‘The digital agenda’s with us, but we need to just go quicker in my view,’ said Shaun Jones, vice president of Thales UK’s Transport business.
As a forerunner in technological advances in the transportation sector, Thales is used to operators seeking solutions to their operational challenges.
In the 1980s, Thales developed communications-based train control (CBTC) – a system which is now used by metro networks around the world – and its ETCS signalling solutions have been controlling train traffic in Europe for decades.
Thales is continuing to lead in the next generation of signalling and traffic management technology for the railway and, with capacity demand ever higher, the outlook is positive.
‘The broad message is the business outlook for us is good because of the capacity challenge, and the fact that we’ve got solutions that can help to overcome it,’ said Shaun, who joined the company’s aerospace division in 2005 before coming down to earth to help lead the transport business last year.
Shaun started out as an MoD apprentice and spent the first 20 years of his career in the aerospace industry. He had been the vice president of Airbus prior to joining Thales – at a time when the company was looking to enhance the performance of its aerospace business. In his current role, one of his main priorities is to look at how the company can progress the digital agenda already underway and help its customers make the transition.
A flagship project for the company in the UK is the Four Lines Modernisation (4LM) project, which in essence involves resignalling London Underground’s sub-surface network: Circle, District, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines.
Thales is replacing the existing fixed block signalling system with a moving block CBTC system, increasing capacity significantly across the entire 400km network (Circle 65 per cent, District 24 per cent, Hammersmith & City 65 per cent and Metropolitan 27 per cent).
4LM represents a continuation of a long-running relationship between Thales and Transport for London (TfL), which began back in the 1990s with the Jubilee line upgrade, developed further with the Northern line modernisation and 4LM; the company will be keen for it to continue with the Deep Tube programme in the coming years.
‘The biggest thing that we are proud about with the Northern line is it kind of went live with no one really noticing,’ said Shaun, who was keen to stress that lessons have been taken from each project coming into 4LM.
Significant progress has been made on 4LM since Thales took over the delivery in 2015. The company has reached a key milestone in demonstrating that the technology works, using radio communications instead of the existing inductive loop system, and train testing is now underway. ‘It’s a big, complex, challenging programme but again we’ve learnt lessons,’ said Shaun. ‘We’re off. There’ll be challenges en route but we’ve got a team with the expertise to work with them.’
Lessons have also been learnt from the collaborative approach applied during the London 2012 Olympic Games. Shaun described how the ‘Olympic mindset’ saw businesses showing a high level of commitment to project delivery above and beyond their contractual obligations.
Improving with predictive analytics
As well as delivering the next generation of signalling technology for London Underground, Thales is part of a consortium delivering an expansion of the Manchester Metrolink network and its engineers are also developing ETCS and traffic management solutions for the UK’s mainline rail network.
Thales is currently introducing traffic management at the Romford and Cardiff Rail Operating Centres (ROCs). A decision support system will go live around the turn of the year, advancing the industry’s ambition to create a truly intelligent rail network for Great Britain.
But for Shaun, some of the most interesting technological innovations are being pursued in other areas of the business.
‘We monitor about 48,000 assets for Network Rail, so we’re monitoring the condition and advising the operators,’ said Shaun, explaining the work Thales does around asset monitoring and maintenance.
Thales is working with customers around the world to advance a new data analytics tool. ‘We’re really looking at how we use predictive analytics so that we’re not just monitoring; we’re actually providing information that predicts failure points, so the operators can intervene before that.’
The technology is being trialled in other parts of the world but the company is hoping to bring it to the UK at some stage.
‘This is real, it’s not a powerpoint idea, it’s something we’ve proven over time,’ said Shaun.
Shaun said the aim of the company over the next few years is to take its work around the digital agenda to ‘another level’ – apprentices and graduates are key to achieving this, he believes.
Says Shaun, ‘At the heart of what I’m doing is trying to create a high-performance business that’s predictable and to create a high-performance business you need high-performance teams and individuals.’
He added, ‘I have to say, every time I meet our apprentices and graduates they just inspire me with their confidence, the freshness of their thinking, their ideas. In terms of serving our customers and meeting these capacity challenges that the industry faces, we’ve got to unlock their potential a lot better, not just in Thales but across the industry.’
Thales, which employs around 6,500 people in the UK, is working on ways to overcome the same demographic challenges that other large technology companies are having to confront. Retaining under 35s within the business and having processes in place to ensure proper knowledge transfer is equally as important as attracting new talent. The company is also looking to tap into new initiatives. It recently employed eight young people through a programme run by the Prince’s Trust.
Thales’ message to new candidates is ‘Great Journeys Start Here’. Shaun explained the importance of that line, ‘Great Journeys Start Here is relevant whether you’re coming up to retirement, whether you’re an apprentice or whether you’re a graduate… Ten per cent of our workforce are now graduates and apprentices, so we’re investing in the future skills of the railway, how we digitise the railway, how we change our skills.’
He went on, ‘How we get people to really believe in what they’re doing is so important to me because then they’ll do the best for themselves, their teams, ultimately the business and that serves the customer better.’