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Digital Railway: delivering differently

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Following the announcement in May by Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling and the chief executive of Network Rail, Mark Carne, that all new trains and signalling will be digital or digital ready from 2019, the Railway Industry Association, Network Rail and the University of Birmingham recently hosted an event to explore what this will mean for the supply chain and to examine the early plans for Digital Railway deployment in CP6. The University of Birmingham also explained how it is supporting innovation in the rail sector.

The event, held over two days, was attended by over 250 representatives from Network Rail, the supply chain, rail operators and other key stakeholders from across the industry. It was advertised as a networking event for potential suppliers and, in that respect, it was a great success. Attendees included the main signalling contractors, together with a good number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and sub-suppliers.

Network Rail explained how it will engage suppliers through a variety of frameworks and emphasised that its approach will be to specify outcomes, rather than having detailed technical specifications. The five-year Control Period (CP6, 1 April 2019 – 31 March 2024) spend on signalling will be £5.5 billion, compared to £3.3 billion in CP5 (1 April 2014 – 31 March 2019), so new ways of working and innovation are required for commercial as well as engineering reasons.

The success of the digital rail programme will be reliant on the collaboration between government, regulators, suppliers, industry associations, professional institutions, infrastructure managers, train operators and academia, including research, which is one reason that the event was held at Birmingham University.


Professor Clive Roberts, director of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) at Birmingham University, opened the event by explaining that the Digital Systems Innovation Centre (DSIC) at the University will bring together existing academic and industry capabilities to innovate in new areas and to support transformational change in rail technology – not only in the UK but across the globe.

The Centre builds on the expertise of the BCRRE and the UK’s industrial base to deliver a step change in rail systems capability. Securing a world-leading position in the sector to deliver jobs, growth and inward investment, both nationally and internationally, it will focus on all aspects of Digital Railway innovation and provide a system-wide approach to development and innovation.

Initial areas of technological focus will include future railway operations and control, data integration and cyber security, smart monitoring and autonomous systems, together with introducing innovation and better system integration testing to speed up approvals.

All of these technical transformations have a part to play in the delivery of a more cost-effective, customer and carbon-friendly railway that safely delivers more capacity. The development of the centre of excellence in these areas will help the rail industry to “get there sooner”, thus improving the industry’s bottom line and reputation as well as supporting the UK’s export agenda in the post-Brexit world.

The Centre will house openly available facilities and have the ability to host bespoke research for specific sponsors that enable the railway and its interactions to be accurately represented. Connected models, simulators, assets and humans will enable system, sub system and component levels to be developed, integrated and optimised for performance, capacity, resilience, sustainability, usability (customer satisfaction) and cost.

This will include optimisation of existing network and asset base management, as well as the technical and business evaluation of introducing technology change, together with the staging plans to enable seamless implementation.

LNW Route

Martin Frobisher (pictured above), Network Rail’s LNW route director, reinforced the message that the technology behind the digital railway is proven, for example as demonstrated by the recent success of the Thameslink ETCS ATO operation. The political support is solid and the ORR CP6 draft determination, released the week before the event, was in general very positive, so the industry has the technology, political support and the money.

He explained that the LNW route is the economic backbone of Britain as it connects six of the top eight cities in the country. Compared to some other routes, the LNW has been one of the last to identify digital signalling opportunities, but plans now include digital signalling both for East-West Rail, ideally without lineside signals to save £30 million, and north of Crewe as part of the interface with HS2. Other schemes to enable new train services are also under development and may lead to further early deployments of digital signalling.

Castlefield Corridor in Manchester is a congested route that also includes freight services, so digital signalling traffic management may provide part of the solution. Traffic management will also be rolled out throughout the rest of this busy route and, as well as performance and capacity, Martin reminded everyone that digital signalling is also about safety.

On many lines in the route, a level crossing may be located in a very long mechanically signalled block, with no way of an operator knowing where a train is in relation to the crossing. This makes if very difficult to advise a user to cross until the train has cleared the long block, so the user may be tempted to use the crossing when it is not safe to do so. Digital technology will positively know where trains are and will safely interface with level crossing operation. Twenty percent of all train industry risk is still associated with signals passed at danger and, while TPWS has made a dramatic improvement, it will require ETCS to deliver the next step in risk reduction.

Rail Sector Deal

BCRRE director Alex Burrows and David Clarke, technical director of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), gave an update on the Rail Sector Deal.

As part of its industrial strategy, the government is working in a number of sectors to reach agreements with business on ‘sector deals’. These deals are intended to be agreements that help each sector meet its key challenges and allow business to invest and grow accordingly. This is an important opportunity for the rail sector to push for the necessary support to drive forward the UK rail supply chain.

The rail industry is complex, with a total workforce of 600,000. But the supply chain alone employs 250,000, which makes it one of the largest sectors – larger than, for example, train operators.

