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Digital Railways: The future of the UK’s rail infrastructure?

Network Rail’s drive to digitise Britain’s railways is well under way. What does it entail and what impact will it have?

Judging by public sentiment, there can be little doubt that efficiency and the current rail system in the UK are often considered to be disparate concepts.

It is widely known that the rail network is not running at full capacity in many areas, and furthermore that maintenance and updates to its infrastructure routinely bring about inevitable delays and dissatisfaction.

Yet updates are required, and one of the key areas for improvement is through enhancement to the existing signalling system.

The UK’s rail network has a variety of signalling technologies operating within it, many of which are approaching the end of their shelf-life.

Modernisation is required, as recognised by Network Rail in the form of its Digital Railway programme.

The silver bullet?

It is feared that, due to the existing signalling control, up to 50 per cent of the railway’s actual full capacity in the UK is underutilised, and solving this issue is a key objective of the Digital Railway programme.

As part of this drive, the programme aims to bring the UK’s systems in line with the standards of the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS) to match some of our European counterparts.

The aim is that this boost in efficiency should lead to fewer delays, provide the capacity for more services and improve service performance without detriment to the safety of the rail network.

“The aim is that this boost in efficiency should lead to fewer delays, provide the capacity for more services and improve service performance without detriment to the safety of the rail network”

The willingness to learn from European projects is a key boon to the Digital Railway project.

Denmark’s recent resignalling project is the largest of its kind in the world, with the team led by Ramboll on the job numbering over 250 experts. Denmark opted to renew their entire signalling system in one go rather than modernise it piece by piece, and to futureproof it in the same measure.

What will actually change?

The Digital Railway project is bringing together world-leading ERTMS experts and learning from significant projects in Denmark and Holland to bring their knowledge to bear on the particularities of the UK’s requirements.

Ramboll is working with Arcadis to provide a wide range of expertise, and to create a bespoke and extensive ‘Digital Railway Toolkit’ for the project.

This is a set of requirements, specifications, and processes, along with competency and training requirements, that will support the rollout of the digital railway on a number of strategic routes across the network.

The most noticeable changes visually will be to eventually remove line-side signalling systems and to replace them with in-cab signalling – in a similar concept to how aircraft interface with an air-traffic control tower, but on a national scale.

“Travellers are using trains more than ever with no downturn in sight, and these changes will only increase capacity and efficiency”

The ultimate aim is that rail operating centres will provide centralised management nodes, where rail services in different regions can be monitored and services controlled remotely.

Handily, the UK already has domestic examples to consider and emulate when considering different elements of the Digital Railway programme.

For example, in Cardiff a new area signalling renewal project is proving the benefits of traffic management and providing a pilot scheme for the systems involved to be evaluated.

Meanwhile, Thameslink already features the European Train Control System, which will eventually spread across the nation, and its use there will again not only show the benefits of these upgrades, but also help to demonstrate any shortcomings that can be avoided as the system proliferates around the UK.

What does the future hold?

With all of these improvements should come major optimism for the future of rail travel in the UK.

Travellers are using trains more than ever with no downturn in sight, and these changes will only increase capacity and efficiency. Moreover, with centralisation and technological upgrades comes improved environmental sustainability.

In fact, Network Rail estimates that across all regions, every single locality will to some degree benefit from improved:

  • Safety;
  • performance;
  • journey times;
  • capacity;
  • environmental impact;
  • costs;

The aim is for a smooth roll-out of this system in a manageable way, and to ensure that professionals at all levels of the change are adequately trained and prepared for any new responsibilities.

The days of the traditional trackside signalling hut may sadly be numbered but rail digitisation will have a revolutionary impact on the network.

The ramifications of these changes should be welcomed by government, infrastructure and transport experts, as well as by commuters up and down the country.

Steven Brown is rail market director at Ramboll UK

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