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Michael Watkins (1947 – 2023)

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Paul Darlington

Born in January 1947, Michael Watkins joined British Rail as a student engineer while living in Mill Hill London in the late 1960s. He was an inspirational leader and was a friend to many in the industry. While training in the 1970s, many remember his friendly nature and lovely sense of humour while working in such locations as Euston Power Signal Box.

On completion of his training, Mike was appointed to the British Rail Board headquarters telecoms section in Melbury House London, where he led a team developing one of the first nationwide data networks. He was always looking for new ideas and technologies, and this was to continue throughout his career. Having organised the expansion of the railway data network to cover the whole of Britain, Mike also led the implementation of the National Teleprinter Network (NTN).

He joined the Birmingham project office as the telecoms schemes engineer in 1988. These were busy and interesting times with the technology changing fast, and British Rail organised into business sectors. The office doubled in size to accommodate the welcome investment in rail, which included work such as the new customer information systems and complying with the requirements of the Sub Surface Fire Regulations. Mike excelled in the role and he mentored many new engineers and was always keen to introduce new creative engineering.

I was a junior engineer several grades below Mike, but this never stopped him from talking to and listening to everyone’s ideas. He accompanied me and other junior engineers to help factory test equipment. This was unheard of for such a senior engineer as Mike.

Mike was a fluent French speaker and his leadership, technical skills, and diplomacy, were recognised when he was selected to lead the development of the telecoms and a train radio system for the Channel Tunnel rail link between England and France. His success on this project led, in 1991, to Mike being appointed project manager of the UIC European Integrated Radio Enhanced Network (EIRENE) programme to specify a new digital train radio system for European Railways.

Mike skilfully managed the EIRENE team in bringing together the different interests of European Railways, European Telecoms and Standards Institute (ETSI), and European radio frequency regulators in the specification, development and trial of the train radio technology that came to be known as GSM-R. The system is now in operational service not just in Europe, but with railways around the world.

With GSM-R developed as a system, Mike joined Railtrack / Network Rail to help roll out GSM-R ‘on the ground’ in Britain. His enthusiasm for engineering innovation did not stop with GSM-R and, in 2006, he helped to fund and establish Reliable Data Systems International Ltd, a start-up business to locate trains using machine vision cameras installed in the cab, instead of through infrastructure-based train detection systems. He continued to passionately support and actively encourage the business throughout his retirement.

Mike was a good listener, and he was always keen to consider other people’s suggestions and ideas to improve things. He loved teaching people about new technologies and practices. He joined the IRSE as Fellow in April 1996 and he was a joint author for the radio section in the IRSE Railway Telecommunications book.

Mike always considered people as friends and not just work colleagues. He was a loving, caring husband, father, and grandfather. In recent years Mike and his wife moved to France, however he still supported Watford!

Michael was a fine ambassador for railway telecoms, not just in the UK, but throughout Europe and the World, and a valued friend to many. He will be sadly missed.