HomeDigital RailwayFarewell to David Waboso

Industry colleague Clive Kessell looks back at the career of the talented project engineer

The impending retirement of David Waboso, who currently heads up the Digital Railway team in Network Rail, calls for comment on the man who has made such an impact on the industry. At a recent meeting, David discussed his motivation and many achievements. 

He, like many of us, has been in the right place at the right time. Chance meetings with high-profile people led to job opportunity offers from which he obtained his incredible knowledge base and experience.

Early days

Although born in London, David spent his formative years in rugby-mad Gloucester, leaving school to study civil engineering at, firstly, Coventry University and then at Imperial College London, and graduated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

His engineering degree meant an aptitude in mathematics and, after seeing an advert to teach maths, he was interviewed at County Hall on a Friday and began teaching at a school in East London the following Monday. It was a baptism of fire, handling kids where a sizeable number didn’t want to be there and were potentially disruptive to the others. 

David stuck it for a while and has some incredible memories that helped build his confidence in addressing large and challenging audiences. Being a keen rugby player helped his credibility and integration into the local community. However, teaching for the next 40 years was not his career choice so a change was needed.

Back into engineering, David joined Arup, which was constructing the Essex section of the M25. Here he learnt how sections of motorway were built like a production line, everything needing to arrive on time and in the right order. 

Following that he joined Pell Frischmann for an assignment in northern Nigeria where upgrades to water supplies and transport were taking place. Overseas contracts meant taking on much wider responsibilities and opportunities for development, looking after teams and business development as well as undertaking engineering. 

Docklands Light Railway

After answering an advert in New Civil Engineer in 1989, David joined the Nichols Group as an assistant project manager. Founder Mike Nichols made an impact on David and they remained close friends until Mike’s untimely death in 2013. 

David’s first job saw him upgrade the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) facilities at its Poplar depot, including accommodation, toilets and car parks. Whilst not the most fashionable of projects, it taught David an important lesson – any task must be done to the best of your ability and then you’ll be given greater things to do. 

David was then given the project to re-model the Delta junction at West India Quay and it was here that he first encountered the complexities of ATO signalling and its crucial interface to infrastructure, trains, timetabling and human factors. 

Once completed, David was asked to lead the project to update the signalling system using the Thales SelTrac CBTC ‘moving block’ technology, a first such application on UK railways. 

With days of endless software drops, integration tests and weekend closures, the criticality of the project was not lost on him and a hugely improved railway to DLR customers resulted. 

The Beckton extension was then being built but a significant project overrun had big implications for the company structure.  David had to produce a remedial action plan and, in noting how defence contracts were run, he became an advocate of a “prime” contractor taking the lead, and being totally output focussed while never losing sight of the railway’s operational requirements. 

For this work, he was given the Project Manager of the Year award, which was presented to him by British Rail chairman Sir Bob Reid. It influenced David’s future thinking about not just technology, but how best to introduce it.

Jubilee line extension

Moving to London Underground (LU) in 1996 to work on the Jubilee line extension (JLE), David had to assess the intended moving block signalling system, including its integration with train fitment, driver and maintainer training, power requirements, telecoms and screen door operation. 

Within weeks, his analysis to the board was that the risks were considerable with delivery in time for the Millennium very unlikely. This led to much discussion and the decision was taken in 1997 to implement a fall back solution using manual driving and lineside signals. To de-risk delivery of this, a test section was set up between West Ham and Stratford. Many interfaces needed re-engineering, including enabling drivers to stop trains with sufficient accuracy to allow train and platform doors to align and open safely. 

The line opened in time for the new century celebrations and remained in that condition until 2011. David talks fondly of the great teams at JLE during that period. 

Thameslink core and the Strategic Rail Authority

During a subsequent spell working for Bechtel, David became project manager for developing the central core from London Bridge to beyond St Pancras. To get the throughput of trains, ATO with attendant automatic train protection (ATP) was deemed necessary but what system to choose posed a difficult question.

Following the Ladbroke Grove disaster in 1999 and in the wake of the Uff/Cullen Report, the industry had to come up with a workable strategy to implement a nationwide ATP system. Whilst ERTMS with ETCS was seen as the eventual endgame, this was insufficiently developed to implement in a quick timescale. The cheaper but not so technically advanced train protection warning system (TPWS) was seen as the short-term fix. 

David joined the team which produced the industry response and took part in the press conference to announce this recommendation. Afterwards, in 2003, he was asked to join the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) as its technical director. Representing the UK at the European Rail Agency proved useful in understanding the thought processes elsewhere. 

When the SRA was abolished, David needed a new assignment.

London Underground Jubilee, Northern and Victoria lines

David joined LU as the director of engineering, a first job being to manage the replacement of the ‘temporary’ signalling on the Jubilee line. A new contract had been let with Thales to provide their SelTrac CBTC system. This had a difficult birth and regular weekend line closures and lateness in delivery caused travelling public anger and questions in parliament.

It was a difficult contractual framework as LU was always ‘arms-length’ from the public-private partnership (PPP) company Tube Lines, which was delivering the system. With the eventual PPP collapse, David brought the system teams from the separate companies into a single new directorate and LU took over the running of the Thales contract. The system was duly commissioned in time for the 2012 Olympics.

