The Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE) appoints its new president at its annual general meeting every year. The 95th incumbent, Transport for London director of engineering George Clark, took up his post on 26 April 2019, joining an honourable list that includes Rail Engineer writer Clive Kessell (1999).
Immediately after appointment, George’s first official engagement was to deliver his presidential address to the members of an institution that “continues to play a significant role in a modern railway industry that is facing huge challenges and exciting opportunities.”
Looking forward to his year as president, George Clark considered the challenges faced by the industry.
“This is a year when change features large on the agenda of so many countries and major cities,” he said. “In the UK, whilst we debate the form of our future relationship with Europe, we have a transition from one national rail five-year plan to the next, with over £50 billion to be invested in maintaining and upgrading our main line railway.
“Network Rail also embarks on a period of radical organisational change to ‘put passengers and freight users first’ and to address concerns about poor operating performance.
“Closer to home for me personally, in today’s economic climate, Transport for London faces unprecedented pressures to modernise and deliver ambitious transport strategies cost efficiently.
“This is a global trend. In Sydney, we see the arrival of the metro as this form of railway expands further around the globe. It has been over 20 years since my mentor and guide Eddie Goddard (chief engineer London Underground 1993-2009 and IRSE president 2010) led the institution into the world of the metro and focussed on the challenges of providing an integrated high-capacity railway system.
“I recall he often said the ‘S’ in IRSE should be for ‘System’ – these challenges are still just as evident on railway delivery today as, all too often, railway systems (be they for railway, train or station control) and their complex interfaces are overlooked until too late in major infrastructure projects.
“This can often feel like they are a cause of failure, when, in fact, these systems are at the very heart of the railway and must be given adequate focus throughout the whole lifecycle, to bring it to life and deliver the major social and economic changes that transportation enables.”
As the theme for his presidential year, George has taken ‘Delivering Change’, with particular emphasis on how the institution, with its thousands of dedicated professional members, can rise to meet the challenges and enable the opportunities ahead.
“As engineers, we are catalysts and agents for the delivery of change,” he continued, “and our skills have never been in more demand than they are today. We deliver new tools, techniques and technology systems to colleagues (fellow engineers in other disciplines, signallers and operators). We lead in so many areas: data analytics, human factors and design, safety assurance and integration/commissioning.”
Engineers introduce new technology, which is a key enabler to delivering change and always comes with its own inherent challenges and risks. But George Clark is concerned that the wider people, process and interface changes are often even more significant and the root cause of delays and cost. He believes that, not only must engineers deliver the required functional performance enhancements for system capacity and asset availability, they must also significantly reduce whole-life-cycle costs through radical changes to maintenance and operation.
While not unique to railways, one challenge is that many railway upgrades start from a base state that most other industries would class as ‘industrial archaeology’, with complex legacy interfaces that are rarely adequately understood. Many industries face huge technical complexity and challenges, but few, if any, must contend with the full range of challenges faced by railway system engineers.
The once-clear lines between main-line and metro control systems are becoming increasingly blurred. Whilst there are common requirements to increase capacity on constrained infrastructure, a main-line system would traditionally have one set of characteristics, with fixed block multiple-aspect colour light signals, and the metro would have another with continuous ATP/ATO (automatic train protection/automatic train operation).
“Today,” George Clark continued, “we increasingly see mass-transit rail, such as Thameslink or areas around Waterloo, but with main-line technology. Crossrail is fundamentally a mass-transit railway in the centre but operates on legacy main-line systems on the outer areas. ERTMS and CBTC (European Rail Traffic Management System and Computer-Based Train Control) use common components and, whilst both in high levels of performance are very similar, they have different requirements. For example, interoperability for ERTMS or optimisation of capacity for CBTC.
“From a supplier perspective, each CBTC supplier is seeking to optimise with their own commercial edge and adapt to the specific application, whilst ERTMS drives a standardised approach.
“Communications technology is fundamental to train control systems and evolves rapidly. Railways are not the first to implement this and should be able to learn the lessons from others who have gone before us, but equally rarely seem to.
“We need to break the pattern of current technology solutions by pushing at the door of concepts such as common shared networks and industrial clouds, with primary aims being quality of service, affordability and ’cultural’ change to maintain pace with our travelling customer’s growing demands.”
The need for a business case
Despite the powerful cost pressures on railways today, and the disruptive potential of autonomous vehicles, data analytics and artificial intelligence to challenge fundamentals of the railway’s position in an integrated transport system, there is little evidence that the cost and time to deliver railway control systems, and the transformational changes they enable, is responding as quickly as is needed.
At this stage, George referenced a Rail Engineer article – ‘Affordable Trains, Expensive Infrastructure’, David Shirres’ editorial in issue 168 (October 2018) – which described how over 7,000 new rail passenger vehicles are to enter service between 2014 and 2021, representing more than half the UK fleet. These orders are due to a combination of factors including cheap finance, lower manufacturing costs, franchise quality requirements and new trains having lower operating and maintenance costs.
However, while the price of new trains hasn’t changed significantly (at today’s prices) over the last few years, signalling costs have continued to rise, with a ‘signalling equivalent unit’ having more than doubled over 10 years.
So, although the barriers to entry and change for rolling stock and the ‘walls’ of safety standards are high, they perhaps seem relatively manageable when compared to the challenges railway control systems and their intricate interfaces present to operating railways and organisations.
George Clark believes that professional engineering and innovation has an opportunity to deliver the improvements to create a more compelling business case for change, by challenging standards in organisations and exploiting newer technologies before implementation is overtaken by obsolescence.
“This is not only a challenge for client organisations,” he stated. “Many of our suppliers are global businesses, working across industries, innovating and racing to market with the very same technologies that might disrupt rail’s traditional dominant position.”
Engineering the future
The signal engineering fraternity is beset by the same, or an even worse, skills gap as the rest of the industry. It has therefore been the goal of successive IRSE presidents to address this.
“In the UK, engineering graduates make up only around 0.1 per cent of the population and women only make up 22 per cent of engineering graduates,” George stated. “We cannot expect a diverse workforce solving our future challenges unless we can attract a diverse range of children from all corners of the talent pool into subjects that will inspire and equip them to go on to be the engineers we need to tackle future challenges.
“A great example here in the UK is the Transport Infrastructure Skills Strategy. The ‘Two Years On’ report (Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce, 2018) shows we need 50,000 people in rail by 2033. In the UK, we have seen rising numbers of apprenticeships from transport employers, in contrast to the wider national trend in apprenticeship numbers this year, a trend we need to ensure is generally continued – and specifically for railway control.
“But just attracting the people will not be enough and we also need to change the way we are working. We must expect that the way that engineers need to organise to deliver, and hence the skills they need to be equipped with, are also changing.
“When I started my apprenticeship in 1976, the idea that railways could ever be challenged by other modes on cost, capacity or environmental impact seemed hard to imagine. However, today, it feels not only possible, but increasingly likely.
“If we stand behind the traditional walls of safety standards and do not harvest the opportunities that these winds of change present, there is a risk that railways could be rendered obsolete as technological and social transformation goes on without us.
“So, our role as engineers is to deliver change as never before.”