Rail Industry Focus

01.01.15

The future of rail

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2015

RTM’s Sam McCaffrey reports from the Future of Rail Conference in London.

‘Innovation’ was the word of the day at the Future of Rail Conference 2014, as more than 150 delegates from 88 organisations examined the future of the industry and asked the all-important question: how do we get from here to there?

The politicians were the first on the agenda, as rail minister Claire Perry and her shadow counterpart Lillian Greenwood put forward their parties’ competing visions. Perry predictably spoke out against nationalisation but also called for more clean, compliant DMUs to come into service quickly for the non-electrified areas of the railway. Greenwood criticised the government’s “mismanagement” of rolling stock, blaming them for the lack of diesel units.

Once the politicians had concluded their business it was time for an in-depth look at the state of Britain’s railway as Paul Harwood, strategic planning director for Network Rail, took to the stage.

Engaging and energetic, it’s easy to tell Harwood loves his job – and not just because he told us so. “It’s my job planning railways for the future and I love it. I’m really delighted to be able to talk about it. I’m also delighted that it’s a story about growth: a common theme throughout my presentation,” he said.

The first surprise of his talk was a point that even surprised him. Despite Network Rail’s own generally-good safety record, he recently found out that some of the company’s suppliers have a worse safety record when working in the rail industry then they do in other industries they’re active in.

“Given that safety is our objective, our core deliverable and our USP in some senses, that’s quite shocking,” Harwood said. “We need to do something about that, we have to change the culture in the industry even further because it’s perceived to be good already but we need to be excellent.”

Shifting the technology mindset

What really caught the audience’s attention was a subject that’s been getting lots of coverage recently: Network Rail’s ‘Digital Railway’ initiative, which will see the upgrades previously envisioned for a 40 year roll-out delivered in the next 15.

It is the brainchild of Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne, who challenged his new employees when he joined the company to bring forward their plans to digitise the rail network.

Harwood said: “We had a 35-40 year digital railway plan for rolling out ETCS and the associated digital opportunities, but he said ‘that’s just too long’. It’ll take too long and we won’t get the benefits as quickly as we expect, the supply chain won’t engage because it’s not seen to be an opportunity to shift our technology mindset – let’s do something about that.”

So what’s involved? Through the rest of CP5 Network Rail plans to focus on the ‘digital passenger’, with broadband data on trains, e-ticketing, dynamic pricing and better travel information. It will also see the start of the conversion to ETCS in-cab signalling.

Through CP6 and CP7 this will be accelerated so that conventional signalling will be removed and by 2024 all trains will be ETCS-enabled, and by 2029 all 64,000 miles of track is to be controlled by ETCS signals.

“It is a big challenge, Mark knows it’s a big challenge, but I think we need to rise to that challenge,” Harwood said.

The compressed timescale will have several benefits, including releasing some capacity bottlenecks on the network, which it is hoped will remove the need for some major disruptive enhancement projects.

It will also put the UK “ahead of the game” so that it has the most advanced digital railway in the world, providing Network Rail with an export product for Europe and the rest of the world.

But what are the biggest challenges of the scheme? “I think the technology side of it is the least of our worries – it’s the ‘how we deploy it’ that’s the tricky bit,” said Harwood. “How does the industry change its ways? It’s a change project; how do we change our culture to adopt this?”

After Harwood came Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) chief executive Richard Price, who was the bearer of bad news. He spoke of Network Rail’s current failings and how the ORR plans to regulate and incentivise the company over this and subsequent control periods (more from Price over the page).

Effective service formulas

The next stand-out talk was from Jeff Hoogesteger, CEO of Abellio Group, who was, if it’s possible, even more enthusiastic about his job than Paul Harwood. In particular, he was enthusiastic about innovation.

He said: “The truth is, we are nowhere without innovation, particularly in the rail sector. When I became CEO of Abellio Group in early 2012, I recognised immediately the importance of delivering continuous improvement through full contract periods.”

But how does Abellio do that? “Some of the innovative schemes we are currently taking forward include…an on-board wi-fi enabled information service tailored for individual passengers,” Hoogesteger continued. “Also the remote monitoring and control of stations so that components can be replaced when needed rather than being renewed at a regular interval, and the development of mobile information apps for staff using existing and new technologies. Not only for staff – for ScotRail we intend to roll that out to passengers as well.”

Abellio is also working with Telefónica to use mobile tracking data to help build a precise picture of passenger movement in stations and trains. Hoogesteger said this will help deliver even more effective service formulas at stations and transport integration. In the Q&A after his presentation, Hoogesteger said he is particularly enthusiastic about smart ticketing and potentially bringing the Be-In-Be-Out system, in use in the Netherlands, over to the UK. This allows passengers to pay for their journeys with a smartcard that is automatically detected by a reader, and doesn’t even require tapping in and out like contactless payment and smartcards such as Oyster. He even sees this going further and phasing out smartcards for mobile phones, which will also then be able to be used to purchase items at stations in addition to journeys.

Electrification delays

In the afternoon the conference split into two different streams. RTM attended one on offering solutions to the network’s capacity problem, where Mark Hopwood, managing director of First Great Western, spoke about the new Intercity Express Programme and had a warning for Network Rail about electrification delays on the Great Western Main Line.

He said: “The first train was unveiled at a ceremony [at Hitachi’s Kasado factory in Japan] a couple of weeks ago. It’s going to be put on a ship in the new year and sailed halfway around the world and docked in Southampton in March. I think that lays a very firm foundation to this project and I think it also sends a clear message to Network Rail that the trains are going to be on time – you guys need to make sure the electrification is on time as well.”

Ordsall Chord

Hopwood was followed by Rob Warnes, planning and programmes director at Northern Rail, who provided an update on the proposed Ordsall Chord in Manchester, linking Piccadilly and Victoria stations.

The original aim was to start work in late 2014 or early 2015, but the planning process has significantly delayed construction.

The proposed route bisects the route of the original Manchester – Liverpool railway, something the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) and others objected strongly to.

These objections were overcome through “some targeted industry investment in creating a much better facility for that museum”, Warnes suggested, but English Heritage remained implacably opposed and set out its case at the public inquiry held in April-May 2014.

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne told the Transport Select Committee in summer 2014: “Assuming a positive [TWAO] decision is made by the end of the year, we can still achieve our planned timescales”, of a December 2016 completion date.

But Warnes told the Future of Rail conference that the planning inspector is now due to deliberate early in 2015, with a decision expected not long after – hopefully allowing the programme to get back on track.

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

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