With the UK’s railway carrying more passengers than ever and demand continuing to rise, is there a plan in place to tackle this? Digital Railway is the industry’s improved plan to tackle the UK’s capacity issue by accelerating the digital modernisation of the railway. More trains will run on existing tracks – safer, faster and cheaper – helping to increase the impact of vital upgrades like HS2 and Crossrail.
Many stakeholders’ hopes are being pinned on the Digital Railway (DR) programme to deliver the safe and effective modernisation of Britain’s rail network. Accelerated technology development and integrated data networks will bring opportunities for operating model transformation and will disrupt manual, legacy procedures. The industry is facing this challenge against a background of continuing political instability, financial austerity, and economic uncertainty that has, for instance, reduced the funding available to Network Rail heading into Control Period 6, and which delayed the early phases and original scope of the Digital Railway programme. A 2016 National Audit Office report indicated that a large part of the acceleration of railway modernisation from completion of in-cab signalling in 2062, brought forward to 2029, was underpinned by the Digital Railway strategy.
The pressure is on the entire industry to deliver the essential strategic infrastructure the UK needs in the face of these significant headwinds. So, what is the Digital Railway programme? The current vision for a Digital Railway has evolved beyond the move to in-cab signalling systems (and away from traditional lineside signalling systems/infrastructure) to embrace three core themes: increased capacity, improved reliability and extensible integration.
Cost effective increases in network capacity will be realised by the Digital Railway programme (of up to 40 per cent according to the National Audit Office (NAO)) through making best use of existing assets and targeting investment where the capacity returns are greatest ie where best value can be extracted from existing infrastructure. The goal is for more trains to run on the existing tracks whilst maintaining safety – consider it as the rail equivalent of using the hard shoulder on ‘smart motorways’. The mix of traffic must be optimised to meet the ever evolving needs of the British economy, balancing passenger mobility with freight flows. The Digital Railway programme can deliver these benefits through tools (like dynamic train graphs) that continuously optimise train paths across existing infrastructure and which provide adaptive views of best capacity – updating in real time the state of the network in response to every train movement.
Improvements to network reliability include better train performance with quicker recovery from disruptions. The Digital Railway programme is developing a deeper understanding of the ways in which disruption spreads across the network – this depends on availability of accurate data to describe a single version of the truth, and tools for analysis and visualisation. Train paths in future will be managed dynamically to allow for changing resource availability, asset condition, and maintenance activities. These insights from the Digital Railway programme need to be reflected in refined and unconflicted timetables that provide the foundation for a high performing rail network.
Work has started under the Digital Railway banner on initial deployments of traffic management systems (TMS) at Network Rail’s operating centres in Romford, Didcot, Three Bridges, and Cardiff. The initial deployments of TMS will provide data-driven tools for decision support that go beyond plan/re-plan and which deliver increases in capacity, improvements in operational performance, and integration with passenger information systems. Eventual full deployment of TMS will see dynamic route setting, automated conflict resolution, and integrated decision support for service recovery.
With TMS commissioning due in the next 12 to 18 months, these are significant steps towards the Digital Railway programme delivering on its first two themes of increased capacity and improved reliability.
Future progression by Digital Railway into its third theme of extensible integration promises significantly greater improvements in capacity, performance, and safety. The scope of the Digital Railway programme includes improved and extended technologies for train control like the European Train Control System (ETCS), Automatic Train Operation (ATO), and Connected Driver Advisory Systems (C-DAS). There is also the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS) that provides a common system of standards for management and interoperation of signalling (including ECTS), communications (including GSM-R), and payload management.
The Digital Railway can exploit these technologies to integrate intelligent infrastructure (that reports autonomously its status and condition) with intelligent vehicles (that operate automatically at optimum efficiency and which receive their movement authority from traffic management systems) to deliver a more consistent, more reliable, and more informed service for all Digital Railway users.
An initial ETCS scheme in Wales was completed before the formal start of the Digital Railway programme. The central core of the Thameslink route across London has being equipped with ETCS and the new Thameslink rolling stock will also have ATO capabilities. Crossrail has implemented ERTMS at the interface with the Great Western Mainline (GWML) around Paddington.
Retrofitting ETCS capabilities to existing rolling stock is slow and complex and expensive (and delayed). The incorporation of ERTMS/ETCS specifications into the assembly of new rolling stock is far more efficient; support from the supply chain is essential. There are also safety benefits with ETCS including automatic train protection (ATP) as an inherent part of the specification and it is expected eventually to replace TPWS.
Lessons can be learned from the early attempts to define a common vision for a Digital Railway. Clear delineation is needed between re-signalling schemes that deliver tactical infrastructure improvements, and a digital transformation that moves the railway operating model closer to the core themes of the Digital Railway.
Momentum generated by the initial TMS deployments, investments in ERTMS-related technologies, a reducing dependency on traditional line-side signalling, availability of resilient data networks, support from the Railway supply chain, and greater understanding of the strategic vision means that the Digital Railway is well positioned to deliver the safe and effective modernisation needed for Britain’s rail network.
So where does all this leave us in the analogue world? It is always tempting to look to new technologies as a kind of “Get out of Jail free” card when faced with complexity and inefficiency in the here and now. History is littered with examples of the failure of that thought process. We cannot hope to rely on a new control system on its own to deliver a stable and efficient future rail network. It has to be delivered as part of a portfolio of interlinked technology, strategy and infrastructure programmes whilst maintaining current levels of service to rail passengers.
That the Digital Railway could deliver significant service improvements and cost savings for the UK taxpayer while meeting the next 40 year’s capacity requirements is not in question. Without it, the forecast growth in passenger volume (doubling by 2045) will simply lead to more crowded trains and more costly tickets. However, most of the expected improvements arising out of the total investment plan, including Digital Railway, are still well into the future. The swift and effective deployment of the Digital Railway is fast becoming critical to HMG’s integrated Transport plans. In its 2016 report, the NAO’s first summary observation was:
‘Network Rail’s ability to deliver the planned investment programme has been called into question, mainly due to cost escalations, missed milestones and poor project management’ ;The Digital Railway is a £12.8bn part of this investment. The message is clear:
It really doesn’t matter how innovative the solution is, if you can’t deliver it effectively.
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