HomeDigital RailwayDiscussion on "Making a Success of the Digital Railway"

Discussion on “Making a Success of the Digital Railway”

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The recent White Paper “Making a Success of the Digital Railway”, published by the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE) and the subject of an article by Steve Denniss elsewhere in this issue, was also the subject of a very constructive public debate held in London recently.

The panel consisted of Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne, managing director of Digital Railway David Waboso, Rail Delivery Group (RDG) director of planning, engineering and operations Gary Cooper, and Anna Ince, chief executive of Resonate. The event included 100 guests and experts in railway signalling control and operations.

Francis How (below), chief executive IRSE, chaired the evening and opened the discussion by providing a brief background to the paper. Towards the end of 2016, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers were requested to support and communicate the importance of the Digital Rail programme. In response, the IRSE ran a series of workshops, with the support of WSP, and the final output is the IRSE White Paper “Making a Success of the Digital Railway”.

Public benefit

Most of the issues with the implementation of the Digital Railway programme are not technical, but more to do with the non-technological ‘treacle’ through which the industry has to wade, and which causes difficulties in making progress. The paper has attempted to be fair to all the parties involved, but has also been brave and blunt in places. Where things have not gone well, it tells it as it is, and does not pull its punches or put a spin on the issue.

Francis gave a warning that railways must not get complacent and assume that the growth experienced since privatistion will continue. There are some indicators starting to appear that the future may be more challenging. Working patterns are starting to change and driverless cars are here. Strange as it may seem, he likes and welcomes the wake-up call, commenting that something is needed to force railways management to change, rather than carry on as it has always done.

Some of the messages in the paper are complemented by other work, such as the influential House of Commons Transport Select Committee, which has stated that digital technology could deliver “significant benefits” for the railway.

The programme to provide in-cab signalling for the main railway network was instigated in 2001, with digital technology first used for signalling decades earlier. In the subsequent 16 years, there is little to show in the UK, compared to other industries and countries that have made major transformational changes during this time.

Francis and the IRSE, however, remain positive about the opportunities Digital Railway will provide and were heartened to hear that a contract had recently been placed by Network Rail for the fitment of ETCS (European Train Control System) to nearly 750 freight locomotives. The timescales may be long, but this is a major step forward as it confirms a commitment to fit ETCS on a national scale.

Francis How.

More but less

Mark Carne said that he very much appreciated the white paper and that it was the best thing that had been written about the Digital Railway programme for some time. Britain’s railways have had spectacular growth over the last twenty years but are now severely congested, with 45 per cent of Europe’s most congested rail routes being in Britain. In the past, the answer has been to build more infrastructure, but that is not sustainable and the solution must be to use the infrastructure more efficiently. The digital railway programme is clearly a key solution to the problem of running more trains, more reliably and at less cost than traditional signalling.

He went on to say that it’s not just about capacity. Within the next 15 years, 63 per cent of Britain’s signalling assets will require replacement. A huge proportion of signalling has come to the end of its life. This is the time for the industry to seize the opportunity to change for something better.

Mark confirmed that the political will to support the Digital Railway programme is higher than it is has ever been. “We have a chancellor who recently put £450 million on the table, and the chief secretary of state for the treasury, together with politicians at all levels, want to get behind this programme.”

But there are some impediments to the programme, which the paper has highlighted. There may well be a transformation in transport over the next 20 years, with the introduction of autonomous cars which could be more flexible and efficient than rail in its current form. The railways must recognise this threat.

One of the items in the paper with which Mark totally agrees, and that he can’t emphasise enough, is the need for the industry to come together as a whole, with an aligned sense of purpose to support the Digital Railway programme. “We have to work together as a group of engineers and to speak with passion about this transformation,” he stated. “We have to work with our colleagues at the Department for Transport to make the franchise system provide the right incentives for everyone to get behind the programme”.

Unlike when the industry successfully delivered the Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS), there is no mandated deadline, so the industry itself needs to create the same imperative for change.

