Britain’s rail network is on the cusp of immense change organisationally and perhaps even more importantly, technologically.
The creation of Great British Railways is a shift as seismic in its own way as privatisation was in the 1990s, with much uncertainty but also – hopefully – a return to joined-up operational and infrastructure management thinking which has often been absent over the past two decades and more.
However, it is the immense pace of technological development which promises over the next 10 years which seems likely to mark a change as great – if not greater – as the switch from steam locomotion to diesel and electric trains in the 1950s and 1960s.
There are few management and operational roles which will not be affected by the introduction of new hardware and software. As the Fourth Friday Club Innovation Awards prove, early deployment is already reaping rewards in operational effectiveness and efficiency.
Trends towards using remote monitoring of infrastructure and rolling stock, and increasingly sophisticated software to aid train planning, crew rostering and disruption mitigation look likely to accelerate, aiding the decision making of management and control staff, and helping to plan and execute maintenance and renewal programmes more quickly.
The successful deployment of Automatic Train Operation on the central section of Thameslink could well be replicated elsewhere as the rail network gradually adopts the European Train Control System to replace life-expired signalling on our busiest main lines.
On more lightly used routes, the costs of resignalling are also set to reduce as innovative and creative thinking provides much of the functionality of ETCS at lower costs.
On the trains themselves, diesel power – for much of the network the default choice since the mid-1960s – will be phased out, with considerable uncertainty about where the balance between electrification, hydrogen and battery power lies.
All of these issues and more are why Modern Railways Expo is focussed firmly on the opportunities for our rail network and the innovations which are going to make the railway better, more efficient and safer.