Are we nearly there yet?

Many readers may remember the 1980’s advertising slogan for British Rail, that claimed “We’re getting there”; I fear we may still be on our way.  At that time the railways were still experiencing significant competition from the allure of the private car, and the railway system had undergone several decades of disinvestment that led to poor performance and the eventual breakup and privatisation of the network.

If that past picture of the railway is contrasted with today's expanding system, there is a marked difference. Investment in the railways has never been higher.  In 2018 Crossrail will open, the new east to west commuter route that will run through 42 km of new tunnels under London.  Crossrail is currently Europe’s largest infrastructure project, and it is forecast that the £14.8bn project will be delivered on time and within budget, leaving a legacy of a revitalised national supply chain and staff training, as well as, of course, supporting the city of London for many years.  Construction of HS2, which will take over as Europe’s largest infrastructure project, is scheduled to begin in 2017. The construction phase of HS2 will create an estimated 25,000 jobs in the UK, provide 1,100 training places each year at the National College for High Speed Rail campuses in Birmingham and Doncaster, and continue to support and develop the national railway supply chain.  These and numerous other projects mean over £50bn in investment to deliver more capacity and reduced journey times for the travelling public.

Despite these significant investments in infrastructure, many of the technologies being installed, particularly in the command, control and communications domain, are notably outdated, often to the point of obsolescence even before installation.  It may surprise some readers that the latest state-of-the-art signalling system (the European Train Control System), which is being rolled out across Britain and the rest of the world, is dependent on GSM technology that most consumer communication devices moved beyond nearly a decade ago.  These are not just UK problems. However, the British railway industry, with the support of the Departments for Transport and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has over the last few years set out clear strategies for making the UK a global leader in railway innovation, technology development and roll-out.  This will not only further increase the quality of the British railway system for the travelling public, but also allow the UK supply chain to significantly increase its export market, which is currently limited (UK rail exports currently represent only around 7% of revenue, whereas in Germany exports represent over 25% of railway technology revenue).  Typical export markets for such technologies are likely to be found in South-East Asia, the Middle East and increasingly in North America.

The problems that the British railway system struggles with on a day-to-day basis are due to high utilisation, aged infrastructure and the complication of interfacing many different generations of systems; new railways do not generally suffer from such problems. However, as railways age they begin to exhibit overcrowding, poor reliability and increased complexity. Technologies that allow trains to run closer together can radically improve capacity; condition monitoring technologies enable faults to be detected and diagnosed prior to failures that impact on service; modern data integration approaches reduce complexity whilst also making available a much improved stream of information to passengers.  Such technologies have been researched and developed at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education for many years.  In general, industry uptake of the solutions developed has been slow, generally due to the difficulties that which the segregated railway industry has in working together to support long- term strategy and innovations to create system- wide step- changes in performance.

A national Digital System Integration Centre that is being promoted by the newly formed Railway Supply Group, supported by a wide range of key industry suppliers, which will be located on campus at the University of Birmingham, will ensure that the right collaborative environment and facilities are created to allow research, development, verification and integration of technologies to realise next generation systems. This will help to put the British railway industry at the forefront of future global railway innovation. Without such facilities, current innovation leads will be lost and the realisation of the railway industry as a new key industrial export sector will not be possible.  In many ways, we may now be on the brink of getting there, and when we get there, the capabilities held at the University of Birmingham will have played a key role in ensuring we arrived first.

Professor Clive Roberts

Director of the Centre for Railway Research and Education, University of Birmingham