Disrupters to rail

Anna Ince of Resonate commended the IRSE for the quality of the report and for nailing some of the issues the industry must address. She too agrees with the final paragraph; that the industry needs to come together to make things happen far better and more quickly. However, she warned that rail is ignoring the fact that technology is strengthening the competitive edge of other transport modes, and doesn’t focus enough on customers as other sectors do.

“We don’t always put customers first in our decisions and, to succeed, customers have to be looked after far better than they currently are,” she said.

Even if the threat from other transport modes is ignored, there are signs that the demand for rail may be turning. Department for Transport figures show a 9.6 per cent drop in season ticket sales between July and September last year, and ORR figures for the period show the lowest demand for rail journeys since 2011, with 15 million fewer journeys.

Anna compared the situation to what happened with Royal Mail. It faced disrupters which cherry-picked its most lucrative customers and not the expensive national door-to-door service. Transport disrupters may do a similar thing. They won’t do the difficult and expensive things that rail currently does, but will go for the cream.

She added that railways need to use technology to run trains closer together and more efficiently through the network, with better availability and at less cost. “We have to find a way of adopting technology from other industries more easily with more collaborative working and contractual relationships that work for everyone.”

But, if rail grasps the opportunities of digital rail, the prize is huge. It’s not too late and rail is not too far behind the rest of the world. Other railways face similar challenges, with increased urbanisation and the same capacity and performance issues. The UK has a complex, highly utilised railway. So, if rail can solve the problems of productivity and performance using UK expertise, it will have globally attractive systems, techniques, business processes and engineering skills to export worldwide.

Quality thinking

Gary Cooper of the Rail Delivery Group welcomed the partnership aspects of the paper and commented on the quality of the thinking that had clearly gone into it. His view was that the paper’s recommendations would, quite simply, result in a better railway for customers, railway staff and the taxpayer.

It will provide a step change in efficiency, capacity and provide a better railway for the UK. The supply chain will have confidence and a programme of work so that it can invest in people and systems to build the capability to deliver digital systems both in the UK and worldwide.

However, there has been too much focus on the technology rather than focusing on removing the blockers and providing what customers require. The market-led but collaborative approach recommended by the paper is exactly what is required to stimulate the supply chain.

Progress to date

David Waboso’s first message was that this year should see Thameslink and Crossrail in-cab signalling, along with traffic management schemes, take the Digital Railway programme a major step forward, so it is vital that everyone gets behind these schemes as they have to be successful. If they do not deliver it will be very difficult to gain further support for the programme.

His second point was that Network Rail has re-engaged with the supply chain and that this will be transformational, opening the door for a totally different and improved relationship to get things moving in a collaborative, cooperative way. Thirdly, he said that there was huge support for the programme from government and external parties, and that the industry just needs to get on with it and deliver.

David went on to say that, while things have moved on, the basics are the same and it’s not cutting-edge technology that Digital Railway is trying to do for the first time. “This is largely 40-year-old technology we are talking about; the Victoria line automatic train operation system was in use by 1967. Why on earth are we still installing traffic lights to control main line trains?”

He considered that there was scope for more efficient ways of working, with currently too much ‘man marking’, duplication and risk contingency. When analysing the cost of schemes, the suppliers’ cost base and ‘kit cost’ is only part of the issue, and a huge portion of time and effort is spent on ‘development’ and process within the industry. Quite simply, the railway doesn’t work efficiently enough as a team. Projects have several programme offices, huge risk budgets, separate assurance teams, and too much rework. Other industry sectors have learned that they work best when they operate as one team, with the best man for the job left to get on with things.

David Waboso
David Waboso

The emerging plan

Not all of the Digital Railway plan is funded, but a significant proportion is. Control Period 6 is likely to feature the provision of large Traffic Management (TM) and Connected Driver Advisory Systems (C-DAS). Having stored data and a timetable pre-loaded at the start of each journey, the systems will connect in real time to the railway and provide information based on what is actually happening. They will calculate the ideal speed of the train to help ensure it travels smoothly through the network and arrives on time, together with helping to reduce the impact on the environment by lowering energy consumption.

