Will the chancellor's digital signalling fund bring UK rail up to speed?

The recent Autumn Statement announced significant investment in digital signalling, but will the chancellor's £450m fund be enough to improve rail reliability? Viswanath Machiraju reports.

While many expected Philip Hammond’s first (and last) Autumn Statement to be a fairly modest affair in the wake of the Brexit vote, it actually included several big-ticket investment announcements designed to “kick-start a transformation in infrastructure and innovation investment”. Part of this grand unveiling was a £450m fund to trial digital signalling technology on the UK’s rail network, in a bid to increase capacity and improve performance and service reliability. But will this boost to funding be enough to bring the UK’s creaking Victorian rail network up to speed in the digital era?

All aboard the Digital Railway 

According to plans laid out by the chancellor, £450m worth of investment will be plugged into developing digital signalling on the railways from 2018, with £80m allocated to rolling out smart tickets, including season tickets for commuters in the UK’s major cities. This is all part of the Government’s initiative to tackle the UK’s “capacity crunch” and accelerate the digital modernisation of the tracks. 

Britain’s current railway signalling system is made up of a patchwork of different solutions, with a team of more than 3,000 signal experts working around the clock to keep trains on the move in each section of the network. Digital signalling however, which is already being used on the high-speed TGV lines in France, would enable trains to operate closer together, increasing the number of services by up to 40%. In turn, this would lead to fewer delays and improve the much-maligned experience for frustrated passengers. In time, the upgrade is also likely to increase the impact of major rail projects such as HS2 and Crossrail.  

While Hammond’s announcement holds much promise for the industry and passengers alike, getting digital signalling to work on Britain’s existing complex network will be a great challenge for engineers. What are the key factors therefore that must be addressed before signalling advances can be made?

Digitalisation across the three core layers of signalling 

Making core signalling systems more ‘digital-ready’ will require increased automation of signalling applications, equipment, and components. In other words, enabling automated stop and go signals, and the acceleration and braking of trains in accordance with these signals. This ambitious programme, which could be rolled out in just 25 years, will be hugely beneficial to operators, as trains will be able to communicate with one another more effectively, scheduling will become far more accurate, and the scope for human error will be markedly reduced. All of this will significantly help towards improving safety across the entire rail network.

The key to making these efforts successful is ensuring that digitalisation is consistent across the three critical layers of signalling, rolling stock, passenger-centric and safety-critical systems. In order to do this, communication infrastructure across the industry needs to be revolutionised. Significant emphasis must be placed on scaling up current 2G-based communication networks to either GSM-R, TETRA or LTE/Wi-Fi based frameworks to secure more, robust and reliable bandwidth that can accommodate the dynamics of the digital revolution. 

This future standard of communication protocol needs to be implemented as soon as possible. Whether GSM-R, TETRA, LTE or W-LAN-based, the industry needs a de facto standard on which communication services providers or equipment manufacturers can base their products to help achieve desired outcomes of such a revolution.

One possibility that is currently being explored by operators is moving signalling platforms to the cloud to help centralise processes across large geographical areas. This move however, is still very much in its infancy, which is due in part to new technologies needing to be vigorously tried and tested before mass adoption. Before the UK’s rail sector can be fully digitally revolutionised however, the industry will also need a concrete plan to integrate legacy signalling environments across various regional centres. Post integration, processes will need to be streamlined and then migrated to a central platform, which could be hosted in the cloud, depending on how far the technology has been adopted by that point. 

European Train Control System upgrades and integrated traffic management system initiatives have been slow in the past due to complexities in the landscape and a lack of skilled resource to address such significant transformations. To combat the latter, the National Skills Academy for Rail and the Rail Supply Group are due to issue a rollout plan designed to upskill the UK’s engineering workforce, something that the industry will be watching out for towards digital revolution.

An integrated approach

Ultimately, operators that take an integrated approach to rail engineering and place digital at the heart of their innovation will be those that profit in the future and the government’s much-needed boost to funding for the UK rail industry should be applauded. 

As the programme gets underway, operators that adopt the digital revolution will need to be supplemented adequately by partners who can help them in augmenting required skills and capacity and implement a ‘digital-first’ outlook across the core layer of rail operations at the same time – infrastructure, rolling stock and signalling, maintenance and operations. 

By adopting this mindset, the rail network can deliver superior passenger experiences to help create a new standard nationwide.

Viswanath Machiraju is account director and strategy lead for transportation business at Cyient.