Digital Railway: From potential to kinetic

Source: RTM June/July 2018

David Waboso, managing director of Group Digital Railway, talks to Luana Salles about the importance of striking a balance between new lines and modern technologies to deliver the capacity and efficiency the industry is yearning for.

Mark Carne has promised that Digital Railway will represent the biggest technological breakthrough since the transformation from steam to engine 60 years ago. For a man known for choosing his words carefully, that is not a statement to gloss over.

We’ve all seen the stats: rolling out digital railway technology across at least 70% of journeys within the next 15 years will bring a much-needed capacity boost to help us cope with the expected 40% boom in passenger numbers by 2040. It will also be essential to improving train performance, especially by allowing them to run closer together; will enable faster journey times; cut down disruption from renewals, maintenance and upgrades; enhance safety for both passengers and workers; and reduce the whole-life cost of an asset. Frankly, it seems there is nothing Digital Railway can’t do.

But even with all the benefits, the programme can be a hard sell. If you’re based anywhere near the north or London, much like our team in Manchester, I’m sure you’ve seen the daily headlines in your local paper (and the RTM website, of course) about delayed services and unstable timetabling. In times of intense disruption, customers are hesitant to accept the fact that simply digitising train control and signalling systems will be enough. Sure, TransPennine is set to be the country’s first digital intercity route after Chris Grayling committed £5m from a £450m cash pot to the ambitious upgrade – but does that really matter when passengers can’t even get to work on time because there aren’t enough trains running?

Transport for Greater Manchester has argued that the route cannot rely solely on digital signalling to accommodate growing demand; instead, it must be served by new capabilities, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), which will provide the infrastructure boost required to keep customers moving. The same is true for other parts of the country: we need HS2, we need Crossrail 2, we need electrification… the list goes on.

But in the same way that Digital Railway may not be the panacea to congestion, is building new infrastructure truly the answer? Surely the sweet spot lies in between both: a mixture of digitisation and new lines that, together, will cater for the industry’s unprecedented growth?

Group Digital Railway’s boss, David Waboso, is loyal to this nuanced approach. Speaking to me, he argued that it “simply isn’t possible to just build our way out of the capacity shortage with new infrastructure.” Building new railway lines through major cities on the scale required would be unaffordable, he added, and the disruption caused would reach unacceptable levels.

“New infrastructure has an important part to play, but to build more than one or two new railways per generation would run into the hundreds of billions and be unaffordable,” added Waboso. “Digital Railway will deliver more capacity, improve performance, and enhance safety in a quicker timescale than building new lines, and in a more cost-effective way.

“To address the serious capacity shortage, we have to make our existing infrastructure more efficient. Deploying digital signalling and train control, along with targeted investment on existing infrastructure, is the only way of achieving that on the scale required.”

On TransPennine specifically, he said that Network Rail is exploring a “range of interventions” as part of the route upgrade and believes Digital Railway is a “significant factor in addressing capacity constraints on the network.” But that doesn’t mean other enhancements won’t be required depending on the existing infrastructure and geographies involved: line speed improvements, electrification, four-tracking and, of course, NPR – for which Transport for the North is currently developing a viable plan. 

Network Rail’s outgoing boss, Mark Carne, evidently agrees with this approach; launching the Digital Railway strategy back in May, he beamed with pride at the fact that the programme is now moving from the drawing board and into reality. The strategy tried to make that ambition crystal-clear by setting out well-defined timescales for implementation, from CP5 right down to CP7 – at which point digital solutions will become ‘business as usual.’

A key part of this will be ensuring that, from CP6, fleets in new franchises are all digital-ready, fitted with ETCS and digital train control, Traffic Management and C-DAS technologies. “There are clear corridors where trains with digital capability (ETCS-fitted) will be in the vast majority during CP6, such as along the East Coast Main Line from London to Edinburgh,” the strategy document explained, promising that the next control period will mark a “turning point.”

CP6 will also be a watershed moment when it comes to flashing the cash. As well as the £450m Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund announced by the chancellor in 2016 to assist in the development of initial digital deployments, there is also funding for renewals in Grayling’s Statement of Funds Available (SoFA), unveiled in October last year, some of which will be used to pay for early CP6 digital railway schemes.

“To expand the roll-out, we will be exploring ways of attracting third-party finance to ensure more passengers can benefit more quickly. In the long term, a digital railway will be more cost-effective and cheaper to maintain,” added Waboso.

NR 239-(ZF-5888-19953-1-496)

Mind the skills gap

It is no secret that the rail industry faces a dangerous skills shortage as it is; the implementation of digital technologies, as with the advance of high-speed rail, will only serve to widen this gap if suppliers don’t plan ahead. And given that it involves a long-term programme of digital renewal nationwide, companies big and small must be ready to hit the ground running.

“The availability of skills cannot be considered in isolation. Supply chain confidence has been negatively impacted by low volumes of signalling work and uncertainty around CP6,” he explained. “This has led to a lack of investment in skills and there have been redundancies within the supply chain.

“However, the Digital Railway is starting to bring work to the market, and if this can be converted into a long-term, smoothed pipeline then suppliers will have the confidence to invest in the skills and techniques that will support more efficient delivery. This will help reduce unit costs and develop a legacy of high-skilled jobs. Tender evaluation criteria can be used to support this by including economic value and requiring major suppliers to work with SMEs.”

To help this along, a number of solutions are being embedded. In June last year, Arcadis was appointed to spearhead the creation of the Digital Railway Academy, which will identify future training requirements to ensure the supply chain is equipped to deliver the strategy; a few months later, NSAR was awarded a grant to help encourage young unemployed adults into careers with digital rail, with the pilot initially focusing on reaching 60,000 people in London and the south east.

“We have identified the need for a different commercial and project management relationship with our suppliers that supports the need to create new jobs and upskill the existing workforce,” continued the Digital Railway boss. “We are working closely with NSAR and academic and training providers to ensure appropriate training and education programmes, including apprenticeships, are developed and available as the programme evolves.”

Retaining and enhacing the skills and experience of existing teams will also be a challenge, but the country certainly isn’t lacking in early successes from which to build. The Thameslink team, for example, has just delivered a word-first: running the first major digital railway service on a busy urban route, involving both ETCS and Automatic Train Operation. A fantastic achievement, as Waboso described it, and one which has already attracted “a lot of overseas interest.”

“We have worked very closely with the Thameslink team during the past two years and we will draw upon the Thameslink experience as we develop our deployment plans for CP6,” he added. “We have also brought in expertise from London Underground and other Digital Railway schemes globally, and we also talk to other industries such as aviation, automotive and defence.”

So the vigour to deliver the government’s ambition is there: all the industry needs is to focus on shifting this energy from potential to kinetic to build on this budding opportunity and ensure momentum isn’t lost.


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