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We must accept the need for a digital railway

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 16

Alistair Gordon, chief executive of Keolis UK and chair of the Rail Delivery Group’s technology and operations working group, makes the case for investment in a digital railway.

The UK’s 19th-century rail infrastructure is reaching the limits of its capacity, following years of unprecedented growth in passenger numbers. Even during the depths of the recent economic recession, we were witnesses to annual growth of 6%. 

All customer surveys point to capacity as the number one issue for rail users and it provides the biggest challenge for both operators and Network Rail as infrastructure maintainers. 

And so, with the growth in passenger numbers showing no sign of slowing down any time soon, we need to think of a solution that will have a long-term impact on the pressing issue of capacity. 

Some of the solutions mooted – double-decker trains, more carriages or additional tracks leading into major stations – can and will only ever provide short-term respite. And they all come at significant cost and impact to performance on the existing infrastructure. 

Optimising what we already have 

However, we do already have a solution that we need to shout about and prepare the ground for. Despite the age of our railway network its capacity is far from being fully optimised, with antiquated signalling systems and a lack of automation significantly hampering its potential to deal with passenger growth. 

The solution is the digital railway, which in a nutshell replaces all of the current cumbersome and sometimes fragile signalling and control systems with modern in-cab signalling fitments and traffic management integrated into custom-built rail operating centres. This approach uses the approved European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), which is being deployed in many European countries. 

So, this is not new technology. Indeed, digital signalling is already making a big impact on the London Underground, increasing the number of trains per hour on the Victoria Line from 28 to 34 and has grown capacity on its sub-surface network by 30%. It will also be active on both Thameslink and Crossrail. 

Unclogging bottlenecks 

The potential benefits of digital signalling can be applied to one of the major bottlenecks the network faces today – the urgent need to increase capacity in London’s South West Corridor into Waterloo station. The current proposals (building a fifth track) will come at huge cost and disruption and requires 10km of land and track. The digital solution, however, would create 11 additional paths per hour into Waterloo without the need for extended major disruption.

The digital railway will ultimately be safer and, with fewer track assets to maintain, would also be cheaper. It would also be more reliable, as evidence shows digital networks provide an average 10% reduction in delays. 

Network Rail and a highly engaged cross-industry steering group is already overseeing a project to implement a digital revolution here in the UK. In addition to pilots in Wales and the Hertford Loop, nine other routes from across the country are having business cases prepared. 


While a digital railway is both a more effective and easier to attain longer-term solution, it is not without difficulty. Significant capital investment will be needed to build new control centres and to retrofit existing rolling stock. This will all have to be considered within the context of the current austerity pressures the country faces. 

Allowing for increased passenger numbers will also place additional strain on the network’s stations infrastructure. Much like with new high-speed networks, there should be complementary investment into better transport integration to create a hub-and-spoke offering at key stations. 

Most significantly, it will be a huge change project, because it fundamentally revolutionises the way things have been done in this country for the last 40 years. This would demand a transformation of procedures, protocols and training. And it will necessitate a massive collaboration effort from right across the industry. 

If we can get this right, the size of the prize is significant. For the industry, there is the commercial growth an increase in capacity will bring, while for our towns and cities it will mean easier travel for more people to key areas of employment. And, most importantly, greater customer satisfaction and positive advocacy of the network’s benefits from users. 

Failure to act is simply not a viable option. The digital future should be obvious to all those with a vested interest in the railways, let us take the opportunity now to deliver a network we can proud of to hand on to the next generation.


Stephen Psallidas   22/01/2016 at 12:33

While modernisation of signalling certainly makes sense, there is a completely different 'digital railway' concept that should take priority over digital signalling: namely, 'digital working', (a.k.a. e-working), to stop people needing to commute in the first place! Promoting (and perhaps even financially incentivising) employers to allow their staff to work 1 day a week from home would instantly deliver a huge increase in rail capacity at peak times, is entirely achievable for most office-based workers, and would cost a fraction of the cost of major systemic railway upgrades. Is that a heretical idea?

Lutz   26/02/2016 at 08:10

@Stephen Psallidas I have seen a number of businesses offer these incentives and working options for about twenty years. I have work from home on a regular basis, and it is the only way I can do my every-day tasks for the overseas engagements. The problem is home-working is not always possible, and given the projected growth in the London's population, and employment market, any impact it might have will be a drop in the ocean for the next few years at least. Incentives will come in the form of wholesale move of businesses to the web, and the rising rents pricing low-margin, high employee count businesses out of London. Not sure what impact it would have in the provinces. So, I do not expect wfh to have an significant impact in the next five years.

Lutz   29/02/2016 at 10:59

Regarding the fifth track option into Waterloo from Surbiton; that was already identified as the least beneficial of three options in the 2015 draft of the SWML Route Study. The study also indicated that the ETCS 3+ with ATO option would not be sufficient on it's own either. Besides, the proposed combination would only see the projects to 2043 met - about a decade after the projected delivery of crossrail2. Apart from those concerns, the Digital Railway initiative is a valid attempt to bring the railways into the 21st Century.

Memory Lane   07/03/2016 at 12:44

The fundamental flaw with this aspiration, desirable as it is, is that the rail industry is now so disparate and complex, even within companies, that it isn’t organised to achieve a national digital railway. The industry is already struggling to deliver its current remit of work, never mind a complete step-change to a national digital railway. The Great Western electrification is already likely to be two years late and cost three times as much as original estimates so how are we ever expecting to deliver the required enablers to bring about a digital railway and all that entails? The challenges referred to doesn’t mention the sheer lack of skilled resources in the railway industry and that the workforce is aging and retiring in greater numbers. There are currently shortages in the fields of signal, rolling-stock and track design, in addition to track and signal installation, to name but a few key skills. Companies providing these resources already have mega-projects to deliver (including Crossrail), plus future such projects waiting in the wings (HS2, Crossrail 2) which will consume key skills like a sponge, plus all manner of other major upgrades, including the already late and twice re-tendered resignalling of the SSR lines on LU. The skills shortage is one of the biggest criticisms of the privatised rail industry as training, in the BR career-path sense, ceased for a good ten to fifteen years after privatisation so that now, when we need skilled and experienced resources more than ever, such staff in the required numbers don’t exist and we’re now trying to catch-up those years of lost training. To that end, Gil Howarth did a tremendous job setting-up NSARE but we're still suffering the bow-wave of a lack of training, post-privatisation.

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