we make use of our scarce resources.

“Think, for example, of the complex rail-specific ticketing solutions and revenue streams we have. These make it very difficult for train operators to adjust the service offer and price offer dynamically. Or what about the two-tier timetable planning process that is in place, which makes it difficult to change service provision and train sizing availability to changes in demand.

“If we could digitally enable additional capacity into that environment it would create a fluid market not restricted by the timetabling constraint where operators, both for freight and passengers alike, are better positioned to flex their service provision in order to meet changes in demand.”

However, Bennett added that it is not just about creating the ability to run more trains or services. “It is about creating a better understanding of the entire passenger and freight journey demands.”

Learning capacity lessons from aviation

Looking at aviation and other safety critical transport systems, which have grasped digitisation, Bennett said there are comparable availability challenges between air and rail.

“In air traffic control that constraining factor is runway capability and capacity. And that is defined by the number of slots available for planes to take off and land at airports,” he said.

“Without digitisation in the aviation industry we would have to build tens of new runways in the UK alone to service the demand requirement that exists today. Digitisation has enabled the situation where a plane can take off and land every 45 seconds at Heathrow, for example. You transfer that to the rail environment and we think about the path that our trains traverse the network, we face the same constraints.”

He added that if there are insufficient paths available then there is a need to create more infrastructure. “We could do that in two ways: we could create brand new infrastructure, such as HS2, or we can significantly enhance the infrastructure we have today,” said Bennett.

“And that is the road we have gone down as an industry for the last century. We have built more and more infrastructure. But if we can apply digital technology and a digital approach and get more capability out of the actual infrastructure we have today by utilising it better – that is a great opportunity.”

He added, with another aviation example, that in the 1970s and 80s the number of planes taking off and landing at Heathrow plateaued at about 180,000 a year. But in 1987 with the introduction of the digital air traffic control system and the opening of Terminal 4 and associated capacity to park more planes, Heathrow saw a 61% increase in capacity.

“Although that number is not exactly comparable to rail, the concept does translate,” said Bennett. “It also gives us a good indication that we have the ability to get more potential from the infrastructure we have. The model suggested today seems to suggest this could be in the region of 40%.”

At the heart of the digital railway is ETCS and this is the fundamental shift from the Victorian signalling control system of today to a new approach.

“What happens if we move from those Victorian constraints? Well, the option for additional capacity suddenly becomes available to us. We are able to generate 40% more capacity simply by not having so much blank space within the form of empty signalling sections between the trains that move. The network becomes bi-directional, suddenly we have much more flexibility to provide more train paths at short notice. Maintenance is also made easier.

“Signal sighting distances are a thing of the past, they are no longer the restraint they are today. Trains would be able to run faster, up to 160mph on our existing high-speed infrastructure, simply because we don’t have to consider signal sighting. And trackside maintenance will reduce by up to 50% because we simply have less infrastructure on the trackside to maintain. That also means there is less opportunity for that infrastructure to fail therefore, consequentially, further performance improvements.”

Bennett added that during CP5 Network Rail is already investing in rolling out some initial deployments of some ETCS-enabled technologies and traffic management. “We are also investing as an industry in the provision of enhanced capability for broadband and data connection on trains.”

By the end of the current control period Network Rail also plans to deliver the development and design of a full roll-out programme for ETCS across the balance of the network. Then during CP6 and CP7 that technology will be rolled out so that by the end of CP7, 2029, some 14 years in the future, we will have a digitally-enabled rail market.

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