Feature: On track for digital – building the railway of the future

With the UK’s rail infrastructure running at more or less full capacity, industry leaders tell Sam Trendall why data, automation, and new payment models are needed to keep the trains running on time

Data from Network Rail reveals that 86.9% of trains currently run on time

On 25 September 1825, George Stephenson’s Locomotion train took two hours to travel the nine-mile length of the newly opened Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Fast forward almost 200 years and many of today’s rail users will tell you that their journeys to work each day feel equally sluggish. And Southern Rail’s recent woes are an apt reminder that, when things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong.

On the other hand, data from Network Rail finds that 86.9% of trains ran on time in the year to 24 June 2017. And most operators were running at about 90% or higher, with a few laggards bringing down the mean.

But the country’s rail infrastructure is bearing about as big a load as it can handle. 

Speaking at a recent event hosted in London, David Waboso, group managing director of Digital Railway, says: “A lot of our systems are at capacity. We cannot speed more trains through Manchester, London, or Leeds. We cannot build our way out of this – and an HS2 or a Crossrail are once-in-a-generation projects.

“We need to innovate our way out of it.”

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Launched by Network Rail several years ago, the Digital Railway programme – which features input from various public and private sector entities – was created to promote exactly this kind of innovation. One of the ways in which it tries to do so is by working with suppliers throughout the design, procurement, and deployment process, via its Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) scheme. 

The programme recently completed its second iteration, during which a variety of targets were laid out for how the implementation of digital platforms could create improvements in rail services. Data, automation, and innovative commercial models were picked out as three key tools at the industry’s disposal.

Better, more centralised use of data could allow downtime – or, in industry terms, ‘possession’ of the rail infrastructure – for engineering work to be minimised, and used more effectively. 

“Data is often siloed, and different siloes do not necessarily speak to each other,” says Mike Holt, a business analyst at Babcock International, who took part in the most recent ECI initiative. “I saw a report recently that said that, in Switzerland, they achieve 80% productivity during an eight-hour possession. In the UK, this figure is as low as 45%.”

Stuart Calvert, head of the ECI scheme for Digital Railway, tells PublicTechnology that creating a centralised data source that all parties can contribute to is a goal that the project will, in the coming months, be assessing how best to achieve.

“With the explosion of big data and data analytics, we could use it for timetabling, asset management – we could reduce disruption and improve reliability,” he says. “But we have to work out how to do it, and how best to realise the benefits.”

Train timetables are currently printed 19 weeks in advance, with each covering a period of 26 weeks. Holt says that better use of automation tools could have a massive positive impact here.

“It is all done on a manual system,” Holt says. “They are often produced with conflicts in them – either because they haven’t been spotted, or because people think the operators will just work it out.”

Simplifying the product-approval process is another target laid out by the ECI’s latest iteration. This would make it easier for innovative technology SMEs to supply their wares to the rail industry, he adds.

Paying for performance
Procurement procedures – in particular the rail industry’s contracts with its suppliers – are one area where a little innovation could deliver real benefits, Waboso says. He urges suppliers to “challenge” their customers in the rail sector and present them with new delivery and reward models.

Meanwhile Lord Prior, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, says that contracts that reward suppliers partly, or entirely, on delivery of the desired outcome could be a key way to drive innovation and improvement. 

“How we use government procurement to really support British industry is going to be a very important part of our industrial strategy,” he says. “The days when the lowest-priced tender always got the contract – and then spent three or four years arguing over revisions and upgrades – is just not the right way.” 

Prior adds: “If we are going to get digital rail, we are going to have do a lot of pay-for-availability or outcome-based contracts.”

One project that serves as an exemplar of this is Great Western Railway’s recent procurement of a traffic-management system from Derby-headquartered firm Resonate. 

The days when the lowest-priced tender always got the contract – and then spent three or four years arguing over revisions and upgrades – is just not the right way – Lord Prior, BEIS minister

The company believes that its technology – which, from June 2018, will begin a year-long trial on the London Paddington to Bristol Parkway route – could deliver a 15% decrease in reactionary delays. Such is its confidence in the efficacy of its platform that it is taking on much of the cost of installing and running the platform. If Great Western saves the money that Resonate predicts, then both the technology firm and Network Rail will share in the profits.

Waboso says that more such performance-driven engagements would be beneficial.

“If you are the customer you are buying outcomes, and you are quite agnostic about what is giving you that outcome,” he says. “We need to buy on whole life, not just first cost. If you buy on whole life, it gives the supply chain a clear message and incentive that there should be built-in obsolescence, and built-in upgrades.”

Ultimately, the Digital Railway leader concludes that his industry’s progression towards a digital future is a natural extension of its journey so far.

Or as he puts it: “Railway has never been slow to innovate.”

Which, as ever, is good news for anyone wishing to travel from Stockton to Darlington…

Sam Trendall

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