Opinion Former Article

Digital rail future is a must, event hears

Railways risk becoming obsolete unless the industry fully embraces digital technology and offers passengers enhanced services, a conference heard on Thursday.

Charlotte Warburton, global head of rail at technology firm PA Consulting, told the Accelerate Rail event in London: “If we can’t offer seamlessly integrated journeys that guarantee us a seat, adapt with connections and give us the best journeys that avoid delays then we risk something far greater than complaints and frustration: we risk obsolescence.”

She said the rail industry has historically been defined by asset lifecycles, budget ceilings and infrastructure built on “steel, brick and iron” rather than “wires, microchips and apps”.

“But if we are to move freight and people around the country better, we need to do more than bridge the gap between the past and present; we need to leap forward and develop for the future,” she added.

One future vision is to integrate rail into ‘Mobility as a Service’, but that will not be achieved, she warned, by simply enhancing our existing assets.

Charlotte acknowledged that a railway with Victorian roots “doesn’t have change embedded in its DNA” and recognised that this country is not short of ambitious rail projects or great ideas, such as rebuilding King’s Cross station or electrifying entire routes. These are projects “of which Brunel would have been proud” and the country “runs a railway based on his vision”.

But she added: “I don’t think he would have expected us to remain unchanged for this long. We need to develop and extend assets and create a digital railway. We are brilliant at managing risk, fixing problems and rebuilding track that gets washed away, but we are less good at active management of change.

“We will know we are winning when we see workers collaborating around digital technology, rather than mechanistically solving problems at the side of the track.”

She also warned that efforts to devolve responsibilities within the railway industry has “caused fragmentation at a time when we need to be more integrated” and may act as a barrier to the sharing of information, ideas and data. “A railway run on data and sharing data in this digital world would make all the difference,” she remarked.

Delegates to the conference also heard from Network Rail’s chief executive Mark Carne, who also called for the industry to embrace technological change and the forthcoming digital railway. He described a “layered approach” to creating this digital future which will come in three steps.
The first involves managing rail traffic, the second is about connected driver advisory systems and the third revolves around a system known as ETCS that promises to do away with a need for trackside signals.

“In the next 15 years Network Rail has to renew 63% of the signalling system in this country as it will be life expired,” he said. “We have a simple choice: do we want to put up a load more traffic lights or use the opportunity to move to a digital railway?”

For Mark Carne, the choice is clear. “We can get more capacity and reliability and a safer, lower cost, modern train service if we grasp the opportunity that lies ahead.”

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