Rail Industry Focus


Digital railway is already underway

Source: RTM Jun/July 16

Martin Arter editMartin Arter, Digital Railway development director, explains the future opportunities digital railway will offer the sector and supply chain.

Fully integrated traffic management functionality at Network Rail’s Romford Rail Operating Centre (ROC) will be delivered before the end of this year, representing a “key stepping stone” on the digital railway journey. 

The journey, which will take place over the next 25 years, is for the UK to adopt modern digital signalling and train control and, as the programme team says, “create credible options to upgrade the railway to next generation technology as it becomes available”.

Speaking to RTM after a supplier conference, Martin Arter, Digital Railway’s development director, was keen to stress that “digital railway is already underway”, and that the team were very much looking forward to the Romford ROC commissioning in November. 

During a recent Transport Select Committee hearing, Network Rail’s CEO, Mark Carne, said that digital railway will be the cheapest option for increasing capacity on the network by up to 40%.

Although the outline business plan, expected by the end of this year, is yet to be finalised, Arter said the programme is very much about how “we maximise the investment that has already been made in the railway and how we avoid the disruption and cost of conventional interventions by creating a digital solution”. 

He added that it has been very positive that suppliers, freight operators and passenger operators want to be engaged with digital railway rather than just asking for information about it. 

Demonstrating digital 

Arter also noted that it is very important early on in the process to showcase what the digital railway will mean for everyone. “We have to demonstrate individual pieces of technology,” he said. “We have already demonstrated ETCS Level 2 on Cambrian, for instance, that is already operational. There is also a high-capacity variant of that, which we are delivering at Thameslink. This will see us go to a metro-style version of Level 2 and that is going very well at the moment. That is due for commissioning in this control period (CP5). 

“ETCS is already well proven in the UK. Traffic management at Romford ROC will be the first time we have a full traffic management system in place and then we have to bring together those technologies with an upgrade to our GSM-R telecoms system and our FTNx telecoms network, with a host of other supporting technologies.” 

As well as demonstrating the technologies individually, Network Rail is in the process of developing a pilot site for the full deployment of digital technology in East Anglia from Norwich – Yarmouth – Lowestoft (NYL). 

The deployment, which is set to be operational by 2019, will demonstrate and prove that the systems, including ETCS Level 2 and traffic management, can be integrated. 

“NYL is an opportunity in CP5 with the existing renewal plans to make it a digital version,” said Arter. “We want to grab that opportunity and use it to actually show, earlier than any other programmes, what it [digital railway] is and get the user familiar with what it is about and the benefits of it. 

“NYL brings together what we’ve already done at Cambrian, Thameslink, Romford and other work we are doing in terms of testing. This is so people can use it, see it, feel it, touch it and we demonstrate the benefits of it.” 

Phased deployment and devolution 

Arter added that the typical thought process around a national programme is pushing in a change that is a “rather monolithic, one-size-fits all solution”. 

“We are absolutely not in that space,” he said; instead the team’s view is to design a “flexible, efficient but standardised package” that is cost effective and can be used with devolved areas in a way that suits them best. 

“It is a bit of a misconception that it is an all or nothing package,” added Arter. “In designing it together, designing traffic management, ETCS, with a backbone of GSM-R and data and telecoms, it actually gives freedom to a devolved area to choose part of the solution and deploy it in a certain year and, when further funding is available, deploy the rest of the system in the confident knowledge that it works together.”

Track workers with iPad

During the recent Transport Select Committee hearing into rail technology, Andrew Simmons, chief systems engineer of the Digital Railway programme, said that while costs were still unclear for the project, it was evident that the programme would require additional funding in CP5. 

Discussing the funding aspect and the business plan, Arter said: “We will demonstrate that the digital railway has a compelling case which drives economic benefit in the UK; it will provide more seats on trains, it will provide more connectivity, and more reliability. 

“What we then have to do, on the basis of the phased deployment plan, will be start defining where digital railway is rolled out first in CP6,” said Arter. “We still have some way to go in finalising that, but we’ve fired the starting gun. 

“What we will be detailing out is the benefits for routes and regions of digital railway, and what the deployment plan is to deliver those, and what will be available for the supply base.” 

Mark Carne and Sir Peter Hendy have both advocated greater third-party funding for rail projects in the future. Arter said that the conversations have been started on what alternative funding sources will be available to us in CP6, but “those conversations are still at an early stage”.

However, he did add that digital railway was a “big opportunity” for investors. He also noted that the supplier conferences have been very well received. “The thing with the digital railway is that there are a range of opportunities,” noted Arter. “Right now, we are working with a number of specialist companies who have specialist knowledge in things like systems integration, business change, constructing transformation programmes, and we are engaging with these now. 

“We are also engaging, and have engaged, with some of the major contractors on the likes of our Romford traffic management system. We are also starting a tender process on our NYL project.”

He was also keen to stress that digital railway not only offers the big names in rail future opportunities, but the programme opens up the market to a range of small companies who can operate in niche areas. 

Arter noted that digital railway is not a “panacea or singular approach” but, as the months progress, it will be a programme that becomes “increasingly tangible” as opposed to a vision of the future.


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