A cultural shift is needed to deliver digital railway

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 16

Ben Dunlop, digital railway director at Atkins, looks at the need for the digital railway to be part of a whole-industry approach, and the cultural change needed to deliver the project.

Safety, cost and performance are three vital metrics for railways generally but in particular for signalling and train control systems. 

The current technology on the railway dates back to the 1980s. It was made to respond to very different growth projections and customers of the railway had very different expectations of their journey experience. 

Given the modest position of 40 years ago, the rail industry has seen a dramatic and sustained turnaround. The figure of 1.7 billion passenger journeys in the year 2015-16 is a real success story and one the industry should be rightly proud of. Growth forecasts suggest the demand rising ever higher, by around 4% per annum over the next decade. 

Learning from other sectors 

To respond to the challenges posed by this surge in passenger numbers, rail now needs to learn lessons from other sectors. In sectors such as the oil and gas, nuclear and process industries, the adoption of modern technology has been integrated into their everyday activities. 

The digital railway has the potential to respond to the big question of the modern age of rail travel: how to leverage the capacity of the existing infrastructure to the maximum, while delivering compatibility with the railway of tomorrow? 

The solution needs to have the passenger at its heart. Now, more than ever, retaining customers will be dependent upon ensuring their experience meets or exceeds their expectations of travel in the digital age. This means more than merely having their train arrive on time – a traditional railway industry measure of success. 

These compelling drivers are fuelling a platform for change that the industry desperately needs. A platform where the right, modern technology can be harnessed with the right, modern processes to create solutions fit for the digital age. This, in turn, will create an environment where people can learn skills fit for the future, making the industry an attractive place for the school leavers of today and tomorrow to start their careers. 

Cultural shift 

After such a long period of using established and proven technologies and processes, changing to a modern, software-driven, flexible and open environment requires a cultural shift. 

The challenge here is to ensure that new technologies and processes can be suitably navigated into the rail sector in a timely and cost-effective way. Process is possibly the biggest area of change, as it requires a significant behavioural shift within the industry to embrace it. In essence, this is the area of change where historic working practices will be shaken to the core. 

One of the best enablers of world-class technologies is open protocols, allowing the independent integration of different products, which can communicate with each other. The pan-European investment in EULYNX, which the UK rail industry is a part of, is key to facilitating this. 

In addition, the move to a modern digital railway necessitates many operational changes, for example, the use of an ETCS train control system, and as railways around the world continue on this journey, they are becoming better understood. However, there is one fundamental area of change associated with the adoption of software-based products, such as SIL 4 vital logic controllers. 

The use of the European Standard EN50128 software design process for railway applications, applying the ‘V Cycle’ and using properly defined requirements, enables progressive assurance and, with it, the capability to undertake automated testing through the design process. This in turn increases the level of assurance, confidence in delivery and, with it, the success of complex commissionings. In short, it enables much of the testing to be done prior to the commissioning period. 

Furthermore, there are also significant gains in the safety of the signalling system, with the ability to undertake much higher levels of negative testing on the data. 

So with new technology and processes, there is a clear need for new capability in the form of different skills. This is a positive driver for change and provides the basis of an environment where the next generation, the digital natives and the ‘screenagers’, will start to view the railway sector as one they want to join. 

The market place will remain competitive for resource. It is our job, as employers and representatives of the market, to sell the employment opportunities to the future workforce and to offer skills for the future. 

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]



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