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The Digital Railway – A supplier’s view

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The Digital Railway project continues to generate interest from many quarters. The latest position from Network Rail was explained in issue 147 (January 2017) following an interview with David Waboso, the project’s managing director.

Just how does this fit in with the suppliers’ perception of what needs to happen and, more importantly, what can the supply industry do to ensure that the project delivers its objectives? To answer that question, Rail Engineer met with Christian Fry, director of strategy and market development at Alstom, to discuss his perception on how progress should be made.

Alstom is an international company with a strong British heritage, having acquired the GEC signalling interests many years ago. Alstom is, of course a major rolling stock, signalling, infrastructure and services provider and recently acquired both General Electric’s signalling division and Nomad Digital to further develop its digital capabilities and on board Wi-Fi service provision.

In 2016, as part of its ongoing commitment to the UK rail market, Alstom acquired 100 per cent ownership of Signalling Solutions Ltd, previously a 50:50 joint venture company set up with Balfour Beatty. The track and train capability is therefore complete and it is with this expertise that Alstom is keen to be a major player in delivering the Digital Railway vision.

The Digital Railway

There has been some confusion as to what the Digital Railway actually is. In the context of UK rail, the Digital Railway is a collection of digitally enabled signalling interventions that include: TMS (Traffic Management Systems), ERTMS/ETCS, C-DAS (Connected Drivers Advisory System) and ATO (Automatic Train Operation). This tool kit, when implemented appropriately, has the potential to increase capacity and transform the operational performance of the rail network.

In a show of commitment to the Digital Railway (DR) concept, the UK Government announced in the Autumn 2015 statement an additional £450 million of funding for early DR projects. In parallel, Network Rail’s Digital Railway team is developing a number of route-wide business cases where DR interventions will deliver significant capacity and performance benefits. The supply industry is understandably keen to get on with making the much-heralded Digital Railway a reality.

Jonathan Willcock, Alstom UK & Ireland’s managing director of systems, signalling and infrastructure, commented: “If Network Rail, suppliers and operators can all agree, then a lot of complexity in Digital Railway starts to fall away. I’m glad to say that Network Rail, and David Waboso in particular, are very much on the same page as us on that.”

If only it were that simple! The reality is that, with so many parties involved in the roll out, getting mutual agreement on the way forward is always going to involve protracted discussions. At a first count, the ORR, RSSB, Network Rail (Digital Railway, Infrastructure Projects and Routes), the TOCs and FOCs, the ROSCOs, the train builders and maintainers, the ETCS supply industry (both infrastructure and rolling stock), the safety certification organisations and even the European Directive authority, all have to be consulted and given due consideration.

Deep down, the suppliers know this, but they do have a pragmatic way forward which needs to be given serious consideration. The supply industry has more expertise and experience in rolling out ERTMS than any other UK body simply because these are global organisations which have delivered successful projects in many countries across the world. Thus, many of the problems and challenges of undertaking the design, manufacture, installation and commissioning are known in advance and can be tackled as a scheme progresses.

The Alstom view would suggest that a route such as Great Eastern (London to Norwich, in essence) is a significant piece of railway where a route-wide Digital Railway strategy could realise economies of scale. In a move away from traditional detailed design specifications, Alstom would like to work with its customers (Network Rail and the relevant TOCs / FOCs) to develop an outcome-based performance specification for how they want the train service to operate. The design and implementation of the system would then be entrusted to a single contractor that would be given the freedom to leverage the return on its global experience and take on the risk for successful performance outcomes as part of its responsibility.

Of course, the design of the system would have to conform to the latest European standards and the UK ERTMS reference design, thus ensuring both interoperability and UK operational requirements are satisfied.

Recognised challenges

There would be challenges to be overcome in this approach. Placing the supply chain much closer to the customer (Network Rail routes and train operating companies) will require a new behavioural approach; the relationship with the supply chain must transform from today’s transactional nature to one of long-term strategic partnership. As the industry embraces the digital age and moves from an environment where technology is stable and well understood to one where technology continuously evolves and design, delivery and long term sustainment responsibilities are transferred to the supply chain where reward is measured against operational performance outcomes.

The industry must move from a lowest cost approach with suppliers in a ‘bottom line price’ competition to a whole-life engineering services orientation focussed on value creation, encouraging ongoing investment in innovation and continuous improvement throughout the life of Digital Railway assets.

Operating Rules is another potential problem area, where demands for changes to the performance specification to meet UK operating conditions might well arise. This has happened in other countries and, whilst some ‘tinkering’ might be accommodated, most demands must be resisted otherwise bespoke preferential engineering results and the benefits of having a standardised system are lost.

ETCS, by definition, crosses the wheel/rail divide and, whilst a contract for a route might include both infrastructure and train borne requirements, it is a certainty that rolling stock from other parts of the country will operate over the line on a regular basis. The supply industry is well acquainted with the air gap interoperability requirements and the contractor’s responsibility must extend to ensuring other makes of train- borne equipment will function reliably as part of the package.

The challenge in such a complex ‘system of systems’, and with Britain’s fragmented industry structure, will be to define a set of performance outcomes within the control of the Digital Railway supplier against which they would take on and manage performance risk. Alstom knows this is a complex but not insurmountable challenge.

Managing a Digital Railway contract

If such an approach is to succeed, it will need new collaborative contractual mechanisms. Alliances across Network Rail, train operating companies and Digital Railway suppliers will need to be formed. Combining the core competencies of the train operators and infrastructure providers with the technology capabilities of the supply industry, to deliver the right interventions to eliminate current rail network constraints, will be the key to success.

