Digital rail revolution to reduce overcrowding & delays

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

01 May 2019

Digital rail

Since the mid-90s, the number of passengers using Britain’s railways has doubled. At peak times, the busiest parts of the network are full. And yet, demand is still set to rise dramatically in the years ahead – with an extra one billion journeys expected by the mid-2030s.

This article was originally featured in the May 2019 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

New capacity is urgently required to meet this continued rise in demand – and yet, conventional ways of providing this capacity, by building new railway infrastructure, would be hugely disruptive, very high cost and probably unachievable. In this article, EPDT Editor, Mark Gradwell explores the rail industry’s plan to tackle the UK’s capacity crunch by accelerating the digital modernisation of the railways.

The adoption of digital technologies, along with targeted conventional interventions, is a cost-effective way of releasing significant additional capacity on the existing network, as has been proven on London Underground. More trains will run on existing tracks – safer, faster and cheaper – helping to increase the impact of vital upgrades, such as HS2 and Crossrail. This will help deliver a railway that connects more skills to jobs, and more goods to market, than ever before – helping sustain economic growth for our cities, businesses and citizens. It will also ensure that safety and reliability are at the centre of rail infrastructure, reducing overcrowding, cutting delays and driving down costs.

In May 2018, Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling and Network Rail Chief Executive, Mark Carne launched Network Rail’s National Digital Railway Strategy, committing to ensuring all new trains and signalling are digital or digital ready from 2019 – and setting out a fifteen year roadmap for the technological transformation of Britain’s railway. They outlined how they want to see digital rail technology benefiting passengers across the network over the next decade:

•  Safely allowing more trains to run per hour, by running trains closer together
•  Enabling more frequent services and more seats
•  Cutting delays, by allowing trains to get moving more rapidly after disruption
•  Delivering vastly improved mobile and wi-fi connectivity, so that passengers can make the most of their travel time, and communities close to the railway can connect more easily

Digital rail

What is the Digital Railway programme?
It is the rail industry’s plan to transform the rail network for passengers, business and freight operators, by deploying modern signalling and train control technology to increase capacity, reduce delays, enhance safety and drive down costs. Digital modernisation is the essential enabler to make this happen – and the Digital Railway programme is the national initiative to bring these benefits to our railways within a generation.

Greater reliability
On today’s busy railway, a single problem can spread disruption far and wide. By modernising train command, control and signalling systems designed in a pre-digital age, modern railways can deliver substantial improvements in reliability at lower cost. Replacing the stop-start traffic light and semaphore signalling system that has served us so well for over 150 years with on-board digital train control will allow trains to run faster and closer together, in greater safety and with more reliability. It will means faster, more reliable journeys because of our ability to better predict and prevent failures on the network. And it will mean a more flexible railway which, when married with traffic management, can dramatically reduce knock-on delay – now the largest single cause of train disruption.

Mark Carne said: “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. This commitment to adopt and roll-out new digital technology, for both trains and track, will deliver faster, more frequent services for passengers and businesses alike, giving our economy a massive boost.”

Carne continued: “Network Rail, Government and the wider rail industry have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to get the concept of a digital railway off the ground. It is now a reality.

Digital rail

“In a world first, digital train control with ‘fly-by-wire’ trains (automatic train operation) – coupled with smart infrastructure, is now a reality on Thameslink services through London Bridge. We now have a plan, impetus and the funding, to introduce these systems across large swathes of our railway network over the coming years. This is a turning point in the history of our railways as we move firmly into the digital age.”

Over the past two decades, passenger numbers have doubled, and continue to grow, but our railway, laid out in Victorian times, is full to bursting, especially at peak times on the main rail arteries into urban centres. Big capacity-boosting infrastructure projects, such as Thameslink and Crossrail, are expensive and cause years of disruption, while digital railway offers an alternative way to deliver additional capacity, making the most of what we already have.

Over half of Britain’s analogue signalling systems – some still based on Victorian technology – with lineside traffic lights controlling trains, will need to be replaced within the next 15 years. A like for like replacement would cost around £20bn and deliver very little in terms of incremental passenger benefits. New digital signalling offers a more cost-effective alternative that also brings significant benefits for rail users, such as more capacity, speed and reliability.

Digital train control is already a reality on the Thameslink core through London Bridge, and on Crossrail. 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. Within 15 years, the aim is to see 70% of journeys benefit from digital railway technology.

Digital rail

Why do we need Digital Rail?
The benefits, if extended across the network as a whole, are enormous – for passengers, for railway workers and for our economy.

For passengers, Digital Railway represents the only way to achieve a step-change in the number of services, without expensive and disruptive heavy engineering work. In urban areas, passengers will be able to turn up and go on a metro-style service more similar to the tube than to the railway we see today, with real-time information customised for every passenger.

We already have the safest railway in Europe, but Digital Railway will make it safer still, virtually eliminating the risk of signals passed at danger – which today represents 20% of total passenger accident risk. For railway workers too, it will mean less work out on track and better protection when they are.

There are benefits for our national economy too. 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. To build on our success as a competitive hub of international trade, Britain needs a rail freight service that’s as agile and dynamic as modern supply chains. And the chance to lead the world in developing and using Digital Railway technology, opening up significant new export opportunities for the rail sector.

So, when you look at all these benefits, you start to understand why Digital Railway isn’t just a resignalling project. It’s an opportunity to run the whole railway in a fundamentally different way.


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