Britain's railways poised to modernise

Greater capacity and the better performance needed from Britain’s railways are going to come from technology in future. Jon Masters met up with the managing director for Digital Railway, David Waboso, to get an update on plans for modernisation.

David Waboso is at the helm of a programme of major significance for the future of Britain’s rail industry. At present, he’s entering final stages of producing his plan, so cannot divulge what’s going to be in it and over what period it will be delivered in, but that’s exactly what’s going to take shape over the coming year.

Waboso is Network Rail’s managing director for Digital Railway – a programme of technological modernisation of how Britain’s trains and rail infrastructure are operated together. So far the initiative has amounted to a small number of discrete but significant projects, such as installation of the moving-block signalling system ETCS (European Train Control System) and Automatic Train Operation (ATO) on the central section of Thameslink in London – due to be operational in 2018.

ETCS is also being built into the western end of Crossrail where a high density of services will be needed to cater for demand at Heathrow. And at Romford and in Cardiff new systems of Traffic Management (TM) train control and signalling software mean more trains can be managed at peak times and timetables recovered more rapidly when things go awry.

Digital Railway is poised to take a step up. Hitherto, its projects have been delivered as part of wider upgrades, but now the programme is starting to assume more of an identity of its own.

“This is a cross-industry programme, so it will not be just government and Network Rail that works all this out." David Waboso

At NR’s Euston House in London, on a floor dedicated to Digital Railway, strategic outline business cases have been drawn up for how the technology can be best deployed to solve problems of insufficient capacity and poor performance on key routes.

The appearance is of a line being drawn under what’s been done so far, as Digital Railway looks at how it can apply proven technology on a more nation-wide basis. Waboso’s team is leading work on five business cases while also supporting three more.

Over coming months it will be presenting the results to the Department for Transport and discussing how much of it can be funded, how it can be delivered and how it can be integrated with the Control Period 6 investment programme for 2019-2024.“The settlement for CP6 is not determined yet, but Digital Railway will need to integrate as far as possible with the routes’ strategic business plans. It may be that an appropriate change control process is built into CP6 to allow elements of Digital Railway to be worked into the programme later in a way that makes sense. The concept of CP6 needs to recognise that a Digital Railway will occur in coming years,” Waboso says.

Network Rail has strong industry support for its Digital Railway modernisation, Waboso says, including from the rail unions and from government. In his last Autumn Statement in November last year, Chancellor Philip Hammond promised £450m for Digital Railway. This will only go as far as allowing Digital Railway to deliver more of the initial enabling projects needed.

A full roll-out will be a different matter. Just installing ETCS will cost an order of magnitude more and it’s yet to be decided who will pay for it. “Part of what we’ll be doing next is looking at the possibilities for private finance and for more innovative ways of delivering the programme,” Waboso says.

“Importantly, this is a cross-industry programme, so it will not be just government and Network Rail that works all this out. We’ve received strong support from the unions because a lot of this is about safer operations. The RDG (Rail Delivery Group), which effectively represents the train operating companies, has also been supportive.

“One of the things we’ll be looking at is where on the network new rolling stock is due to be introduced over the next few years. We want to make sure trains come enabled with the technology. Virtually all rolling stock in Britain is owned by ROSCOs (rolling stock operating companies) so it could be that we explore private finance that way, but the main thing for now is to look at what schemes we want to do.”

Adding to the complexity, if NR wants to introduce Digital Railway efficiently, it has to install the technology on trains coincidental with the same being done track-side. So it has to coordinate its resignalling programmes in-phase with refranchising, matched to where the network has capacity or performance problems: “Generally where trains and platforms have been lengthened and capacity problems are still coming at us; this is where Digital Railway technology will make the biggest impact,” Waboso says.

In places on NR’s network where there are chronic performance problems – such as sections of the Southern network – installation of TM may be the low hanging fruit that the business cases will support. Where capacity is at issue, on the Wessex Route into London Waterloo, for example, then ETCS and ATO may be the answer.

"The main thing for now is to work with DfT to decide what schemes we can take forward, how much it’s going to cost and how we structure it.”

The types of equipment in question are essentially ETCS and ATO, the software and control systems of TM, plus Connected Driver Advisory Systems (CDAS), which will allow updated journey plans to be communicated to drivers when disruption occurs. Advisory systems are already being rolled out, but they’re fixed and do not update when things go wrong. The ‘connected’ variety is crucial for replanning journeys and recovering timetables, but it needs TM in signal boxes first.

“These changes are actually quite fundamental, so a lot has to be considered. Signal boxes are to be moved to traffic control centres and there will be big changes to the way signalers, drivers and others work. It will become a different railway with a shift in operational culture, so we’re doing a lot to engage with the workforce, wider industry and unions,” says Waboso.

He also has an issue of capability to consider. Waboso has built a team about 100 strong, including a number of trusted lieutenants he brought across from London Underground Limited. Before joining NR in June last year, Waboso was responsible for a similar shift to a semi-automated railway during seven years in charge of LUL’s capital programme.

“We’ve now got a really good tooled up UK workforce for Digital Railway; people that can do all this,” Waboso says. “The important thing now is to keep them. We’ve got to look at where they’re deploying to next and there’s the whole export agenda to consider. We have valuable skills here we can offer overseas in a consulting capacity.”

If Digital Railway is going to be the future for adding capacity and reliability, it’s going to need effective project delivery. Appointment of programme and technical delivery partners will be announced soon, Waboso says, for adding more capability to the client team.

The first phase of an early contractor involvement (ECI) initiative has concluded with nine of its suppliers (Alstom, Amey, Atkins, Bombardier, Hitachi, Indra, Resonate, Siemens and Thales) giving Digital Railway a list of recommendations for how it can work better with its supply chain. Now Digital Railway is doing the same – through an ECI2 project – with companies it doesn’t usually work with.

“We want to be an intelligent customer, with a small number of highly skilled people,” he says. ”A big part of the future has to be innovative delivery, but the main thing for now is to work with DfT to decide what schemes we can take forward, how much it’s going to cost and how we structure it.”


Digital Railway – eight strategic outline business cases

Wessex Route*: addressing a capacity and performance challenge from London Waterloo to Southampton (South West Main Line)

Anglia Route*: addressing capacity and performance from London Liverpool Street to Norwich (Great Eastern Main Line)

South East Route*: addressing performance on the route including the Brighton Main Line

London North East Route*: leveraging opportunity to renew life expired assets to meet capacity and performance needs from London King’s Cross to Leeds and Newcastle-upon-Tyne (East Coast Main Line)

Western Route*: identifying the best way to replace existing train safety control (currently Automatic Train Protection) while taking into account wider strategic needs of the route (Great Western Main Line)

Anglia Route (Essex Thameside franchise): identify options to meet demand requirements on the route via digital technologies. Also consider commercial/delivery models to deploy

TfL Overground Network: investigating options to increase train frequencies on the East London Line, in conjunction with the Digital Railway programme;

London North East and London North West (Trans Pennine): led by DfT, the Trans Pennine upgrade programme is focusing on improved journey times on the route. This potentially requires digital interventions.

* Network Rail’s Digital Railway team is leading on these five business cases.