Analysis

Carne: Digital railway key to building reliable, safe and efficient railway.

Mark Carne, chief executive, Network Rail

Investing in a world leading digital railway holds to key tackling the UK rail network’s on-going congestion, reliability, safety and escalating cost problems, according to Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne.

Using digital in-cab signalling technology could, he said, see capacity in urban areas instantly boosted by up to 40%, signals passed at danger cut by 80%, signal failures cut by 30%, trains running faster and more efficiently while passengers benefit from enhanced ticketing, information systems and service reliability.

“There is a huge opportunity to transform the capacity and reliability of our railway line using digital train control and to be really bold and aggressive about the way that we roll this out on our network today,” he said. 

“Continuously improving performance is non‐negotiable. We need to do better. Reputations are hard won and easily lost. So we have to respond by setting higher standards, in everything we do.” Mark Carne, Network Rail

“What is there to not like about the digital railway – more capacity,  more reliability, faster trains, cheaper to run,  safer and lower environmental footprint,” he added “That is what we should be as an industry focusing on. Let’s be the world leaders again by applying digital railway technology to an existing complex network.”

Carne’s comments came after the 2015 annual George Bradshaw Address to the rail industry held last week at the Institution of Civil Engineers, an event which also marked his first anniversary as Network Rail chief executive.

Entitled “Lifting the bonnet on Network Rail” Carne gave a critical assessment of Network Rail’s performance – an assessment which event host and shadow transport minister Lord Andrew Adonis described as a “systematic hatchet job” on his own organisation. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a chief executive be so critical of his own organisation,” said Adonis after Carne's delivery. “It was a kind of systematic hatchet job on the state of Network Rail at the moment – unsafe, it doesn’t have the public confidence, it isn’t sufficiently diverse, doesn’t value its employees enough and isn’t subject to sufficient competitive pressures.” 

Carne’s presentation laid bare his thoughts about the state of and challenges facing Network Rail after what he described as a “rollercoaster ride” of a first year.

In particular he highlighted the problems witnessed over the Christmas period as evidence that there was work to do to improve the railways. 

“It was a kind of systematic hatchet job on the state of Network Rail at the moment – unsafe, it doesn’t have the public confidence, it isn’t sufficiently diverse, doesn’t value its employees enough and isn’t subject to sufficient competitive pressures.” Lord Andrew Adonis

“Despite the many achievements of the past, sometimes we let passengers down. I don’t think that’s acceptable, or just a fact of life,” he said. “Continuously improving performance is non‐negotiable. We need to do better. Reputations are hard won and easily lost. So we have to respond by setting higher standards, in everything we do.”

Carne’s delivery highlighted what he described as his two “central philosophies” underpinning the culture of the company; that “safety performance and business performance go hand in hand” and that there must be “the ambition and desire to be better every day”.

He highlighted that in Network Rail’s monopoly position, is was crucial that its behaviour reflected the competitive world, where failure to deliver service to customers mattered as they had the choice to go elsewhere. 

“No one likes getting poor media coverage, but it matters,” he said. “Let me be clear tonight, we are determined to win the public’s trust. If we are to stop being the company that people love to hate, the public needs to see a high performing organisation.”

He compared the industry’s safety performance to that of the oil and gas industry in which he worked previously to point out how much stil had to be done in the rail industry.

"We can get up to 40% more trains running on existing track so capacity can be unlocked. And about 30% of all primary delays on our network are caused by signal failures. Removing that increases reliability". Mark Carne, Network Rail

While passenger safety, he said, remains the best in Europe, about 600 railway workers are still injured a year. This compared starkly, he said, to fewer than 60 people injured each year in oil and gas.

“I see it as a moral and an ethical responsibility to keep people safe, whether that be passengers, the public or our workforce,” he said pointing out that the focus on punctuality often wrongly masked the need to work safely. 

“I believe that we as leaders sometimes, perhaps inadvertently, reinforce this message [that punctuality is critical] by sending signals that suggest we don’t care as deeply as we could about our workforce and their safety and health,” he said.

Structured continuous improvement, to deliver a better service was, he said, critical to Network Rail’s future, starting he said with “getting the basics right”.

“Too often we have allowed the basics to be forgotten as we divert the organisation onto yet another fad or initiative,” he said. “This structured approach, built on and delivered better every day, is not new to industry.”

Questioned afterwards about the solutions to the problems he raised Carne was clear that, alongside getting these basic right, meeting the challenge of investment in digital technology was fundamental to moving the whole industry forward.

“Why can’t we be the world leaders again?” Mark Carne

“Of course it is easier on a brand new high speed railway – and you have to do it – but fitting it to 20,000 miles of existing infrastructure is tough,” he said 

“We estimate that in our most densely used urban railways we can get up to 40% more trains running on existing track so capacity can be unlocked. And about 30% of all primary delays on our network are caused by signal failures. Removing that by putting the signalling in the cab immediately increases reliability,” he added pointing out that not having to put people out on the track to mend infrastructure boosted safety for staff and passengers.

“Why can’t we be the world leaders again?”