UK’s Network Rail works to turn its digital railway strategy into a reality

Described by Network Rail’s CEO, Mark Carne, as the biggest transformation of the UK’s rail system since the translation from steam to diesel power, the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the rail network in England, Scotland and Wales has outlined its National Digital Railway Strategy, which aims to modernise technology on both trains and tracks across the country. The ambitious upgrade plan offers a fifteen year roadmap for the technological transformation of Britain’s railway to deliver faster and more frequent services to millions of rail users.


Summary:

  • Network Rail, the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the rail network in England, Scotland and Wales, plans the digitalisation of the UK system;
  • Network Rail’s CEO, Mark Carne describes its digital railway strategy as the biggest transformation of the UK’s rail system since the translation from steam to diesel power;
  • Replacing analogue system that has served for over 150 years with on board digital train control “will allow trains to run faster, closer together in greater safety and with more reliability”;
  • Network Rail hopes that within 15 years, 70% of UK journeys will benefit from digital railway technology.

After three years of work behind-the-secenes across the rail industry, Network Rail says all the key elements are now in place to launch its digital railway transformation. Replacing the analogue stop-start traffic light and semaphore signalling system that has served for over 150 years with on board digital train control, “it will allow trains to run faster, closer together in greater safety and with more reliability,” according to Mr Carne.

For passengers, a digital railway represents the “only way to achieve a step-change in the number of services without expensive and disruptive heavy engineering work,” says Network Rail. “It means faster, more reliable journeys because of our ability to better predict and prevent failures on the network,” it adds.

The strategy will mean a more flexible railway which, when married with traffic management, can dramatically reduce knock-on delays – currently the largest single cause of train disruption. It should also make the system even safer by virtually eliminating the risk of signals passed at danger – which today represents around one fifth of total passenger accident risk.

“The digital railway provides additional capacity and increased connectivity across the railway network, supporting and stimulating economic growth, jobs and housing. Not just capacity for more passengers, but for more freight too, which is vital for our growth post Brexit,” explains Mr Carne.

Effectively the digitalisation delivers an opportunity to run the whole railway in a fundamentally different way. And that is the challenge. Given the scale of the change being proposed, there is a little apprehension about Network Rail’s ability to deliver on its promise, especially due to the complicated nature of the railway operation.

But digital train technology is not actually new. It is being used on all new European high speed railways including the High Speed Two (HS2) project in the UK and is deployed in mixed use traffic in Switzerland. Norway and Denmark are now embarking on a wholesale switchover to European Train Control System (ETCS), while countries as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Australia are also all using ETCS as the foundation of their train control systems.

In the UK, ETCS has actually been in operation on the Cambrian Line in mid-Wales since 2011, and earlier this year was coupled with Automatic Train Operation on the Thameslink system through the centre of London as part of a commitment to increasing capacity from 18 to 24 trains an hour on the line by the end of next year.

“Achieving this is a game changer for the digital railway,” says Mr Carne. “We now have a stable enough platform from which to start the roll out, confident that future upgrades will be predominantly software and not hardware related.”

Network Rail believes its digital strategy will avoid a GBP20 billion investment in the renewal of the existing infrastructure system, noting over half of Britain’s signalling system – some still based on Victorian technology – will be life expired in the next 15 years. “Let us recognise that there isn’t a ‘do nothing’ option,” says Mr Carne, “renewal of these assets is essential to run a safe and reliable railway.”

“So when we think of affordability the question is first, shall we spend GBP20 billion renewing signals with fundamentally the same limitations we’ve been living with for decades? GBP20 billion to create no extra capacity? Or shall we invest in the technological transformation of our network?” he adds.

It is even suggested that the technological transformation will be achieved at a lower cost than persisting with conventional renewals with the new system being delivered for 30% less than the current cost based on deployments across Europe where costs are significantly lower than they are in the UK.

But the transformation will mean a significant change to the roles that currently support the railway system on a day-to-day basis from those in the signal box, the drivers and guards on the train and the maintenance teams out on the track. For example, train operating companies will have to upskill thousands of train drivers and recruit new ones as additional capacity comes online.

“Not since the railway transformed from steam to diesel in the 1960s has a technological breakthrough held such promise to vastly improve our railway for the benefit of the millions of people and businesses who rely on it every day,” says Mr Carne. “The age of a digital railway has today moved from the drawing board and into reality as we reveal a blueprint that will improve the lives of millions of passengers and freight users across the country.”

Network Rail acknowledges that today, 45% of Europe’s congested railways are in Britain with the railways up and down the country increasingly full, meaning that train reliability has been declining. It hopes that within 15 years, 70% of journeys will benefit from digital railway technology. In the five years to 2024 the industry is planning to introduce it across the Pennines, on the southern end of the East Coast main line into London King’s Cross and onto some of the major commuter routes that feed London Waterloo.