The impending retirement of David Waboso, who currently heads up the Digital Railway team in Network Rail, calls for comment on the man who has made such an impact on the industry. Rail Engineer met him in early February to learn of his achievements and how he has been motivated.
David, like many of us, has been in the right place at the right time. Chance meetings with high profile people led to job opportunity offers from which he obtained his incredible knowledge base and experience.
Although born in London, David spent his formative years in rugby-mad Gloucester, leaving school to study civil engineering at, firstly, Coventry University and then at Imperial College London, graduating in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
His first job was a year in Chester designing motorways, also playing for Chester rugby club, before he moved back to London. With an aptitude in mathematics, and having seen an advertisement for engineering graduates to teach maths, he attended an interview at County Hall on a Friday and began teaching at a school in East London the following Monday. It was a baptism of fire, handling kids where a sizeable number didn’t want to be there and were potentially disruptive to the others. Being a keen rugby player helped his credibility and integration into the local community.
David enjoyed this period of teaching, which left him with some incredible memories and helped build confidence in addressing large and challenging audiences. However, teaching for the next 40 years was not his career choice, so a change was needed.
Back into engineering, David joined Arup, which were constructing the Essex section of the M25. This was akin to being on a concrete train – the sections of roadway were laid as a production line with all the necessary equipment and materials having to arrive at the right time and in the right order to ensure construction met the demanding timescale.
Once completed, David joined Pell Frischmann for an assignment in northern Nigeria, where upgrading water supplies and transport was taking place. He soon learned that, on overseas contracts, he had far wider responsibilities and opportunities for development, looking after teams and business development as well as undertaking engineering.
Rugby again helped and he ended up captaining the local side.
Docklands Light Railway
Opened in 1987, the innovative DLR proved to be so successful that an urgent upgrade had to be progressed. Answering an advert in New Civil Engineer in 1989, David joined the Nichols Group, which was masterminding the upgrade work, as a project manager. Mike Nichols had a major influence on David’s life and they remained close through to Mike’s untimely death in 2013.
David’s first role was the upgrading of all facilities in Poplar depot and the OMC (Operations and Maintenance Centre) building. Whilst not the most fashionable of projects, it taught David an important lesson – any task must be done to the best of your ability and then you’ll be given greater things to do.
After the successful Poplar upgrades, David led the project to re-model the Delta Junction at the intersection of the lines to Tower Gateway, Stratford and Island Gardens. Whilst the civil construction of new viaducts and an upgraded West India Quay station was challenging enough, it was during this project that David first encountered the complexities of ATO (Automatic Train Operation) signalling and its crucial interface to infrastructure, trains, timetabling and human factors.
Following successful completion, David was asked to lead the project to replace the original GEC signalling system with the more sophisticated Thales Seltrac TBTC system, based on ‘moving block’ technology, a first such application on UK railways.
The criticality of delivering a new train control system on a driverless automatic railway with rising passenger numbers was not lost on him – days of endless software drops, integration tests and weekend closures ultimately leading to the joy of delivering a hugely improved railway to the DLR customers. DLR was a great “railway university”, with innovative technology including swing-nose crossings and different track fastenings to the slab foundations that reduced train noise. All in all, it was a tremendous learning curve that was to prove valuable in future years.
Aside from the technological innovation, DLR was, at that time, building the Beckton extension, on which a significant project over-run had big implications for the company structure. A new leadership team with defence industry experience introduced the innovative procurement strategy of adopting a ‘prime’ contractor, with sub-contractors and suppliers all reporting to that body.
The project became more output-focussed but never lost sight of the operational requirements to maintain a daily train service. For this work, David was awarded the 1995 Project Manager of the Year Award, presented to him by BR Chairman, Sir Bob Reid. It influenced David’s future thinking about, not just technology, but how best to introduce it.
Jubilee line extension
The DLR office at Poplar was close to Canary Wharf, where the Jubilee line Extension team was intent on delivering a moving block signalling system. David’s DLR experience and success was seen as beneficial to deliver the JLE project.
Moving with Nichols to London Underground in 1996, David was given control of the JLE systems as part of the multi-billion pound construction project, key to which was a Westinghouse Moving Block train control system, including full integration with train fitment, signal control, driver and maintainer training, power requirements, telecoms and screen door operation.
It was evident from day one of his employment that considerable unease existed as to the integrity of the system. Given a matter of weeks to assess the situation, he informed the Board that, based on his experience, the risks were considerable and the system was unlikely to be delivered in time for the Millennium.
