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New rail technical strategy

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The Department for Transport (DfT) is about to launch a new Technical Strategy for Rail in the UK. What is this all about and why is it necessary?

The Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE) recently hosted a Railway Engineers Forum (REF) meeting at which Clive Burrows from First Group and James Hardy from the Railway Safety and Standards Board gave a preview on the new strategy and how it will differ from previous attempts to influence the longer term future.

The first strategy for rail in recent times was published in 2007 with a focus on delivering a sustainable railway, whatever that was meant to mean. It tried to concentrate on a whole system approach with work needing to be done to enhance capacity, maintain safety levels, reduce carbon emissions and obtain a better customer experience, but above all to reduce cost.

This led in turn to the high level output statements HLOS 1 and HLOS 2 including some major projects to be undertaken and a review of the passenger railway franchising system. The vision centred around improved performance but without any real link to the technical and engineering elements that would be needed to make it happen.

Thus the Technical Strategy Leadership Group (TSLG) was formed to investigate the problems of the:

• Asset Base

• Standards

• Timetable

• People and Resources

• Supply Chain.

A re-engineering of the railway over a 20- 30 year period was envisaged, concentrating initially on achieving a low carbon railway by means of energy reduction, regenerative braking and intelligent system management. Another challenge was to move the technical direction away from being a Government document and something that was seen to be owned by the industry – hence the TSLG.

A Changing Rail Prospectus

Since 2007, the perception of rail has undergone a transformation. Many changes are now happening, but one of the biggest has been the acceptance of a major electrification programme, something that had been advocated for years but without any real hope that it would happen. Other initiatives have been:

• 2010 – The Route Mapping exercise undertaken by 150 industry professionals under the direction of Cambridge University;

• 2010 – A major consultation on the contents of any future Rail Technical Strategy;

• 2011 – The Barriers to Innovation report; • 2012 – The concept of a Transport Systems Catapult, funded in part by the HLOS 2 Innovation Fund and covering all modes of transport – road, rail, marine and air.

From these come the ‘4 Cs’ challenge: i) Cost to be halved, ii) Capacity to be doubled on key routes, iii) Carbon emissions to halve, iv) Customer satisfaction to be increased from 90 to 99%. These are brave objectives and the road ahead is likely to encounter many setbacks and conflicts. However the Technical Strategy will set out how these goals will be achieved over a 40 year period. First step is to produce a framework on how it can happen. This will be done in a logical progression:

• Concepts – how to corral the various elements and bring them together;

• Themes – evolve logical themes from the concepts into technical areas;

• Route Maps – develop so-called route maps from the themes and produce project plans within these;

• Encouragement of Innovation – bringing together of ideas from universities, European Research and Standards Group, Railway Industry Association, Transport Knowledge Transfer Network, Research Council, Royal Academy of Engineering.

Technology – analysis and impact

One early aspiration will be the formulation of a vision for a sustainable railway. Recent analysis has shown that the network infrastructure still includes a plethora of signalling systems, telecom networks and equipment, as well as diverse types of rolling stock, none of which have been designed with sustainability in mind. So what is required? • Radio based signalling with trains knowing where they are; • Lightweight trains to reduce energy requirements; • Intelligent control to optimise train paths and minimise acceleration and braking; • Whole journey information for both controllers and passengers; • Precision of operation to avoid conflicts and quickly recover from perturbations.

One example of less-than-optimised opportunities from the past is regenerative braking. This was available as early as the 1950s on the Manchester – Sheffield DC overhead electrified line. Not much more was done until the Class 323s on the Birmingham cross city electrification of the 1990s. By 2005, 60% of trains had a regenerative capability, but only 12% were using it with none on the third-rail DC lines. This raises the question of why did it take so long to get this significant energy saving measure in place?

To try and ensure similar opportunities are not missed again, a new industry structure will emerge to examine the availability of technology, align this with need, and work out the costs and benefits for application in the different parts of the system. This will be led by the Rail Delivery Group (already in existence on an ad-hoc basis but about to have a more formalised structure) that will give guidance to the TSLG in the formulation of detailed technical strategy and the direction of a National Task Force and a Planning Operations Group. Funding for Innovation will be from a variety of sources including Government for the Transport Systems Catapult, and from some European Bodies, which together with others will amount to £70 million for rail.

The strategy in context

The Technical Strategy will concentrate on six main areas. These are: • Control, Command and Communications • Energy • Infrastructure • Rolling Stock • Information • Customer Experience.

