A digital railway for a modern Britain

Source: RTM Dec/Jan 17

David Waboso CBE, managing director of Group Digital Railway, discusses using digital technology and how we must work together better as an industry.

Passenger numbers have doubled since the mid-1990s and are forecast to double again over the next 25 years. Since 2002, we have seen a 61% increase in rail as the chosen mode of transport to get to work compared to a 7% increase for car commuting. Whilst this is a success for the industry, it is also a challenge to the existing infrastructure. Parts of the network are already operating at, or beyond, their limits and trains into and between major cities across the country are often overcrowded at peak times. 

To date, this growth has largely been provided for within the existing rail network by running more and longer trains, enabled by traditional enhancements to incrementally remove capacity constraints and bottlenecks. However, these alone will not be sufficient to meet growing demand and support the economy. It is vital that we now use digital technology to help improve capacity by getting more from the current rail infrastructure. Other industries, from aviation to roads, and the London Underground, have already unlocked significant additional capacity through digital control systems. The Digital Railway is the means to achieve this. 

Introducing digital technology as part of a package with conventional system upgrades is the best option to address the capacity and performance challenges on key pinch points on the network. 

Digital technology will also allow us to manage and control trains better and enhance the way we maintain the rail network by enabling a ‘predict and prevent’ regime to improve our asset management. By using technology we can generate better, more targeted information about network services to enhance the passenger experience. 

The chancellor recently pledged £450m in the Autumn Statement to invest in early deployment of digital signalling on the railway. This is a huge vote of confidence in digital signalling and the whole industry welcomes this opportunity.  

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Early Contractor Involvement 

Support for awareness of the digital railway is growing. The influential House of Commons Transport Select Committee also recently stated that digital technology could deliver “significant benefits” for the railway. 

We know that to achieve our goals, we need to establish a very different way of working with suppliers. The traditional procurement model can stifle the innovation and collaboration required to address the scale and complexity of this challenge. To encourage a more dynamic partnership approach, a cross-industry Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) programme has been established to work with the global rail supply chain in a more open, involved way. I want to ensure we partner with suppliers early, at each stage, to achieve best value and build a stronger supply chain for the future. 

I am pleased this fresh approach has been welcomed by the supply chain and is widely endorsed by industry stakeholders. It has allowed us to bring in expertise as well as greater involvement and sponsorship at senior level from the Rail Delivery Group, Rail Supply Group and their members.  

The ECI report published last month is really encouraging because it shows exactly what I hoped it would – that if we work differently with the supply chain, significant efficiencies are possible through scale and continuity of orders, robust commercial frameworks and appropriate risk sharing. In short, I want suppliers to have a ‘whole of life’ relationship with us. Other industries have shown they can do this in the way they buy services. I think we can and should in the Digital Railway. 

We cannot afford to get this wrong. The industry needs to make every penny count from the start. Following a network-wide assessment back in October 2016, Digital Railway is now developing a series of Strategic Outline Business Cases that will be completed by spring 2017. These business cases will help government make important decisions about where to invest in the digital railway to deliver early improvements for passengers on the busiest routes.

 This is an exciting time. Digital Railway is building a railway for the future with passengers at the heart of our approach. Recognising the complexity in the industry and ensuring we work smarter with the supply chain will drive decisions that enhance the network and deliver a railway that a modern Britain needs. 

Britain was at the forefront of railway development; it had the first metro in the world, it introduced the first automatic train operation, it needs to be the showcase for the digital railway revolution.



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


Lutz   17/01/2017 at 17:33

The Digital Railway initiative has been underway some time now; so it is about time we started seeing some of the fruits of all this investment - something more than just a glossy website.

Pwt   18/01/2017 at 13:26

It's difficult to know how the fare paying passenger is likely to see any difference with the "digital railway" as it seems to be primarily a suite operating tools at this stage. I think it'll be a long time before we see a serious roll out of a ETCS signalling programme. I'm struggling to believe the hype at the moment...

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