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Waboso cautions against ‘over-heroic’ approach to Digital Railway

Digital railway should be introduced in stages to allow time to learn from mistakes and avoid an ‘over-heroic’ approach, the new managing director for the programme told MPs yesterday.

In an appearance before the Transport Select Committee, David Waboso said that his experience as capital programmes director at London Underground had shown him that major programmes often face challenges the first time they are implemented.

For example, the process of upgrading the Jubilee Line took over a decade, but London Underground was able to learn from that process to upgrade the Northern Line in half the time and under budget.

Waboso said: “In my experience, the first set of ones you do, you need to allow sufficient time for learning, because this is about getting teams of people together.

“It’s quite challenging stuff, it’s a heady mix of software, operational rules, fixed infrastructure, trains, depots, it’s a complex programme so my experience is that you allow sufficient time to not be over-heroic in the first ones, but then my experience has been that once you get going, it gets much better, which of course is why we need this committed and funded.”

He said that digital railway should be implemented in stages, on at the most two or three routes at once, starting with the highest priority areas.

Rail minister Claire Perry MP, who also appeared before the committee, agreed that the introduction of digital railway “will not be done universally at once”, saying that Network Rail’s commitment to increased route devolution will make it easier to introduce digital railway on an individual level.

Waboso added that digital railway is “a radical step change” that the rail industry “should be excited about”, but said that “a long-term commitment” was needed to deliver it.

“We have been in this situation several times in the past where we’ve tooled up and it hasn’t happened,” he said.

Business case needs to be identified

Brian Etheridge, director of rail network services at the DfT, who also appeared before the committee, said that the department still needed to identify the business case for digital railway and how exactly it would be introduced.

“We have to make sure that there’s a business case for this thing, that the benefits stack up against the costs in the traditional way,” he said.

Etheridge also said that digital railway didn’t need to be “one of the largest capital programmes” and that the programme could be introduced within the existing control periods if they were used “wisely”.

Both Waboso and Perry said that third party investment might be sought to finance the digital railway, with Perry suggesting Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) being well placed to fund upgrades in their areas.

The Transport Select Committee hearing took place on the same day as Andrea Leadsom announced that she was withdrawing from the Conservative party leadership contest, clearing the way for Theresa May to replace David Cameron as prime minister. Perry noted that it “would be very helpful” to receive confirmation from the new chancellor, once he or she is appointed, that digital railway will receive funding.

In a recent appearance before the committee, senior representatives of TOCs said that they wanted a greater role in the introduction of the scheme.

In an interview in the latest edition of RTM, Martin Arter, the Digital Railway development director, said that digital railway is “already underway” and on track to deliver key milestones by the end of the year.

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