Chris­tian Wol­mar

Dig­i­tal Rail­way.

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Chris­tian Wol­mar

“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.

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