Digital signalling: the biggest game changer since conversion from steam to diesel

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 16

Peter WilkinsonPeter Wilkinson, managing director, Passenger Services, DfT, Rail Executive, writes for RTM about the digital future of the railway and how it will contribute to the sustainability of the sector.

Our railways are an important economic asset which need to be well maintained if they are to operate effectively and efficiently, and upgraded if they are to be fit for the future. 

The Victorians left us with an enviable legacy. Our railway is the safest in Europe and passenger journeys are growing every year at an incredible rate – over the last two decades they have more than doubled. However, that legacy is ageing and starting to slow the expansion necessary to meet this increasing demand. We now face the challenge of the railways success. 

Addressing current challenges 

Meeting this demand for capacity is one of the biggest challenges the industry faces and my team constantly call on the industry to find new ways to deliver more trains, more seats, and services. 

But there is a limit to what can be achieved with the existing infrastructure, so the government has embarked on a huge programme of modernisation. A record £38bn is being spent to deliver a railway for the future, with engineers rebuilding the infrastructure designed to meet the challenges of yesteryear. 

Look at London Bridge. The multi-billion investment in the Thameslink route will deliver more capacity and better journeys for passengers. However, the process of getting there is an engineering challenge. I believe the railway industry has a duty to ensure it learns from this and creates a network which can meet the needs of future generations. We need to deliver a sustainable railway. 

Our railway must address environmental challenges, support the communities it serves and invest in the workforce it needs for the future. Our railway is becoming a mass transit system and we must prepare for this kind of operation with the requisite practices and workforce skills. 

We are creating the conditions for a railway that can achieve this. Blackfriars station is a testament to what can be accomplished. Stretching out across the Thames, it is pioneering sustainability. Its roof houses 23 tennis-courts’ worth of solar panels which provide up to 50% of the station’s energy. Although not every station can deliver such a massive change, work is going on across the country so they can become more self-sustaining and more connected to the communities they serve. 

Advances in train design are resulting in greener, lighter and more efficient rolling stock that can operate more autonomously and reduce wear and tear on the network. The new Thameslink trains will be 20% lighter than the existing fleet and will use a third less energy as they deliver more passengers, more frequently through London. 

Last year, the DfT sponsored the trial that proved a battery-powered train could operate in Essex (covered in RTM Apr-May 2015). Battery technology advances could allow electric trains to operate on non-electrified track, reducing the need for expensive and disruptive electrification projects on some parts of the network. 

Digital signalling – a game changer 

While technological advances in train and station design are delivering major benefits for the industry and the public, in-cab signalling will help unlock future capacity enhancements. 

The European Rail Traffic Management System, starting to be installed on the network, is, in my view, the single most important transformation we can make and the biggest game changer since the conversion from steam to diesel. It will help to transport more people in a cheaper, faster, and environmentally friendly way. 

Unlike conventional signalling methods, digital signalling uses on-train sensors and traffic management to control the traffic in real time, akin to air traffic control. This technology could reduce disruption and let the railway respond better to peak demand. Once installed on commuter routes, capacity increases of up to 40% could be possible. It could allow more goods to be moved by rail, by improving connectivity to ports and terminals helping the economy. 

Over the next decade public and private investment is positioning the UK at the forefront in the development of signalling technology, cementing our leadership in a growing market worth over £30bn globally by 2020 and creating over 20,000 jobs across the supply chain. 

Without innovative solutions and an expanded, highly skilled workforce our railway risks becoming a constraint on our economic and social activity. I believe by working together we can embrace a sustainable, technological future and deliver a world-class service for all our customers. 

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


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