The year of the Digital Railway

Jonathan Willcock, managing director, Signalling and Infrastructure at Alstom UK & Ireland, explains why 2017 will be the most exciting year in the advancement of the Digital Railway.

For too long, the UK’s rail capabilities have lagged well behind that of our international competitors. With passenger numbers set to double over the next 25 years, capacity continues to be a huge issue and, coupled with creaking infrastructure on dated lines, laying more track is too expensive to be a viable long-term option.

One of most interesting solutions is the implementation of a Digital Railway and I’m excited by the prospects of its development in 2017.

Jonathan Willcock, managing director - Signalling and Infrastructure, Alstom UK & Ireland.
Jonathan Willcock, managing director – Signalling and Infrastructure, Alstom UK & Ireland.

The Digital Railway is a concept that marries together the signalling, infrastructure and digital disciplines from across the rail industry. Through the deployment of new technologies, it helps to drive efficiency, extract more capacity from the existing network and improve passenger safety.

Encouragingly, the government has recognised its potential with the announcement of a £450m provision for digital signalling in the November Autumn Statement, which was reaffirmed in the government’s recent Industrial Strategy green paper announcement.

What is the Digital Railway?

Despite this, there remains a lack of understanding about what the Digital Railway actually is and, more importantly, how its implementation will positively impact the lives of passengers across the country.

To start with, people should view the Digital Railway not as one single solution, but rather a toolkit of several different interventions. Digital signalling is the first concept that springs to mind when thinking about the Digital Railway, but other solutions, such as grade separation and civil engineering, are equally important. It’s only with the implementation of all these solutions that will lead to a 40% increase in capacity.

Although the UK is behind its international competitions in implementing the Digital Railway, this is in part because we have the most ambitious programme to implement and a unique capacity challenge when compared with other European countries. We have seen examples of successful implementation of traffic management systems in Italy, Denmark and Sweden already and this should give cause for optimism that similar, and perhaps even more complex, systems can be replicated here in the UK.

It is crucial that the government leverages the wealth of experience within all parts of the supply chain. Looking at problems individually and bringing in a range of companies to come up with solutions together is the best way for the Department for Transport and Network Rail to maximise the impact of the programme.

The Department for Transport announced in 2014 a £500,000 investment in the Rail Supply Group.
The railway will continue to evolve and it’s important to plan ahead – image courtesy of Network Rail.

Another focus for the government should be looking at a long-term strategy for the rail sector, rather than looking for short-term and reactive solutions to issues faced by the industry. The railway will continue to evolve and it’s important to plan ahead to ensure that that the UK remains ahead of the curve and maximises developments in the industry.

So what does the UK’s rail industry need to do to ensure it can best capitalise on government support for the modernisation of British railways? The simple answer is cross-sector collaboration similar to that seen within the aerospace industry. Alstom is already part of a number of successful partnerships, such as our ABC and ATC joint ventures for the £2bn electrification and Crossrail projects respectively, and we understand that these are the types of contract that the market is now ready for.

Network Rail’s decision to tender a £2bn partnership with contractors and designers to deliver the TransPennine Route upgrade is further evidence that these type of contract is key to the rollout of future rail projects. This type of collaborative approach is not only driving efficiency, but also helps to deliver significant cost-savings.

Further down the track

Looking to the future, there are a number of exciting opportunities where the elements of the Digital Railway can be deployed. Network Rail has already drawn up a list of seven candidate projects for the early deployment of the Digital Railway and it’s encouraging to see the difference in solutions for each of these challenges. Whether it’s driving efficiency on the notoriously unpredictable Brighton Mainline, or increasing train numbers to cater to overcrowding at Liverpool Street, it’s positive to see that the Network Rail understands that the Digital Railway is not and never will be a “one glove fits all” solution.

As the issue of automation versus manual continues to be cast in the negative light of continuing industrial disputes on Britain’s railways, the move towards a multi-solution Digital Railway offers a more positive and practical solution to the passengers and operators alike. In the Digital Railway, the UK rail sector has a real opportunity to finally address the capacity issues and market barriers that have held it back for so long.