Alstom is keen to emphasise that the Digital Railway is not a ‘silver bullet’ that can solve all the challenges facing Britain’s railways. As Christian points out, “a flat junction is a flat junction and no amount of digital technology can change the laws of physics”. Alstom believes a balanced approach is required that considers the constraints on the network and the options available. This will include the Digital Railway tool kit alongside more conventional civil engineering and station management modernisations.

The Digital Railway is a term that encompasses this complex ‘system of systems’ and is one of the reasons that Alstom believes it is essential that suppliers are engaged to provide whole-life support. Over the life of the system, the operational requirements of the railway will change and evolve, as will the underlying engineering that makes up the Digital Railway.

It is inevitable that new and disruptive technologies will emerge that must be accommodated within the Digital Railway model, one example being the demand for data increases within the mobile data bearer that will cause GSM-R to migrate to either a 4G or 5G system.

Within other high-capital-cost complex engineering asset industries, there has been a move towards ‘whole life engineering services’ as performance and sustainment responsibilities are increasingly transferred from the operator to the systems provider. In the aerospace industry, for example, this service base model is common and has led to a step- change in asset performance as incentives between the operator and technology provider are leading to continuous innovation and a relentless focus on in-service performance. Alstom suggests that this approach could deliver huge benefits to UK rail and in turn create the environment to attract outside investment in rail infrastructure.

Supplier inter-relationships

Alstom acknowledges that there are many other suppliers in the business of providing Digital Railway systems. The likes of Siemens, Thales, Bombardier and Hitachi have all delivered Digital Railway solutions that will increasingly become their mainstream signalling offerings in the future. Sure, there is competition between them, but the whole basis of the ERTMS ethos is an interoperable system as demanded by the European dictate.

Co-operation must exist between the various suppliers to make this work. Alstom believes that a good spirit of co-operation exists between all the players in the UK industry through associations like RSG (Rail Supply Group) and RIA (Railway Industry Association).

The recent Digital Railway Early Contractor Involvement work streams have demonstrated the willingness of the supply industry to work together to make the Digital Railway a reality.

Traffic management

Traffic management systems (TMS) form an important element of the Digital Railway tool kit, and one that can deliver significant early performance benefits. By providing optimised network operations by means of early conflict detection and resolution capabilities, significant gains in capacity and network resilience can be achieved. Alstom is proud of its TMS product, known as ICONIS, and its deployment in Italy has resulted in a significant improvement in train punctuality and increased train movements. Interfacing to different marques of signalling interlockings and train describers, it has demonstrated that optimised decision-making can be achieved in both old and new control centres.

The delay in the introduction of TMS to the UK, beyond the initial three projects, is a frustration to the suppliers. The experience of the first deployments has highlighted that managing industrial relations and business change is at least as big a challenge as the development of complex engineering interfaces.

International comparisons

The nationwide deployment of a Digital Railway solution in Denmark is now at the point of system testing. Split into two halves – east and west – Alstom has the contract for the entire eastern network, which includes provision of ETCS and TMS plus a 25-year maintenance commitment.

Unsurprisingly with such grand ambition, there have been challenges and some delays. However, through an environment that supports collaborative behaviours, the project delivery partners of Banedanmark and Alstom have worked through these challenges to define the performance requirements, operational concept and system migration. Alstom has successfully leveraged the return on experience gained from other contracts to equip over 18,000 km of trackside ETCS and 5,400 trainsets.

The digital railway system in Denmark will be progressively deployed across the entire national network between now and 2023.

“There is nothing significant that prevents us from working the same way here as in Denmark,” Jonathan Willcock commented. “You always have the complexity of different routes with a number of operating companies and interchanges, but generally there is nothing fundamentally different.”

The current UK position

Other than the initial Cambrian route, which has had an ERTMS system in service since 2010, only two projects are currently being progressed, both relatively small in scope. These are:

» The Thameslink central core, which includes the addition of an overlay ATO package and is being provided by Siemens – the results of the testing so far are very encouraging and the system is essential to realising the 24 trains per hour throughput;

» The Crossrail West project as part of the Great Western main line upgrade needed to replace the near-obsolete legacy British Rail ATP system – the first stage contract is let to Alstom but the small distance involved fails to achieve any economy of scale.

Hence, the supply industry is supportive of the Digital Railway’s desire to progress a number of route-wide long-term DR deployment strategies. From a supplier perspective, this is key to gaining the economies of scale and learning and providing the commitment that will encourage suppliers to invest in building world- class digital railway capabilities here in the UK.

It is the intention that future signalling schemes will conform to the ERTMS ready trackside specification. Schemes due to be migrated to Digital Railway in the short term, less than five years, shall be subject to more mandatory requirements than schemes due to migrate in the 5-10 year and 10-15 year timeframes.

The position with rolling stock is more advanced, with all new train builds since 2012 being required to be ready for ETCS fitment. At present, tenders for fitting the entire UK freight locomotive fleet are being evaluated and Alstom has contracts to design and fit the ‘first in class’ equipment for the Class 180 and 365 multiple units.

Everybody wants the Digital Railway to succeed but, for this to happen, it is apparent that some new thinking on how to modernise the contracting arrangements will need to be put in place. The good news is that all parties are in discussion, and it is to be hoped that a winning formula will emerge in the near future. As Jonathan Willcock stated: “We want to change people’s perception of the railway, rather than just proving the technology works.

“There are lots of acronyms flying about, but when passengers see improved performance it starts to become real!.”

Written by Clive Kessell


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