Editor’s comments – issue 172, March 2019
Andrew Haines knew that Network Rail was letting its passengers and freight users down before he became its new chief executive. After a hundred days in the job, spent speaking to all concerned, he now knows what must be done. This includes the devolution of control to five new regions to make the company more responsive to its customers
This signals much more than an organisational change. Haines believes that decision-making must be closer to the end user and so is devolving many HQ roles to the new regions. These include Infrastructure Projects and elements of the engineering function.
Exactly how engineering will be devolved remains to be seen. One example is the management of standards which, as Network Rail’s own standards challenge process acknowledges, can currently be over-prescriptive.
Now, although standards management might be felt to be a headquarters function, perhaps it would be better to have standards commonly owned rather than centrally controlled. This will require highly competent regional engineers, who will be accountable for the system risk on their routes, having ownership of the standards process as a group and, as they are closer to the issues, it may well result in more appropriate standards.
There are also significant implications for the Group Digital Railway programme, which Haines does not refer to in the transformational terms used by his predecessor. Instead, the new organisation will give regions the authority to decide what is best for their customers.
However the digital railway develops, it owes a debt to David Waboso who, after joining the programme in 2016, prioritised it to deliver business benefits for passenger and freight customers. Before then, it offered digital solutions for everything everywhere. Some may be surprised to learn that David is a civil engineer, as Clive Kessell describes in a feature that marks his wide-ranging career
Minimising delays on a congested network requires the ultra-high reliability that comes from redundancy to avoid single point failures, such as those that can occur in the control, actuation, detection and locking of points. To address this problem, a new point system offering redundancy is now in trial operation. As Malcolm Dobell describes, the novel Repoint mechanism does this by having a drive mechanism that is not secured to the rails, which enables them to move with only one actuator operational.
This month, we have two general signalling features which should be of interest to non-signalling engineers. David Bickell explains how Network Rail’s 40,000 signals are part of a signalling system that has been developed to control train movements in the most efficient manner whilst optimising capacity. In another feature, which should be good reading for permanent way engineers, Paul Darlington explains train detection technology.
On Thameslink, signalling is now in the train cab. This required a significant GSM-R network upgrade to ensure resilience, provide sufficient data capacity for ETCS operation and eliminate interference in the congested London core. GSM-R interference is also an increasing problem elsewhere, as public operators are allocating frequencies close to the GSM-R bandwidth. The solution is a £55 million programme to replace 9,000 cab radios with ones that have improved filters.
Yet, in the not too-distant future, these radios will be obsolete. GSM-R will then be replaced by the Future Railways Mobile Communication System. In an in-depth feature, we consider the telecommunications technologies that might replace GSM-R. These will need to provide reliable, efficient and high-capacity connectivity for both passengers and operational services, as well as allowing for bandwidth expansion for new applications that are unknown today.
HS2 will also have trains with yet-to-be developed technologies. The company’s £2.75 billion procurement of its trains will see bidders submitting their tenders in April. This process allows for collaborative design after next year’s contract award to ensure trains are state-of-the-art when they enter service in 2026. HS2 will then provide a huge increase in capacity from London to the North and, from 2033, free up space on the West Coast, Midland and East Coast main lines, a fact which recent television documentaries have ignored.
HS2’s trains must of course be electric. No other form of traction can power high-speed trains or, indeed, those that require high acceleration to provide an acceptable service. In its report to government, the industry’s decarbonisation taskforce recognises that it is also “the most carbon efficient power source”.
Unfortunately, the UK Government has fallen out of favour with electrification due to high cost overruns of the Great Western and other electrification schemes. In its recently-released Electrification Cost Challenge report, the Railway Industry Association explains why these schemes were so costly and demonstrates how electrification can be delivered at an affordable cost, with reference to schemes in Scotland and in Europe. It remains to be seen whether the conclusions of RIA’s excellent report will be accepted so that, in future, passengers on busy non-electrified lines can experience the benefits provided by the electric trains that operate 72 per cent of the UK’s train services.
As many of our features show this month, UK rail has an encouraging future, but only if it can deliver for its customers at an affordable cost.