The Rail Supply Group (RSG), in partnership with the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), has been working with the government to develop an industry-leading and transformative Rail Sector Deal proposal that will enable new businesses, collaborating with other complementary industrial sectors, to sell innovative products and services to rail in both the UK and export markets.

By working together with the broader industry, the RSG and RDG are developing a proposal that has the potential to transform the railway and enable the UK’s supply chain to become truly world leading. The aim is to persuade the government to prioritise the sector and help unlock its future potential.

RIA and its members are active in a number of areas to improve efficiency in the industry. This includes the Renewals Cost Challenge and the Electrification Cost Challenge, which aim to show that both government and industry, working together more efficiently, can reduce unit costs. RIA successfully lobbied for an additional £200 million of renewals funds to be released to Network Rail during CP5 to help avoid the traditional ‘boom and bust’ scenario of stop/go funding. This has a negative impact on efficiency and unit cost as it creates uncertainty and does not encourage suppliers to invest and innovate.

Supply chain

Two of Network Rail’s commercial directors, Digital Railway’s Phil Bennett and IP Signalling’s Martin Robinson, explained the procurement approach for CP6. The work bank mix will have a greater emphasis on life extension and refurbishment than in CP5, preparing some routes for the digital signalling rollout in later control periods. However, the Signalling Equivalent Unit (SEU) volume count will still increase to 8,329 from the 6,000 delivered in CP5.

The contracting strategy for CP6 signalling will be based on one procurement system to promote efficiency within both Network Rail and the supply chain. This will be achieved by adopting flexible and easy-to-use frameworks to facilitate the best delivery mechanism for each project/programme, and to develop a wider supplier base, with more competition and lower supplier overheads.

The proposed supplier engagement model will encourage engagement, innovation and early contractor involvement. The model will enable alliances or partnerships, if required, for discrete projects/packages of work. It will also facilitate the transition to the stated future Digital Railway position of Design, Build & Maintain (DBM).

The major framework re-signalling strategy, including relocking and re-control, is proposed to be packaged into two contract areas – North (LNE/EM, LNW, Scotland routes) and South (Anglia, SE, Wessex, Western, Wales). The geographical split would be guided by asset population density and will be a blend of frameworks and competitive tendering (around 30 per cent). The contracts will be known as Tier 1 and will be for four years with options to extend. There will be parallel procurements for OEM professional services and support contracts.

Tier 2 framework contracts will be for targeted interventions, including level crossings renewals and related telecoms. This would combine the existing CP5 ‘Type C’ signalling frameworks with ‘Level Crossing’ and the ‘IP Telecoms’ frameworks into one S&T framework contract. The packaging strategy will be of five areas: Scotland, Western & Wales, LNE/EM, LNW, and SE/Wessex/Anglia. In some routes, delivery for Tier 2 works could be done in house or in conjunction with a contractor.

To support the large increase in refurbishment and minor signalling works proposed in CP6, Tier 3 contracts will be established for framework route-based minor activities with little or no design, and to support ‘in-house’ delivery. Essentially, these are for component renewals with the design requirements limited to route-based low-complexity works, typically up to £500,000 in value. There will generally be two suppliers per route and the strategy will support the government’s SME agenda and help to develop the signalling supply base.

Software as a Service

The current plan for the initial contracts for signalling in CP6 are:

  • ECML – July 2018 onwards, to include ETCS and Traffic Management;
  • Feltham ETCS – Autumn 2018;
  • Crewe ETCS – late 2018/early 2019;
  • Northern, Anglia, Wessex Traffic Management – Autumn 2018.

New innovative contracting strategies will also be established, one example being the Traffic Management Package (TMP) for the East Coast main line (ECML). This will be a 10-year Software as a Service (SaaS) contract, let using the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) Model Services Contract, covering the ECML from King’s Cross to Doncaster South, where it will interface with the transPennine traffic management scheme.

The TMP is expected to interact with both train-side and trackside components, therefore delivery of the TMP will interface with ETCS and rolling stock fitment suppliers. Apart from ensuring system availability, the TMP supplier will also be accountable for system integration, sustainment, optimisation and alteration of the system (to comply with group standard changes), training, performance reporting and obsolescence management.

Traffic management has been chosen to be procured as a service rather than as a capital asset, owned by the infrastructure manager, because there is no safety critical component, and the accounting rules allow for software to be costed as operational, rather than capital, expenditure.

The responsibility for second and third-line maintenance of the system would lie with the TMP supplier, including the training of maintenance staff. Training for operational staff will be the responsibility of either the TMP supplier or Network Rail, depending on the location of the equipment or operations.

