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The future is digital

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The world is going digital, and railways are not exempt from that process. The digital revolution is starting to affect every aspect of railway operations – signalling, traction power supplies, ticketing, maintenance, station management and the passenger experience.

The recent Digital Rail Summit, organised by Rail Media at Addleshaw Goddard’s impressive facility near London’s Barbican and sponsored by digital imaging specialists Hanwha Techwin, examined the whole topic of the future digital railway. Experts in their fields, including the DfT, Network Rail Digital Railway, London Underground, RSSB and suppliers, explained what is being planned, when it will be implemented and how it will affect everyone involved in the railway today.


The British rail network carries twice as many passengers as it did just two decades ago, but demand is projected to rise dramatically in the years ahead. The major initiative to address the capacity constraint is to digitalise the railway. This will enable more trains to run on existing tracks, safer, faster and more economically, complementing the additional capacity increases from new railways.

But exploiting digital technology is not just about additional capacity. New technology and ways of working will have the same, if not a greater, impact on the whole industry. This includes an enhanced passenger experience that will commence from considering a journey, through the station and platform experience, to on-board. Digital rail will bring a wealth of new thinking from the supply chain as the industry exploits what is possible without the constraints of old technology.

With the fastest growing network in Europe, many key routes are overcrowded, not just in London but in cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where peak-time travel is already standing room only.

If passenger growth in the next twenty years matches that experienced over the last 20, there will be a billion extra journeys by 2035. At the same time, the network needs more space for freight trains, which now travel 600,000 miles a year and carry 75 per cent more consumer goods than they did in 2005.

Traditional options cannot deliver on the scale the economy demands. While schemes like Crossrail and HS2 are vital to help meet this need in key economic hotspots, traditional options such as building new tracks or extending trains and platforms will not, on their own, deliver the space for extra trains we need across the network.


he concept of railway fixed-block signalling has not really changed in over 100 years. Yes, colour light signalling with auto sections has replaced semaphore signalling (but not everywhere) and track circuit block has supplemented absolute block. Signalling control areas have become larger, but the method of fixed-block signalling is a constraint on running more trains over the network.

While digital electronic interlocking systems have been used since the 1980s, and digital electronic telecommunication systems since 1966, there are many mechanical signal boxes still in use. The oldest was installed at Monks Sidings near Warrington in 1875. Skilled staff to service and maintain this technology is becoming scarce, but it is somewhat ironic that relay and early electronic signal boxes installed in the last 20 to 40 years are even more of a concern from an asset maintenance perspective.

European Train Control System (ETCS), together with GSM-R and traffic management, form the European Train Management System (ERTMS). This tried-and-tested system will replace traditional railway signals with a computer display inside every train cab, reducing the costs of maintaining the railway, improving performance and enhancing safety. ERTMS is now in service on the Cambrian route, is providing excellent performance and is well received by the train crew.


The challenge is unlocking the growth potential of rail. The ambitious programme of railway investment is at a record high: £38 billion between 2015 and 2019. Demand, however, continues to grow, outpacing capacity. Keeping up with demand is key to economic growth.

In some of our major cities, one in eight people commute by train. Enabling future growth through conventional upgrades alone would be too costly, slow, and disruptive and, on many routes, not possible at all. Therefore, improving utilisation of the existing network is the most economically viable solution to deliver a fast-growing railway.

ERTMS will offer a host of benefits to the railway and the application of the technology will spell the end for traditional signalling. Instead of lineside signals, a computer in the driver’s cab controls the speed and movement of the train, whilst taking account of other trains on the railway. By bringing the control system inside each individual train, ERTMS allows specific customised control. This allows the drivers to always run at the optimum safe speed helping more trains to run faster and recover from delays more quickly.

Installing ERTMS across the country as signalling becomes life- expired will save an estimated 40 per cent over conventional systems. Each train will run at an appropriate safe speed, allowing more trains onto the tracks. ERTMS will improve train performance and reduce energy consumption.

Communications-based train control (CBTC) is similar to ERTMS, but is manufacturer-specific rather than being a standard of interoperable systems. Using CBTC technology, metros and other railway systems such as Transport for London (TfL) have improved headways from typically 27 to 36 trains per hour, while maintaining and improving safety and performance. At the same time, digital technology has dramatically improved the customer experience with ticketing and train information.

There is concern from some quarters that the claimed capacity improvements from ERTMS may not be realised on all parts of the network, particularly without level 3, which is still some way off. Level 3 will, however, provide further savings with fewer trackside assets. The traffic management part of ERTMS will provide the ‘most bang for your buck’ and should be a priority within the digital programme.

New methods and technology in other transport sectors have provided dramatic results. For example, TfL has increased capacity by up to 40 per cent, Heathrow airport by 60 per cent and smart motorways by 80 per cent. Rail simply needs to do the same, while improving the passenger experience.


Passengers require three fundamental things; affordability, reliability and no overcrowding. They don’t understand (or need to know) what digital rail means, so digital needs to be explained as providing solutions to these three requirements while, at the same time, improving the journey experience with simpler ticketing, information and infotainment.

The supply chain is the key to the success of digital rail. Ideally, it needs certainty in the plans for the future, but the base requirement is to have confidence in the planning, visibility of the road map, and to see the momentum being maintained. System engineering is another key element, with a far wider scope than ever before with digital parameters affecting many disciplines and assets in different ways, but the supply industry is well-placed for the challenge.

Brexit will provide challenges and risks, but also benefits. Will the large signalling suppliers still invest in the UK? Will there be more opportunity for smaller companies to prosper and innovate? Could CBTC provide solutions for captive parts of the network?

Cyber Security is a risk to be managed in digital rail, but it is clear the rail community is now well on board with what is required and is learning fast from other control system industries.

Rail is an exciting place to be. Other industries would just love the problem of how to deal with significant growth. It just needs to get on with plans to deliver tomorrow’s railway.

Written by Paul Darlington

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