This led to much discussion and examination of options, with the decision taken in 1997 to implement a fall-back solution using manual driving and lineside signals. To de-risk delivery of this, a test section was set up between West Ham and Stratford. All the different interfaces needed re-engineering, particularly providing drivers with the facilities to stop trains with sufficient accuracy to allow train and platform doors to align and open safely.
As such, the line opened in time for the new century celebrations and remained largely in that condition until 2011. David talks fondly of the great teams at DLR and the JLE he had the fortune of working with over these years.
Thameslink Core and the SRA
During a subsequent spell working for Bechtel, David became project manager for developing the Thameslink central core from London Bridge to beyond St Pancras. To get the throughput of trains, ATO with attendant automatic train protection (ATP) was deemed necessary but no technical standard existed and only proprietary systems were on offer. These were being deployed on metro-type railways, where trains were invariably the same type and length, but such a solution did not fit a main line railway. What to do posed a difficult question.
Following the Ladbroke Grove disaster in 1999, and in the wake of the Uff/Cullen Report, the industry had to come up with a workable strategy to implement a nationwide ATP system. Whilst ERTMS with ETCS was seen as the eventual end game, this was insufficiently developed to implement in a quick timescale. As a result the cheaper, but not so technically advanced TPWS, was seen as the short term fix.
David was involved in many of these discussions and led the team that produced the industry response. He took part in the press conference to announce the recommendations for train protection, and from this he was asked to join the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) as its technical director. Representing the UK at the European Rail Agency (ERA) proved useful in understanding the thought processes of other countries.
When political decisions were taken to abolish the SRA, David moved back to London Underground.
London Underground Jubilee, Northern and Victoria lines
David joined LU as the director of engineering. This was at the time when increasing ridership meant the ‘temporary’ signalling on the Jubilee line could not continue and a new contract was let with Thales to provide its Seltrac TBTC system. This had a difficult birth, with regular weekend line closures and lateness in delivery causing travelling public anger and questions being raised in parliament.
It was a new and challenging contractual framework as LU had been broken up into two Public Private Partnership (PPP) companies – Metronet and Tubelines – with the various lines assigned to one or other of these companies for day-to-day maintenance and project upgrades. LU remained in place as the overall client with an arms length relationship to the PPP companies. Tubelines had inherited the Jubilee line, including delivery of the TBTC system.
Eventually, the PPP formula fell out of favour and LU took over the running of the Thales contract. David brought the system teams from previously separate companies into a single new directorate, whilst continuing to ensure the Jubilee upgrade was progressed. This simplified matters considerably, but proving the technical and operational requirements took time. However, the system was duly commissioned in time for the Olympics.
David recognised that the PPP arrangement had many attributes and, in the subsequent re-integration into LU, he was keen for these to flourish. An example was the Northern line upgrade using an identical system to the Jubilee line. This was so successful that the implementation and changeover happened almost without any disruption. Both lines are equipped with a moving block system that yields the benefit of additional train throughput and demonstrates the huge efficiencies that come from long-term investment and retention of teams’ expertise.
In parallel, the Victoria line was already an ATO railway (the world’s first in 1968) and was in need of a live upgrade. This included a new signalling system, new train, a new control centre plus power, track, telecommunication and platform upgrades. Victoria station (stations were also part of David’s team) was upgraded to deal with greater passenger flows. The signalling was a ‘Siemens Chippenham’ fixed block ‘distance to go’ radio-based system, which now delivers a record-breaking 36 trains per hour.
David recalls many challenges, especially early reliability that demanded huge effort and innovation from the integrated team of engineers, operators and the whole supply chain. He regularly rode with the train operators in the cab, listening to their concerns and promising (and delivering) solutions. Getting close to the operators has been a feature of David’s career from the initial DLR days, which he sees as fundamental to the success of any operational upgrade.
More trains and capacity increases energy expenditure in the tunnels, resulting in rising temperatures. Considerable thought and effort went into a solution that included regenerative braking on the trains, more ventilation shafts and a coasting algorithm in the control system to optimise energy.
With 70 year old signalling, an upgraded system was desperately needed for the Metropolitan, District, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines. These are complicated routes, with lots of inter-running plus sharing of tracks with some main-line train services. An earlier contract with Invensys (now Siemens) had been abandoned so a new specification was produced and put out to tender. David’s intention was “to change LU, not change the product”.
Bombardier won the contract in 2011 based on its CityFlo CBTC system that was successfully deployed in Madrid. Problems began almost from the first day. The diverse locations of Bombardier offices for the development work did not help.
