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Digital Railway cheapest option but 'will require extra funding in CP5'

Delivering the Digital Railway will be the cheapest option for increasing capacity in the railway by up to 40%, the chief executive of Network Rail admitted ahead of the programme’s finalised business plan, expected towards the end of the year.

Speaking at a Transport Select Committee inquiry yesterday, Mark Carne sang the praises of the ambitious programme, which intends to roll out digital signalling across the UK railway network in just 25 years – a significant leap from the original target of 50 years.

He accepted that new infrastructure builds, such as Crossrail 2 and HS2, would still be necessary in the overall plan to increase capacity, but made clear that digitising signalling systems would ultimately transform the way the network is handled and would set the standard for other countries to follow suit.

“The Digital Railway is not about a new railway – it’s about how do we make the best of what we’ve already got,” he told the committee. “How can we make sure we can run more trains on the existing network? We believe that by transforming the way in which we control the trains on the track, we can run many more trains on the existing network and thus partly help to meet increasing capacity.

“I’m the first to say Digital Railway is not a panacea for all the challenges we face – we’re still going to need measurements on the network – not least in terms of stations. But it is a way of maximising the benefit of the existing railway we’ve got.

“The Digital Railway programme is just one of the tools, but it’s a really important one, because it comes at a very low intervention cost. To build new railway systems is incredibly disruptive to existing users.”

Carne refused to reveal an initial figure for how much the programme would cost, saying only that it would be “a great deal of money” but “a great deal less than the alternative”, which would be to build new railways and intervene on the existing network.

“You have to set it out relative to the alternative, which isn’t to do nothing – it’s to build incremental physical facilities to carry extra passengers,” he said. “You have to look at the digital case and the normal infrastructure case in order to truly understand the economic benefits.”

Extra funding in CP5

Also a witness at the inquiry, Andrew Simmons, chief systems engineers of the Digital Railway programme, clarified that while costs were still unclear, it was already evident that the programme would require additional funding in CP5.

Between 2014 and 2019, Network Rail had some money put aside to make sure engineers could understand what was required to install ETCS on units and get indicative costs to be used in contracts. There was also cash available to fit a number of largely freight trains to assist in the East Coast Main Line renewal, with passenger trains expected to be funded through franchise arrangements – as was the case with Virgin Trains East Coast and Govia Thameslink Railway.

“That funding, which was about £194m, was reduced in the Hendy Review,” Simmons said. “The funding was sufficient to allow us to make our revised CP5 commitments. However, if we are to accelerate in CP6 to bring back East Coast and TransPennine and some of the other groups we’re looking at, we will need some additional funding in CP5 to be able to achieve that programme.

“We’re working through now what those costs will be, but we’ll be in a better position to know that towards the end of the year.”

Joined-up approach

Although Hitachi had warned that delays to ETCS commissioning on the East Coast and Great Western main lines meant phase 1 project milestones were likely to be pushed back to CP6, Simmons made clear that the impact of reduced funding to CP5 commitments is zero – with the shrunken cash pot only affecting roll-out in 2019 onwards.

Both Hitachi and the Office for Rail and Road (ORR), in their written submissions to the inquiry, also warned that a joined-up industry approach is vital to ensure the programme is delivered effectively, particularly given the complex elements involved in a digital railway.

The ORR went further to warn that failing to come together would result in unnecessarily higher costs to funders – which Carne yesterday made clear would largely be comprised of private investors – and limit the benefit to users.

But both Carne and Alistair Gordon, responsible for technology and operations at the Rail Delivery Group, emphasised that the project would be an industry-wide approach, with suppliers, operators, the ORR, Network Rail and the DfT all discussing the issue in the programme board, which in turn sits over “a lot of technical work streams”.

Because it is an integrated railway transformation, the Network Rail CEO said, it will also have to integrate requirements of train fitment and the changing operation under different franchises, meaning the project must go hand in glove with the RDG, the Rail Supply Group and the DfT to be planned “in a sequential way”. Effectively, it is about mapping out what a journey might look like in 25 years, so the industry can then align investment in infrastructure with changes in franchises.

This integration will also be particularly relevant to timetabling, Carne and Gordon said: wherein the current process of changing timetables can take 18 months, digital train control systems will allow for quicker and more flexible planning and changing.

“Once the trains are all digitised and we know exactly where they are and how they’re moving, we’ll be able to go to the root cause analysis to see what is actually causing the problem in the timetable and fix it quicker,” Gordon added.

Supply chain confidence

Separately, the Network Rail CEO also addressed one of the major sticking points in the rail industry at present, which is ensuring the supply chain has enough confidence to invest in long-term projects despite five-year funding allotments and planning.

“If we’re able to set this out as a clear 25-year programme and give the supply chain real confidence we’ll be investing over this period of time, they’ll have the confidence to recruit and develop the skills that are needed,” Carne said.

“We need to give them more confidence and then they’ll get behind it. It’s a massively exciting opportunity from the supply chain perspective, because we’ll be the first really big network in the world to deploy this technology on the scale we’re talking about, and the supply chain will develop a real capacity to deploy these capabilities and skills to other countries.”

While the Digital Railway is a European-wide capability, with European rail industry associations recently publishing a joint roadmap for digital railways at the end of April, Carne emphasised that the UK is “very much pushing the development of [ETCS] to the next level”.

In practice, this means that the UK can now “get ahead of the game and create a new market” that other European countries can take advantage of once their railways hit the same “buffer” the British railways have hit.


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Jerry Alderson   24/05/2016 at 20:19

"[NR] intends to roll out digital signalling across the UK railway network in just 25 years." No it does NOT. NR does not operate the UK railway network. It ONLY operates the railway network in Britain. Does RTM understand the difference between the UK and Britain? If not, please ask.

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