For each of these, a vision for 2040 will emerge that produces a seven-day railway through optimised capacity, intelligent traffic management, low carbon emissions, cost effective standardised designs including remote condition monitoring, transport integration at stations, integrated ticketing, freight route availability, and encouragement of innovative ideas in all areas.

Taking each of these in turn, the likely deliverables will be: • Control, Command and Communication: ERTMS including in-cab signalling and possible adoption of Level 3, increased automation, operational optimisation, high speed, driver advisory systems, automatic train operation;

• Infrastructure: simple, reliable and cost effective, sustainable and resilient, condition monitoring;

• Rolling Stock: low mass, optimised interfaces, alternative traction power sources, operationally better freight trains; • Energy: low carbon, reduced reliance on fossil fuel, electrification, smart grid technology; • Customer Experience: seamless journeys, accurate information, a competitive advantage for freight, end-to-end journey capability;

• Information: customer services, reduced costs, common architecture, commercial partnerships, recognition that this is a valued rail asset. Whilst these are mere headings, the way in which each will be achieved will need to be considered in detail but three main methods will be employed:

• Innovation – contribution to business success, cross industry technology and systems, removal of barriers, commercial models, support for innovators, identification of technical areas;

• Whole System Approach – industry wide framework, co-ordinated planning, whole system modelling;

• People – emphasis on leadership, reliable supply chain, design technology, skills forecasting, partnerships, competence. Good progress is already being made in many of these activities by the National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering (NSARE).

Vision and reality

The presentation was quite lengthy, and many of the items within the strategy were entirely predictable. No-one is pretending that all of this will come about quickly. Strategy documents, by their very nature, lack detail. Just how this vision for rail will be achieved is not yet defined. Conflicts can be predicted, an example being the traditional presumption that innovation is the enemy of standards and vice versa. The faith in ERTMS may fail to appreciate the shortcomings with the present state of development and particularly the lack of data capacity within GSM-R.

Much emphasis is being placed on innovation but there will need to be a process to distinguish between those ideas which can genuinely improve the railway and those that are the brainchild of ‘blue sky’ inventors and would never stand up to professional scrutiny. In the past, this role has been done by a centralised research body, but it is not clear if such an organisation will be created to fulfil this task.

Little was said about safety, other than to infer that current safety standards must be maintained. However, the process of safety approval is tortuous and may well be a barrier to progress when trying to implement new systems and introduce new equipment. Maybe this problem will have to be tackled at a European level as much of the bureaucracy stems from legislation devised by the EU. The safety industry has grown to significant proportions over the past twenty years and it is all too easy for this to become self-sustaining by persons within it prolonging the approval process through pedantic detail.

Whilst customer focus is admirable, there was no mention of how this might impact on fares, presumably because this is outside the technical remit. With everything else looking rosy for the rail industry, is it too much to hope that a general reduction in the standard fare structure might be achieved?

The REF presentation was a preview of what will finally be published on 13 December. Getting a glimpse of the content was much appreciated and thanks were duly made to the two presenters.

The RSSB will be holding a workshop on the Technical Strategy on 14 December, the day after launch, and further information can be accessed on the dedicated website.

Clive Kessell
Clive Kessellhttp://therailengineer.com
SPECIALIST AREAS Signalling and telecommunications, traffic management, digital railway Clive Kessell joined British Rail as an Engineering Student in 1961 and graduated via a thin sandwich course in Electrical Engineering from City University, London. He has been involved in railway telecommunications and signalling for his whole working life. He made telecommunications his primary expertise and became responsible for the roll out of Cab Secure Radio and the National Radio Network during the 1970s. He became Telecommunications Engineer for the Southern Region in 1979 and for all of BR in 1984. Appointed Director, Engineering of BR Telecommunications in 1990, Clive moved to Racal in 1995 with privatisation and became Director, Engineering Services for Racal Fieldforce in 1999. He left mainstream employment in 2001 but still offers consultancy services to the rail industry through Centuria Comrail Ltd. Clive has also been heavily involved with various railway industry bodies. He was President of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE) in 1999/2000 and Chairman of the Railway Engineers Forum (REF) from 2003 to 2007. He continues as a member of the IRSE International Technical Committee and is also a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. A chartered engineer, Clive has presented many technical papers over the past 30 years and his wide experience has allowed him to write on a wide range of topics for Rail Engineer since 2007.


  1. One example of less-than-optimised opportunities from the past is regenerative braking. Another was the London Underground Metadyne system on the 1938 Surface Stock.


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