Eventually both parties agreed that cancellation was the only option and the contract was terminated in 2013. For David, it was a salutary lesson: bringing in new systems to UK railways can be very challenging, often involving significant re-work.
Eventually a new contract was let with Thales for the Seltrac product but using radio instead of track loop based transmission, thus being different to the systems in operation on the Jubilee and Northern lines. The sub-surface lines resignalling (now known as the 4LM – 4 Lines Modernisation – project) is well on the way to delivery, but is recognised as probably the most challenging signalling project in the world.
Station and Track Upgrades
As well as Victoria, other underground stations needed upgrading whilst being kept operational. These included Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street LU stations, plus the Bank station upgrade, all using innovative procurement that incentivised value not just cost.
David also led the track programme, replacing huge swathes of bullhead and old ballast with modern track forms. Innovative delivery was encouraged, for example moving away from disruptive weekends to track replacement in smaller sections overnight. There was no right or wrong, but David’s teams gave options to the operators, for example trade-offs between cost and closures.
For his work in leading the delivery of these challenging upgrades in LU, David was awarded the CBE in 2014.
The Digital Railway
Network Rail had embarked upon a digital railway programme in early 2015, with a small team producing a vision to offer digital solutions for everything everywhere. Realising that to proceed on such a wide front was unlikely to succeed, David was recruited in 2016 to bring more realism to this vision. After analysing the progress to date, he changed the focus to prioritise the elements that would yield business benefits for passenger and freight movements whilst supporting the TOCs’ roles of interfacing with the end customer.
As such, the roll out of ETCS, TMS and C-DAS has come to the forefront, all of which are logistic challenges rather than devising technical solutions for products that are largely developed and proven.
Despite initial teething problems, ETCS has been operational on the Cambrian line since 2010. It is, nonetheless, a virtually self-contained railway with captive rolling stock, so the experience gained, whilst beneficial in understanding the technical and operational factors, only touched on some of the logistics of equipping a mixed traffic route.
Past plans to re-equip the Great Western, East Coast and South Western main lines, with predictions of huge capacity benefits, proved way too optimistic but, under David’s guidance, real progress is slowly being made.
The Thameslink central core has been commissioned, including the ATO overlay. The East Coast main line, with its innovative procurement under the route management structure, is in preparation, and other main line schemes are being developed.
Asked whether a total outsourcing of a route to a contractor is feasible, David says that the client must still be the informed customer, whilst the supply chain that delivers the systems must be tooled up to deliver whole life solutions and incentivised on benefits to passengers and freight.
When asked about ERTMS Level 3, which will facilitate moving block and allow the elimination of conventional train detection equipment (track circuits and axle counters), David commented that proving train integrity remains a fundamental problem, for which solutions have eventually to be found. When Level 3 does come, it is likely to be led by industry but backward compatibility must be assured. There are promising signs from trials successfully completed last year on Network Rail’s test track in Hertfordshire.
Traffic Management Systems, originally thought to be a quick win, have proved more difficult to implement, but are making slow progress and accelerating. The Thales systems at Cardiff and Upminster are finally being commissioned. The GWML has the Luminate system, a product from Delta Rail (now Resonate), which has seen a smoother introduction as it is an overlay to the IECC (Integrated Electronic Control Centre) Scalable product designed to interface with other applications within a signalling centre.
The Hitachi system for Thameslink is well advanced and development work for TMS on Trans Pennine, East Coast, West Coast and South East is well underway. Along with these, real progress is also being made in introducing C-DAS (Connected Driver Advisory Systems) and also crew and stock systems, which will deliver real operational benefit. New entrants are also being encouraged to enter the digital railway market and David looks ahead to CP6 as a real sea change in digital technologies for the mainline network.
In all of these, David emphasises the need to avoid a big bang approach and introduce the systems in small stages. There is an existing, albeit small, ‘critical mass’ of digital railway expertise, so growing this capability further is important. When questioned about safety, he reiterates it should be an integral part of the culture of all railway engineers. Safety starts at the design level and should not become an overlay.
Does the Digital Railway group still need to exist as a separate entity? David’s teams support the devolved routes and train operators that will ultimately deliver the digital railway, but a central advisory team has to continue in the immediate future to give the operators a critical mass of expertise. In the longer term, integration into mainstream businesses will happen.
So where does David go from here? At 63, he wants some time out as years of playing rugby have played havoc with his back. He has accepted a small number of non-executive roles outside the rail industry but looks forward to sharing his experience with the next generation of rail engineers, project managers and operators in an industry he obviously loves.