The future connected rail system needs a connected community

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 17

The rail and tech sectors must collaborate to determine the optimal route to the digital railway, writes Julian McGougan, head of technology at techUK.

Rail has become a victim of its own success with the network straining to cope, particularly on commuter routes. According to the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), in 2015 there were 1.7 billion passenger journeys in the UK – the highest in Europe and an increase of 48.9% since 2006. Considerable investment is being made in lengthening platforms and rolling stock, but digital technology also has a major role to play in making rail a more efficient operation, as well as a comfortable, predictable, productive and safer experience for consumers. 

Already companies such as Resonate are upgrading signalling to increase operational efficiency and enable traffic management teams to have clearer oversight. 

Data, analytics and automation tools bring opportunity 

As in other sectors, sensors connecting the Internet of Things (IoT), combined with cloud services and data analytics, will provide far greater insight into what is happening on the network, and what is about to happen. 

IoT diagnostics could be thought of as ‘Fitbits for civil engineering’, with sensors continually advising on the condition of tracks, bridges and much more to enable preventative maintenance. This holds the promise of no unexpected buckled tracks, and no bridge collapses. 

With open data portals offering a wealth of data generated to third-party app developers, we’ll see a range of innovative uses of the data, enabling consumer choice and innovative new business models.  Transport could become really integrated as different elements react to events elsewhere in the system, and consumers are kept up to date with accurate alternative real-time choices. 

Looking quite a bit further ahead, we are likely to see robots carrying out routine, 24/7 maintenance. Not only cheaper than humans, ‘fleet learning’ means every time a new situation is encountered, every maintenance robot UK-wide benefits from the learnings.

Connectivity is key 

The application of technology to rail receiving widest attention now is the provision of connectivity to passengers. Mobile reception is intermittent on many routes and the modern design of trains tends to limit the penetration of mobile signals through carriages. When travelling by public transport, consumers expect to be able to make calls, send and receive emails, browse the web, and advise the office, relatives (or Uber) of their ETA. This just isn’t sufficiently the case now. 

Following the Brexit vote, the government wants the UK to be the best place to do business. Potential inward investors need to be offered the kind of reliable connectivity on their train from the airport, which they’re used to back home, in order to ensure we attract them. The prospect of 5G has also raised the political heat with the European Commission and the National Infrastructure Commission having both recently highlighted consumer connectivity on major transport corridors. 

Some UK rail franchisees have unilaterally introduced passenger wi-fi, although this would be easy for franchisees to see simply as an additional cost. Unlike high street retailers, where research has shown the link between wi-fi and retaining consumers, many rail passengers have no practical alternative and are, in effect, a captive audience. Yet with establishing digital connectivity requiring significant investment, passenger expectation tending for free wi-fi connectivity and a fragmented UK rail industry ecosystem, ‘lining up’ the necessary investment incentives across the industrial chain is challenging. But with the government introduction of connectivity obligations in new franchises, this has to be addressed now. 

Bringing rail and tech together 

The fragmented nature of UK rail, with track and rolling stock ownership separate from passenger service provision (with time-limited franchises), potentially hinders investment in the digital rail of tomorrow. In addition, we must learn from the decades of delay in getting mobile signals on the Tube and ensure that the policy and business environments are lined up to provide the incentives for train manufacturers, TOCs, Network Rail (with its trackside fibre and access) and telecoms operators and service providers to collaborate. 

A train full of passengers is one of the few real-world examples where ‘gigabit’ connectivity is demanded. Yet the construction of rolling stock impedes mobile signals getting in, and the large number of cuttings and tunnels (with limited roof clearance) make it hard for telecoms companies to address that, whether through more mobile base stations or satellite dishes on train roofs. 

Culture may also initially prove to be a barrier, with the sector having to engage with SMEs and start-ups which may have no knowledge of how trials and procurement is done within the rail industry. The rail and tech sectors must collaborate to determine the optimal route to the digital railway. 

