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Future-Proofing Our Railways

This article first appeared in Prospect’s supplement The Future of Transport.

Annual figures from the Office of Rail and Road illustrate the nation’s reliance on rail, with 1.7 billion journeys made last year – more than double the annual total in the mid 1990s.

The challenge now facing the UK is how to transform the capacity and efficiency of our network to support future growth within the available financial resources without creating wholesale disruption for millions of passengers. The UK will need a variety of solutions that provide greater capacity, improved reliability and better value for both passengers and taxpayers.

In some cases, lessons learned from improvements made in other countries can be applied here. But equally, the UK must also be willing to innovate, grasping the potential offered by new technology.

The rise of digital

Investment in digital signalling and train control technology can deliver long-term reductions in operating costs, while also improving efficiency, capacity and passenger satisfaction.

The next horizon is full automation, where services operate without human intervention. Fully-autonomous technology is well established in metro networks, where dependable technology already underpins safe, frequent and reliable services. In Dubai SYSTRA designed and supervised the construction of the world’s first fully automated, digitally controlled metro network, which transports more than 350,000 passengers per day. While in Paris, we designed the city’s first automated metro line in the 1990s that carries 550,000 passengers every day. We are now at the heart of the Grand Paris Express, a project that will use automation to double the capacity of the city’s metro.

It is clear that the UK must be more ambitious in rolling out this technology across the national rail network, unlocking capacity improvements wherever lines are constricted by dated signalling equipment.

At a time when autonomous cars are being tested on public roads, the rail industry could be bolder: applying well-established expertise in automation in more ambitious settings across the rail network.

Think smart

Similarly, digital technology could be employed by train operating companies to better manage demand, helping to address overcrowding. In place of fixed-price season tickets, operators could deploy data-driven technology that encourages passengers to alter their travel choices through financial incentives. Season ticket holders could be reimbursed for days when they travel on non-peak services or work from home, for example.

Top-down encouragement for more inventive, technology-enabled ticketing strategies could be important, given that season ticket and off-peak pricing are regulated.

Lateral thinking is also key. Take the East Coast Mainline, which is currently constricted at Welwyn North station in Hertfordshire. The Grade II listed station sits in the middle of a short section where the normal four tracks reduce to just two, creating a bottleneck where local stopping services can hold up express trains. A tunnel and viaduct make it impractical to widen the track. Yet for a relatively modest investment, it could be feasible to build a new station a few miles away where the line reverts to four tracks. From our experience in digital network modelling and demand forecasting, we know it is possible to accurately predict the impact and benefits of proposed changes at both a local and national level.

Expanding capacity remains a major challenge throughout the UK’s network. Building new lines such as HS2 must be part of the picture. New lines not only provide direct additional capacity, they can also unburden existing routes, often allowing old assets to be managed in new ways. With this double effect in mind, the UK should be looking at HS3, 4 and 5, and beyond.

Ambitious electrification

SYSTRA is playing a major role in Denmark’s national electrification programme, which is delivering excellent value for money, huge environmental benefits and improved capacity, without compromising on safety or efficiency. It is a model that would benefit the UK.

Imaginative new possibilities are on the horizon. Great progress is being made in batteries for road vehicles. This technology could be employed in bi-mode trains to bridge gaps in part-electrified lines rather than relying on traditional all-or-nothing approaches to electrification.

Railways are a valuable asset and must be protected. Smart, pragmatic thinking – as well as smart, innovative technology – will deliver improvements that will strengthen the UK economy and deliver a service fit for the 21st century.