Lessons learned

One of the most interesting and important discussions during the day was on lessons learned from the Digital Railway projects already completed, or under way, both in the UK and around the world. A panel with representatives from Network Rail, Ansaldo, Siemens and Alstom gave their thoughts and answered questions on the deployments and in-service experiences of digital rail installations on the Cambrian Coast, Thameslink and Crossrail.

Items that were highlighted included that the interface and interworking between interlockings and the radio block centre (RBC) are not very well defined and that interworking between suppliers can be challenging. Off-site laboratory testing was considered key in proving interoperability. The requirement for space for on-board integration of equipment was another learning point, and that it is important to choose optimal TSI (Technical Specification for Interoperability) radio interface features and not UK-specific ones.

A number of the team commented that early on-site collaboration and involvement with operators and maintainers is key, together with collaboration with the supply chain. Many of the answers to problems are not yet available in a book on the shelf, so projects will need to identify who may have the answer from wherever in the industry. “Use ‘industry’ and not just ‘project’ delivery and involve everyone” was the message.

Infrastructure data must be complete and accurate, and defining the method of operation must be carried out early in a project. The types of trains and their performance, and the impact of ETCS on the system performance, together with a robust and reliable timetable, will also be essential. Extensive soak testing and many miles of shadow operation was another key point. Questions from the floor established the need for a central repository that should be available to anyone. Network Rail representatives confirmed that this is something they are looking into.

Alex Burrows and Clive Roberts explained lessons learned that had been obtained from around the world, which included Singapore, Netherlands, Denmark, Mexico and Australia. These included that the requirements for business change when implementing Digital Railway technology must not be underestimated, together with a requirement for rigorous and realistic testing for integration and throughput. The need for a system approach with off-site laboratory testing was mentioned a number of times.

It was noted that a CBTC system in Singapore had a number of problems and was such a high-profile and important project to the city that someone knew a non-engineering friend who could quote in detail how a CBTC system should work. It was commented that Network Rail must avoid ETCS becoming a social conversation subject for the wrong reasons in a few years time!

Final thoughts on the event

Questions throughout the day were thorough and challenging. Vivarail chairman Adrian Shooter, formerly head of Chiltern Railways and London Overground Rail Operations, made the point that, while there was much talk of system engineering, it was disappointing that there were not many train operators or rolling stock providers present at the event. Network Rail responded that there was very close working with train operators at local route level, and that Network Rail would address the concern in future networking events.

With regards to how suppliers would be engaged by specifying outcomes rather than having detailed technical specifications, delegates asked how a signalling supplier could deliver the required outcomes (such as XX trains per hour capacity) as many of the constraints are system related, not signalling. For example, the type of traction and operation will be a major component of performance, and one which a signalling contractor may not be able to influence. Indeed, a ‘signalling plus ETCS’ operation could deliver worse capacity than at present if it is not designed as a system. It’s also great getting more trains through a network, but narrow platforms with poor entrance and egress facilities at some stations will just move the congestion problem somewhere else.

Platform dwell times are already a constraint in some parts of the network, so how will this be tackled if the Digital Railway does provide more train paths? Some quite simple things might reduce dwell – not requiring the guard to set foot on the platform before enabling the doors (a driver could enable them) and speeding-up door operation on some classes of train spring to mind.

System engineering, collaboration, innovation, efficiency, better use of data and laboratory off-site testing were terms frequently used throughout the event, and it will be interesting to see these concepts integrated into the CP6 delivery of the digital railway.

All in all, it was a good networking event. Rail Engineer looks forward to attending the next one, when there should be more operators and rolling stock representatives present, to continue to report on how delivering differently is making a difference.

Read more: The annual Stapleford trials


Paul Darlington CEng FIET FIRSE
Paul Darlington CEng FIET FIRSEhttp://therailengineer.com

Signalling and telecommunications, cyber security, level crossings

Paul Darlington joined British Rail as a trainee telecoms technician in September 1975. He became an instructor in telecommunications and moved to the telecoms project office in Birmingham, where he was involved in designing customer information systems and radio schemes. By the time of privatisation, he was a project engineer with BR Telecommunications Ltd, responsible for the implementation of telecommunication schemes included Merseyrail IECC resignalling.

With the inception of Railtrack, Paul moved to Manchester as the telecoms engineer for the North West. He was, for a time, the engineering manager responsible for coordinating all the multi-functional engineering disciplines in the North West Zone.

His next role was head of telecommunications for Network Rail in London, where the foundations for Network Rail Telecoms and the IP network now known as FTNx were put in place. He then moved back to Manchester as the signalling route asset manager for LNW North and led the control period 5 signalling renewals planning. He also continued as chair of the safety review panel for the national GSM-R programme.

After a 37-year career in the rail industry, Paul retired in October 2012 and, as well as writing for Rail Engineer, is the managing editor of IRSE News.


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