In previous editions of Rail Professional, I have discussed and suggested why and how we need to embrace new and emerging technologies to help the rail sector modernise; to become safer and more efficient…

More recently we have collectively acknowledged that whilst Covid-19 has been one of the worst events ever to have affected us, it has also helped us catalyse technology uptake, and helped the collaborative mindset to become better applied than ever before. Necessity has helped us to innovate.

The measures that have had to be taken during lockdown have also helped a number of projects and initiatives progress at a pace that would otherwise have been nigh on impossible.

The unexpected timetable capacity has benefited many infrastructure and digital railway projects. In this month’s column I would like to take the opportunity to focus on a project that is geographically and technologically important to me.

Delivering a digital railway

When we talk about the digital railway, the process of delivering this is fundamentally about changing how the railway is operated and maintained. It is about showcasing the sustained benefits it will provide to customers, stakeholders, and funders. It reveals how a new operating reality can be underpinned by world standard technologies for in-cab train control and traffic management.

The application of a digital railway takes a conventional railway from one that is discontinuous, proprietary and fixed, to the worse case scenarios with intermittent safety provision. It transforms it to a railway that is continuous and interoperable, enabling each train to run to its capability, in turn maximising the safety of the railway.

The East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP)

The ECDP is described by Network Rail as ‘a once in a generation opportunity to transform how the railway works for passengers and freight users…. (it) will upgrade the train control systems to create a more dynamic, more reliable, and more flexible railway’ and is heralded as the ‘flagship digital programme’ for Control Period 6 (CP6). Partnership working, i.e., collaboration, is at the heart of the programme, seeing Network Rail working closely with Government, train operators and technology providers.

Modelling a new way for industry investment and growth, the programme represents the first step of the digital network strategy and long-term deployment plan, projecting strong growth for future opportunities across the UK rail industry and creating a dynamic railway fit for the future.

The ECDP is at its heart an industry and supplier partnership model, an industry-endorsed preferred option that is governed by an Industry Steering Board. It presents a strong business case and provides a complete transition to in-cab signalling on the East Coast Mainline (South).

A tried and tested model

Technologically speaking, this in itself is not a major leap forward; digitalised traffic management was first conceptualised decades ago, and it has been tried and tested many times with several successful implementations across Europe under the guide of the European Train Control System (ETCS). UNIFE, the Association of the European Rail Supply Industry, states that ETCS will see the industry realise ‘full interoperability, safety and performance benefits’.

By making the track and train talk to one another regionally, nationally, and internationally, the Digital Railway will create capacity, increase safety, and drive efficiencies.

However, it also necessitates a complete change of principle in the ways in which we work. It is these initial changes in how we work that are a direct result of the introduction of these digital technologies. These could present a number of challenges for the rail industry, if underestimated.

Embracing change

In order for the programme to be successful, industry stakeholders, who have different needs and requirements, must be accommodated. This will require the design, communication and implementation of robust business change processes. ECDP is a step-change, not only in how signalling is modernised, but in how all relevant stakeholders work together. This represents not only technology change, but also cultural change.

These changes require collaboration in every sense and at every level. ECDP can be a case-study for helping the UK rail sector transition from the current ‘as-is’ to the new ‘to-be’.

3Squared is an example of many digital stakeholders who are helping the sector make this transition. Network Rail states that the solution ‘lies in digital technology’; by embracing digital technology we can ensure that track and train can talk continuously to one another and thus get the full benefit of ECDP, and future programmes.

But to do this we need to be able to communicate not only the solution, but the reasons behind the chosen technology. The Institute of Directors states that ‘long-standing running businesses can successfully (deliver digital transformation) with the right leadership and a supporting social and political environment.’

In the case of ECDP, and all projects that put alliancing and partnerships at the centre of the mission, we need to see the appetite for collaboration, already achieved at an organisational level, being emulated, adapted, and instilled all the way down the various chains of command across a widely differing set of stakeholders. This is not only a step-change for the rail sector, but for us as individual businesses. Our new to-be must be supported culturally as well as digitally. For track to train to talk to one another successfully, so must we.

Lucy Prior MBE is Business Engagement Director at 3Squared, a specialist SaaS provider to the transportation and construction markets. Outside of her day job Lucy also holds roles on the RSG Export Workstream, supports the digital and skills teams within Northern Rail Industry Leaders and is vice-chair on the RIA SME group. Most importantly she is a full-time working parent to two young children who hear an awful lot about just how cool and important the rail sector is.