Digitalisation is becoming the WD40 of railway technology

Roger Ford

Informed Sources

Moorgate: the 18.38 to Gordon Hill about to depart on 13 October 2016. David Andrews

Excuse me if I’m more than usually grumpy, but when even the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE) gets caught up in the current digital railway chicken licken mass hysteria, things are really serious. For example, talk of the railway being ‘at risk of falling irretrievably behind its competitors’ is meaningless scaremongering.

Or take this comment from an IRSE Paper by Stuart Calvert, Network Rail’s Head of Early Contractor Involvement in the Digital Railway Directorate. Mr Calvert listed rail’s major advantages over other travel modes as:

■ greater level of safety and security;

■ ability to work, relax and eat while travelling;

■ relative predictability and reliability; and

■ additional environmental and efficiency benefits.

He then claimed ‘smart autonomous electric vehicles are eroding all rail’s benefits in these areas’. A moment’s consideration of typical journeys confirms this as sheer bunkum.

Note the advantage missing from the list – speed. Until the new Thameslink service removes them from the timetable, I can catch a fast service from Welwyn Garden City in the peak and be at Finsbury Park in 15 minutes – that’s an average of 72mph. From there I can jump on to the Victoria Line firing 36 trains per hour down a single track and be at the IRSE headquarters in Westminster less than an hour after leaving home, including the walk at each end.

According to the AA route planner, consulted at 10.30 in the morning, the time for the same journey by car is an hour. In the morning peak it would be longer. So if I whistled up my theoretical autonomous vehicle (AV) and left home at the same time I would arrive significantly later.

Or take London-Manchester. Station to station for me is around 3hr 15min. The road journey, according to the AA, is only 10 minutes or so longer, but why would I choose to sit in a car for over three hours with none of Stuart Calvert’s major advantages (and note he doesn’t mention toilets), when I can relax in a train?

And the Pendolinos were running under digital control, with ETCS Eurobalises supplying information to the Tilt Advisory and Supervision System (TASS) many years before Network Rail bought into digital railway.

Of course, there are already journeys where road is the better option. But I can’t see how an AV would increase this number significantly.


Central to the digital railway bubble is that the cabal who launched it mostly had no railway experience, knew nothing about signalling and considered the industry backward. Fortunately matters have improved since the arrival of David Waboso to head up Digital Railway. But even with all his experience, Mr Waboso is not immune to the prevailing mood, which sees Digital Railway as some bolt-on goody that will transform signalling and control.


This is the fatal flaw. British Rail and its suppliers were leading the development of the digital railway in the 1980s.

Then privatisation destroyed the well of innovation that was British Rail Research: Railtrack had no interest in technology. But Solid State Interlocking and the Integrated Electronic Control Centres (IECC) were already part of the mainstream Signalling & Telecommunications function.

As the IRSE White Paper commented, ‘over a period of more than one and a half decades the industry has delivered well below expectations in the field of next generation train control systems’. And we know why.

Now, we are indeed playing catch-up, but with an under-informed customer lacking in technical experience. As last month’s analysis of the Traffic Management procurement showed, Resonate, as the heir of BR Research, is now picking up where it left off two decades ago.

Having Digital Railway as a separate function risks the perverse incentive that for Digital Railway to succeed, conventional digital signalling must be seen to fail. Thus one justification for Digital Railway is that conventional signalling is unaffordable. There are signs that these costs are being over-egged.


Which brings us to the ‘Digital Railway Programme strategic plan’, one of 22 Strategic Plans for Control Period 6 (2019-24) published by Network Rail on 19 January 2018. According to Network Rail’s Strategic Business Plan overview, Digital Railway is the solution to the three major challenges facing the rail network. These are:

■ the lack of spare capacity following a doubling of passenger numbers over the past two decades;

■ what is termed ‘a failure to embrace digital technology’; and

■ the continued rise in the costs of renewing outdated conventional signalling ‘which have become unsustainable’.

