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Digital Railway: What does this revolution look like?

Eugene Smethurst

The UK’s railways are on the brink of a major transformation in the way they are managed, operated and maintained.

With Network Rail’s Digital Railway programme steadily progressing, there are plans to bring additional capacity to national rail infrastructure and pave the way for future technology.

A key driver will be to improve trade and, in turn, boost the UK economy. The challenge for the rail industry is to ensure both short and long-term sustainability of the network.

The UK rail sector has the opportunity to transfer experience from other industries, such as manufacturing, that are advancing in this area. If it fails to do so, rail risks falling behind as other sectors and countries embrace digital transformation.

Talking the same language

Vital to the success of the Digital Railway programme will be looking at the wider picture, rather than targeting investment in isolation.

A truly digital railway is not being delivered anywhere in the world at the moment; however, Spain and Japan have made some significant steps that could provide lessons for the UK.

Currently, rail systems such as signalling, rolling stock and passenger traffic control are separated, with one system unable to talk to another. This makes the introduction of collaborative platforms hard to apply. If all systems data was brought together, the whole network could communicate seamlessly and instantaneously.

The key is ensuring interoperability of systems while retaining a critical approach to data security. If all systems information could be brought together to harness the capabilities of the available technology, a transformational change in performance, cost and efficiency can be achieved.

A holistic railway service 

Benefits include real-time intelligent traffic management, in-cab signalling to decrease headways, and enhanced industry-wide condition monitoring to reduce unplanned maintenance.

“Creating a digital roadmap of the whole railway and systems would help the rail sector define future demands to support emerging technologies”

Holistic data management could also improve customer satisfaction, with station information systems and personalised messaging providing passengers with all the relevant information they need to travel easily and reliably to their destinations.

Rail service information could even be integrated with other transport modes such as buses and car parking to guide passengers through smooth door-to-door journeys, while smart ticketing could open up stations and create new passenger experiences.

If Digital Railway is implemented successfully, there will be huge opportunities for the industry. Goods will be transported more cost-effectively across the UK to ports for export, bringing benefits to the UK economy.

As with any emerging opportunity, there is no established path to follow. But creating a digital roadmap of the whole railway and systems would help the rail sector define future demands to support emerging technologies.

As the manufacturing sector pushes forward its own digitalisation, there is a real opportunity to apply its lessons to rail.

Planning for this shift now will help the rail sector realise the efficiency, capacity and cost benefits that a more digital and connected future can bring.

Eugene Smethurst is process and automation business head at Aecom

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