For example, industry- and consumer-facing technology can potentially align in the replacement of the European GSM-R track-to-train voice communication standard, expected to be obsolete by 2030, requiring a successor system to have been identified by 2025. With 5G expected to be deployed from 2020-21, there is potential for one trackside network to serve both needs, and use global economies of scale to do so efficiently (much as EE’s network forms the core of the future Emergency Services Network). 

The UK is a highly innovative environment and Brexit won’t change that. Our technology sector is well up to the task to help the rail community create a network that is world-class, and to then showcase that innovation globally. The technology industry and whole rail community must work together to achieve this ambitious goal. techUK, as the UK’s digital industry trade association, is already working with the rail sector to support this.

For More Information


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


Lutz   24/03/2017 at 11:25

The ORR goes fluffy. Wifi is not my primary concern, infact I do not use given that it is so open to abuse. I would rather attention was paid to: - Right time arrival and departure at EVERY stop, - Adequate train capacity to allow me to find a seat, - Adequate capacity to avoid delays due to operational deficits and Engineering work, - Infrastructure capacity to accelerate services with reduced journey times. unfortunately all these conversations about wifi and tea-cakes are a diversion from what I really want.

Add your comment


rail technology magazine tv

more videos >

latest rail news

View all News

rail industry focus

Versatile coating system enhances Indestructible Paint rail industry role

12/08/2020Versatile coating system enhances Indestructible Paint rail industry role

A highly versatile and robust epoxy coating s... more >
Network Rail partners with Cycling UK for new initiative

03/08/2020Network Rail partners with Cycling UK for new initiative

Network Rail and Cycling UK have launched a p... more >

editor's comment

23/01/2018Out with the old...

Despite a few disappointing policy announcements, especially for the electrification aficionados amongst us, 2017 was, like Darren Caplan writes on page 20, a year generally marked by positive news for the rail industry. We polished off the iconic Ordsall Chord (p32), hit some solid milestones on Thameslink (p40), progressed on ambitious rolling stock orders (p16), and finally started moving forward on HS2 (p14) ‒ paving the way for a New Year with brand-new infrastructrure to... read more >

last word

Encouraging youngsters to be safe on the railway

Encouraging youngsters to be safe on the railway

This summer, Arriva Group's CrossCountry and the Scout Association joined to launch a new partnership to promote rail safety among young people. Chris Leech MBE, business community manager at the TOC, gives RTM an update on the innovative scheme. Recognising that young people are more likely to take a risk trespassing on railway tracks, C... more > more last word articles >

'the sleepers' daily blog

On the right track, Sulzer is awarded RISAS accreditation for Nottingham Service Centre

29/06/2020On the right track, Sulzer is awarded RISAS accreditation for Nottingham Service Centre

Following an independent audit, Sulzer’s Nottingham Service Centre has been accepted as part of the rail industry supplier approval scheme (RISAS). The accreditation reinforces the high-quality standards that are maintained by Sulzer’s network of independent repair facilities across the UK and further afield in its global network. ... more >
read more blog posts from 'the sleeper' >


Andrew Haines, CE of Network Rail, tells BBC News his organisation could issue future rail franchises

24/06/2019Andrew Haines, CE of Network Rail, tells BBC News his organisation could issue future rail franchises

Andrew Haines, the Chief Executive of Network Rail, has told the Today programme on Radio 4's BBC’s flagship news programme that he wo... more >
Advancing the rail industry with management degree apprenticeships

08/05/2019Advancing the rail industry with management degree apprenticeships

In answering the pressing questions of how current and future generations of managers can provide solutions to high-profile infrastructure projec... more >
Women in rail - is the industry on the right track?

12/03/2019Women in rail - is the industry on the right track?

RTM sits down with Samantha Smith, sole female member of the TransPennine Route Upgrade Alliance Leadership Team, to find out more about encourag... more >
TfN Strategic Transport Plan: not just for transport's sake

22/01/2019TfN Strategic Transport Plan: not just for transport's sake

Peter Molyneux, Transport for the North’s (TfN’s) strategic roads director, has been leading on the development of the seven economic... more >