This will encompass the majority of England and Wales and will provide a ‘quick win’ as 70 per cent of delays are reactionary delays. When there is a train or track circuit failure, for example, it is the ripple effect through the system that is the main cause of delay, because the railway is very congested. An embarrassingly small amount of trains work to timetable; no other industry would tolerate such poor performance. However, TM, and C-DAS can transform this situation and, as they are the relatively less intrusive parts of the Digital Railway programme, and the payback on the investment is shorter, the industry needs to get on with it.

CP6 will also see a significant amount of ETCS deployment, which works best when train fitment and signalling renewal is synchronised. The business case for throwing away a signalling system that is not life expired just doesn’t work, and retrofitting trains has to be avoided wherever possible.

So, the current programme is:

  • East Coast, as it has a lot of digital-ready trains and is due for resignalling;
  • Crewe resignalling, with its interface to HS2 and ATO trains;
  • Transpennine, with its twisting railway causing signal sighting problems, so ETCS makes sense;
  • Wessex, which has a big resignalling programme and new trains planned.

It is wrong to put a blanket number on the capacity improvement Digital Railway can deliver, as has been done by some commentators in the past, because each line has a different mix of trains, different characteristics, a different number of stations, different line-speed profiles and different terminal stations. But David believes that, by the end of CP6, a significant amount of passenger journeys (in the order of 70-75 per cent) could be operated by ETCS.

Network Rail has worked closely with DfT, so railway franchises will now include requirements for driver training, and ETCS cab fitment, together with C-DAS and TM. Within Network Rail, no signalling scheme will be permitted to go ahead unless it fits within the Digital Railway programme and makes sense.

Telecommunications will be the glue that binds the Digital Railway together and is so hugely important. Investment in telecoms will be required to ensure capacity is available, as every GSM-R failure for ETCS will be like a track circuit failure, so high availability is essential.

Supply chain

Network Rail is planning to spend £5 billion in CP6 on signalling, and David was very keen to make the point that a very different way of working with suppliers is required. The traditional procurement process can stifle the innovation and collaboration required to make the necessary transformational changes required, so a more dynamic partnership approach is required.

There needs to be a supplier’s ‘whole of life’ relationship for Digital Railway. Railway infrastructure is the only industry where someone builds something and then walks away, that’s got to change. Train operators and other industries have shown they can do this in the way they buy equipment, with a design, build and maintain relationship, and the Digital Railway programme must do the same. Suppliers will have to take far greater responsibility and risk in what they provide. If it breaks, they have to step in and fix things – if it doesn’t break, they get rewarded.

In many cases, it’s the civil engineering, with massive foundations and deep piling for LED signals (which last 60 years so why do we provide ladders?), that drives up the cost for signalling schemes. So, things have to be done differently, with more automation of design and installation as well as more offsite testing. This will dramatically reduce the need for access to the already congested 24/7 railway and drive down costs.

As examples, David asked whether axle counters could be installed by robotics, to make installation quicker and cheaper. And why are there manual processes for design, that introduce errors that require rework?

Automated design and self-assurance and offsite testing will drastically reduce the amount of rework and cost, as well as the need to shut the railway for resignalling schemes as often as at present. Customers expect continuity of service for everything else they buy, and railways need to adopt the attitudes, processes and methods used in other industries.

Support from DfT

Jessica Matthew, deputy director rail digital services from Department for Transport, confirmed that all ministerial heads are in support of the Digital Railway programme, that a route-based approach based on resignalling need and train fitment is the government’s way forward, and that the first schemes named in the industrial strategy must deliver. The industry must do all it can to support these schemes.

The range of questions and discussions during the evening clearly demonstrated that the event and the white paper had inspired and enthused the attendees. Yes, there are many challenges ahead but, if the railway acts as one and gets on with the Digital Railway programme as recommended by the IRSE, the benefits are many.

Read more: Explosive clad welding – coming to rail now


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.


  1. Interesting article but why no mention of Western route? There is currently a project in GRIP 5-8 delivering ETCS out of Paddington.


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