Displaying the customary ignorance of how the railway is run, in the case of technology Network Rail highlights its ‘over reliance on manual processes that are still controlled by a 19th century system of trackside coloured lights and signal boxes’. If you think that is bad, here is Managing Director Mark Carne speaking at a conference in November last year: ‘It is amazing that the signalling system that we employ on Britain’s railways, in fact most railways around the world, is basically unchanged since 1840. It’s an incredibly successful system for controlling, very safely, the movement of trains. But when your railway system is fundamentally full, it’s a very inefficient way of allocating capacity on the railway, and that is why we are going to lead the digital railway revolution over the next 10 to 20 years, to create far more capacity, more reliability and better services for passengers right across our country’.


Ignore the hubris, just note the precise date – 1840. And it is a slur on innovation in the signalling profession, because for some years now the bobbies at Welwyn Garden City controlling time interval working have had digital stopwatches.

What are these ‘manual processes’? Since the first IECCs were commissioned in the 1990s, signallers have been supported by Automatic Route Setting (ARS), a form of proto-Traffic Management. Around 20 control centres are now responsible for the bulk of the network and migration to the new Rail Operating Centres has begun.


Not only is the cost of conventional equipment claimed to be rising, the renewals profile will require replacement of ‘almost two-thirds’ of the network’s signalling system over the next 15 years. Shades of Railtrack’s ‘Project Destiny’ in the 1990s, when signalling renewals were also considered unaffordable.

Anyway, all these problems will be resolved by the Digital Railway Programme (DRP), which, it is claimed, will transform the rail network. The Digital Railway Business Plan confirms that in CP6, the focus will be on Traffic Management systems including Connected Driver Advisory Systems and Crew & Stock Systems to improve performance.


As for the European Train Control System, the rail industry is working with Government to align signalling renewals with train fitment and the franchise timetable. Trains currently being acquired by replacement franchises are ETCS-ready, avoiding an expensive and disruptive retrospective cab fitment programme.

According to the Business Plan, during CP6 (2019-24) and CP7 (2024-29), this alignment of rolling stock fitment, signalling renewals and enhancements will come together on the East Coast main line, the trans-Pennine upgrade, the West Coast main line, including the HS2 interface, plus the Wessex and Anglia Routes. Initial business cases have been prepared for routes covering over 70% of all passenger journeys.


Also in the DRP Strategic Plan is an update on the candidate schemes proposed for the £450 million ring-fenced funding for the Digital Railway from the Government’s National Productivity & Investment Fund (NPIF). Two of the schemes have been approved. However, for the other three the funding allocated covers only the development phase.

DRP notes that the £450 million is insufficient to cover the development and deployment of all the candidate schemes in Table 3. Development of the three unfunded schemes in Table 2 is expected to be completed by the end of 2018. Further funding will be subject to approval at the outset of both the design and delivery phases, ‘when greater evidence of the costs, benefits and deliverability of each scheme will be available’.

Note in Table 2 that £5 million allocated to developing the South East digital upgrade to Outline Business Case (OBC) does not include the South Eastern franchise area. As reported in last month’s column, the replacement South Eastern franchisee will be committed to procuring a new Traffic Management system for the Ashford IECC area. This is supposed to be paid for by the franchisee, who will then hand the system over to Network Rail.

But according to the DRP Business Plan, ‘a budget of £75 million has been confirmed for a new South Eastern franchisee to develop, design and deliver TM for its train service area’. This funding has been approved ‘subject to DfT receiving a satisfactory bid in response to the Invitation to Tender’.


At which we have one of my ‘now, hang on’ moments. How on earth can you justify spending £75 million on TM for the South Eastern franchise area? And how does this relate to the requirement in the franchise Invitation to Tender, which clearly states ‘The Department requires a Franchisee who will procure and implement, in consultation and collaboration with Network Rail, an Interfaced Traffic Management System on the Ashford IECC control area and an Isolated Traffic Management System elsewhere’.

And why is £75 million of government funding required if, to quote the ITT, ‘Bidders should ensure that any solutions proposed in the Digital Rail Proposal entail that control of the TMS is relinquished to Network Rail, at nil cost to Network Rail’. Yes, I know this column is supposed to supply answers rather than ask questions, but when faced with DfT levels of incoherence we occasionally enter a parallel universe.