Lessons had been learned and the Northern line upgrade – using an identical system – was introduced so successfully that the changeover happened almost without any disruption. Both lines now have a moving block system that yields much needed additional train throughput. 

In parallel, the Victoria line was already an ATO railway (the world’s first in 1968) and needed to be re-equipped with a new signalling system, new trains, a new control centre plus power, track, telecommunication and platform upgrades. The signalling was a “Siemens Chippenham” fixed block radio-based system and now delivers a record-breaking 36 trains per hour. David recalls many challenges, but the integrated team of engineers, operators and the whole supply chain worked wonders. Getting close to the operators is seen as crucial in David’s experience. 

Another challenge was ‘cooling the Tube’ as more trains result in more energy dissipated and rising temperatures. David’s team explored regenerative braking, more ventilation shafts and an optimised coasting algorithm as part of the solution.

Sub surface lines

With 70-year-old signalling, an upgraded system was desperately needed for the Metropolitan, District, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines. These are complicated routes with lots of inter-running plus sharing of tracks with some main line train services. An earlier contract with Invensys (now Siemens) had been abandoned so a new specification was put out to tender. David’s intention was ‘to change LU, not change the product’. 

Bombardier won the contract in 2011 based on its CityFlo CBTC system that was successful in Madrid. Early and continuing problems emerged and eventually both parties agreed that cancellation was the only option and the contract was terminated in 2013. For David, it was a salutary lesson: bringing in new systems to UK railways can be very challenging often involving significant re-work. 

A new contract was let with Thales for the SelTrac product but using radio instead of track loop based transmission. Now known as the 4LM project, it is well on the way to delivery, but is recognised as probably the most challenging signalling upgrade in the world.

Station and track upgrades

As well as ATO projects, David had responsibility for other station upgrades, including: Victoria, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street and Bank, all of which used innovative procurement that incentivised value not just cost.

Replacement of huge swathes of bullhead and old ballast with modern track forms came within his portfolio, where work processes to move away from disruptive weekends to track replacement in smaller sections overnight was encouraged. Giving options to the operators, where trade-offs between cost and closures could be measured, was part of the process. 

For all this work on LU, David was awarded the CBE in 2014.

The Digital Railway

In early 2015, Network Rail’s Digital Railway programme produced a vision to offer digital solutions for everything everywhere. Recruited in 2016 to bring more realism to this vision, David changed the focus to prioritise elements that would yield business benefits for passenger and freight movements whilst supporting the TOCs’ roles of interfacing with the end customer.

As such, the roll out of ETCS, TMS (traffic management system) and C-DAS (connected driver advisory system) is now prominent, all of which are logistic challenges rather than devising technical solutions since the products are largely developed and proven. 

The Cambrian ETCS has been operational since 2010 but is virtually a self-contained railway with captive rolling stock, so whilst the experience gained has been beneficial, it did not test out the logistics of equipping a mixed traffic route.

Past plans to equip some key main lines based on huge capacity gains were over optimistic but under David’s guidance, are slowly making progress. 

The Thameslink central core has been commissioned, including the overlay ATO, East Coast with its innovative procurement under the route management structure is in preparation, and other main line schemes are being developed. 

Asked whether a total outsourcing of a route to a contractor is feasible, David says that the client must still be the informed customer and the contractor can be the system supplier, but only if they are prepared to deliver whole life solutions, incentivised on benefits to passengers and freight.

On ERTMS Level 3, which will facilitate moving block and the elimination of conventional train detection equipment (track circuits and axle counters), David commented that proving train integrity remains a fundamental problem. When L3 does come, it is likely to be led by industry but backward compatibility must be assured.

TMS, originally thought to be a quick win, has proved more difficult to implement, but is making slow progress and accelerating. The Thales systems at Cardiff and Upminster are finally being commissioned. The Great Western main line Luminate system, a product from Delta Rail (now Resonate), has had a smoother introduction as it is an overlay to the IECC (integrated electronic control centre) Scalable product designed to interface with other applications within a signalling centre. 

The Hitachi system for Thameslink is well advanced and development work for TMS on TransPennine, East Coast, West Coast and South East is well underway. Along with these, real progress is also being made in introducing C-DAS, which with crew and stock systems, will deliver real operational benefit. David is confident that in CP6, digital technologies will become dominant for the mainline network. 

In all of these, David emphasises the need to avoid a big bang approach and introduce the systems in small stages. There is a ‘critical mass of capability’ so getting people within NR, TOCs and FOCs into the right mindset is important, particularly engineers who are endeared to past technology and practices. Safety must be an integral part of the culture of all railway engineers and not be regarded as an overlay. 

Does the Group Digital Railway still need to exist as a separate entity? David’s teams support the devolved routes and train operators who ultimately will deliver the digital railway but a central advisory team has to continue in the immediate future to maintain the expertise. In the longer term, integration into mainstream businesses will happen.

So where does David go from here? At 63, he wants some time out as years of playing rugby have played havoc with his back. He has accepted a small number of non-executive roles outside the rail industry but looks forward to sharing his experience with the next generation of rail engineers, project managers and operators in an industry he obviously loves. 

A version of this article originally appeared in RailStaff’s sister title Rail Engineer.