“Waboso points out that it cost about half the amount to resignal the Northern Line than it did the Jubilee Line, because by then he had an experienced team who had learned from the mistakes on the Jubilee.”
Waboso is unique. I’m pretty sure that no one else in the world has the title of Managing Director Digital Railway. I’m sure guests he meets at dinner parties invariably ask what on Earth does it mean. Then probably, unless they are techno-geeks, they regret having asked the question.
They shouldn’t. Waboso is very articulate about precisely what the ‘Digital Railway’ means and what it does not, and it is fascinating. Though he will not say it, or criticise either his predecessor or his boss, Waboso (who has only been in the job at Network Rail for nine months) has sorted out what looked like a severe case of overpromising and has begun to set out clearly what the concept of Digital Railway involves. That is no simple task.
For a time, NR Chief Executive Mark Carne got hooked on a futuristic vision for the railway. Why, he asked, do we use technology that would still be recognisable to Victorians?
A man used to rapid technological change in the oil industry, where he had spent his previous working life, was frustrated by the railway’s inability to adopt new inventions. Therefore, he promoted the idea of a Digital Railway which would feature the widespread adoption of ERTMS (European Railway Traffic Management System) Level 3, which does not require external signals by 2030 and enables moving block signalling (in other words, allowing trains to be much closer together as there are no fixed blocks - instead, their separation is guaranteed by radio signals).
We had, of course, been there before. When the railways were being privatised in the mid1990s, the newly created Railtrack signed a deal with Virgin Trains that required the introduction of precisely such technology by 2001. It was a pipedream - nowhere in the world had such sophisticated technology been introduced on a mixed-use busy railway. The scheme had to be scrapped and Virgin Trains was compensated with untold millions (we have never been told exactly how much).
Waboso’s arrival at Network Rail has featured a similar and necessary reality check. The promises of a 40% increase in capacity as a result of the introduction of the new technology have been ditched. So too have detailed plans that had been set out to bring in the new system in phases across the network. No more overpromising seems to be Waboso’s starting point.
His experience of introducing new technology onto the railway is unparalleled. At London Underground, as Director of Engineering and later Director of Capital, he oversaw massive investment projects involving the introduction of new trains and control systems, as well as enormous station refurbishments. While many of the challenges are the same, with the overall aim of increasing capacity on a system that is a century (or more) old, he acknowledges that the national rail system is more complex than the Underground, not least because of the different types of trains it accommodates: “There are many more players, and different speeds.”
Waboso has completely changed the way that the Digital Railway programme is being implemented: “We took the programme away from being implemented everywhere to specific schemes.’”
The Digital Railway has been characterised by some people as just resignalling, but Waboso insists that it is much more than that: “The Digital Railway will only work if the entire industry is involved. It is about train fitment, operations, management - and therefore the Rail Delivery Group, the Rail Supply Group, the operators all have to be involved.” Waboso’s team, which currently has around 100 people, is advised by a team that includes representatives from all those groups.
Initially, he is seeing through four schemes that were already under way when he took over: Thameslink and Crossrail, and the introduction of traffic management systems at two of the Rail Operating Centres - at Romford and Cardiff (all signalling will eventually be consolidated into ten or so such centres).
The key is the introduction of a traffic management system. Waboso explains: “Traffic management is a massive brain in a Rail Operating Centre which runs the railway when it is going really well and replans and recalculates the timetable when it is not,
providing the basis for the decisions that need to be made on cancelling and retiming services. The decisions can then either be made by people using the information, or it can directly reprogramme services.”
He is conscious of the deterioration of performance in Network Rail in recent years, and stresses: “Performance is largely about when things go wrong, how do you recover the situation well and get back onto the timetable?”
Once these schemes are bedded in, which will be the end of next year or in 2019, it will be a matter of introducing the technology around the network. But, as mentioned above, there is no clear plan yet: “We have not yet made the transition from saying ‘this is a really good idea’ to ‘this is really going to happen’. We need to show to the funders and users of the railway, especially passengers, that this technology can actually solve problems.”
The process will then be for Waboso’s team to draw up business cases - unfortunately using the crazy Department for Transport methodology, which is all based on time savings - to convince Network Rail to invest in them. The Government has made £450 million available for these schemes, but Waboso does not have direct access to it: “I have to bid for the money and we are still working up business cases.”
Ultimately, he says, the aim is simple: “Improve capacity and performance at places where we are running out of capacity.”
That means focusing on places such as termini, where there is the greatest need for more capacity and where delays are currently caused by the lack of it. This may well be instead of other infrastructure schemes: “There are places where we simply can’t physically add a platform or extra tracks - there’s a limit to the number of back gardens you can take.”
There are two factors necessary to make the Digital Railway a success. Firstly, the coordination within the industry and with the DfT has to constantly be at the forefront. The key here is that trains must be fitted with the equipment to allow operation without external signals, and this must happen when they are ordered. As Waboso puts it: “Retrofitting is like pulling teeth without anaesthetic, whereas if it is done during manufacturing the cost is marginal.”
Secondly, and this is also something that the British rail industry has been poor at (especially since privatisation), the same people need to be retained from scheme to scheme. Waboso points out that it cost about half the amount to resignal the Northern Line than it did the Jubilee Line, because by then he had an experienced team who had learned from the mistakes on the Jubilee. He wants to see the team, whom he has brought together from London Underground and abroad as well as from Network Rail, working through the railway implementing schemes.
Older readers (well, very old ones!) will remember that this is how Sir Herbert Walker electrified the Southern Railway so cheaply between the wars. Waboso is the sort of chap who will appreciate following in the footsteps of such a great man.
The vision which Waboso has for the railway of the future may be less exciting, less headlinegrabbing than was presented before. However, it is realistic and the gains that can be delivered, while not necessarily being 40% more train paths as was originally suggested, will be substantial and transformative.
Being realistic is not incompatible with having a vision. But it is a vision, rather than a dream.
Write to Christian Wolmar
c/o RAIL, Bauer Media, Media House, Lynchwood, Peterborough Business Park, Peterborough, PE2 6EA. Christian Wolmar can be contacted via his website www.christianwolmar.co.uk.