Transforming and digitising the railway

Transforming and digitising the railway

The breadth and scale of opportunities created by the Digital Railway can be daunting: what does it mean to my company and business?

What changes will it bring? Should I be worried or excited? Is it just smart ticketing and apps? How can I get my ideas for digital systems onto the real railway? These are just some of the questions which the University of Birmingham’s DIGI-RAIL project aims to address over the next three years.

DIGI-RAIL is a unique digital rail, demand-led, business support and demonstrator programme which will bring together rail sector buyers, eligible businesses and research expertise.
Led and manged by the University of Birmingham’s Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), the aim of the initiative is to solve challenges within the rail sector and access the increasing number of digital rail commercial / research opportunities that currently exist in the UK and internationally.

Why does the UK need a Digi-Rail project?
There is currently an unprecedented level of investment in railways around the world, with the current UK investment plan for CP6 alone being £47.9 billion between 2019 and 2024.

There are also high societal expectations for the UK to have an efficient, reliable and better rail system, as highlighted in the UK Government’s Productivity Plan and Industrial Strategy.

Furthermore, the UK has led the world in technical foresight through the 2012 Rail Technical Strategy which has heavily influenced European thinking, particularly the EU Shift2Rail Programme.

In November 2016, the Chancellor announced £450 million of investment (between 2017 and 2021) into the Digital Railway which is being spent on trialling digital signalling technology, expanding capacity, and improving reliability.
The resultant industry programme, Digital Railway, was established by the rail industry to try and target the development and adoption of digital systems that could increase rail capacity and improve network performance and reliability.

In parallel with these developments, working with industry partners, the University of Birmingham secured £92 million of funding to establish the newly-created UK Railway Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN). UKRRIN will deliver innovation through three linked world-class centres of excellence forming the research heart:

  • The Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems led by the University of Birmingham
  • The Centre of Excellence in Infrastructure led by the University of Southampton
  • The Centre of Excellence in Rolling Stock led by Huddersfield University
  • A fourth Centre of Excellence in Testing.

Birmingham’s Digital Systems Centre will focus on railway control and simulation, data integration and cybersecurity, condition monitoring and autonomous sensing, and improved methods for technology introduction – mirroring the ambition of the Digital Railway programme.

Professor Clive Roberts, Director of BCRRE, comments: ‘Despite all the efforts of the Digital Railway programme, many developments have not yet translated into the widespread deployment of innovative new UK-developed products in the UK and global rail supply chains. This is due to a number of factors and we want to help put this right. What we need is a way to provide UK companies with appropriate support to accelerate translation of university research and de-risk new technology development, innovation and integration.’

About the Digi-Rail project
Digi-Rail will harness the opportunities for innovation across the UK’s investment of over £100 billion in rail projects, including HS2, mainline electrification, station redevelopments and extensions to light railway networks, along with the expansion of rail freight infrastructure.

With the Midlands delivering over 21 per cent of the UK’s annual manufacturing output, it is a core part of the UK’s £7 billion rail manufacturing industry. This is why Professor Roberts and his team secured funding for this project from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) supported by the Greater Birmingham & Solihull and the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnerships.

By taking advantage of the major national investment in Rail and Digital Rail and linking Birmingham’s UKRRIN Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems, the UK rail supply industry – and businesses that probably wouldn’t think of themselves as rail businesses – will be better-supported to develop world-leading innovative digital technologies and products that will deliver a better, more reliable and efficient railway.

Digi-Rail participating companies will be able to use UKRRIN facilities, carry out research and innovation projects, undertake testing and product acceptance procedures. Under a simple process, starting with a discussion about their ideas with Digi-Rail Technology Officers, companies will agree which equipment and expertise to use, when to use these and how the project will be carried out.

The University of Birmingham provides advice and guidance for accessing the project funding and consequential reporting regarding project outcomes and state aid, making the process straightforward and seamless.

Projects over a broad range of Digital Systems areas will be supported including, but not limited to:

  • Traffic Management
  • ETCS
  • Automatic Train Operation
  • Energy Optimisation
  • BIM
  • Digital Twin
  • Smart Ticketing
  • Future Wireless Networks
  • Fault Management
  • Station Information Systems
  • The Internet of Things
  • Cyber Security.

The UKRRIN Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems at Birmingham will provide access to:

  • Railway control and operations simulation – simulator development, traffic management, system optimisation, simulation and testing for integration, and next generation control systems
  • Data integration and cyber security – controlled access to national and international data, data modelling and architecture, integration of operations and customer-facing systems, and security for all data systems
  • Condition monitoring and sensing – next generations of smart condition monitoring integrated with other systems to produce useful operational information and knowledge
  • Technology introduction – de-risking and speeding up technology introduction through systems engineering processes, business case development, system verification and validation, supporting standards evolution.

All of these transformational areas are vital for a more cost effective, customer and carbon friendly railway that delivers more capacity safely. Facilities within the new centre will enable these activities by providing multi-disciplinary project laboratories addressing the big challenges, co-locating industry and researchers in open or confidential environments with the appropriate IT systems; project laboratories developing systems to test in both virtual and real environments and providing verification and validation to de-risk deployment into the market place.

Systems will be available to access highly valuable (and to date inaccessible) data, from railway networks around the world, ensuring that innovations can be tested and deployed effectively.

The Digi-Rail team will support and work alongside local businesses on specific research, development and innovation (R,D&I) challenges in their business. Interventions will focus on both local companies already working in the digital rail sector along with companies who may not have previously thought of themselves as digital rail companies but, with support from this programme, have the capability to diversify into the sector.

As a result, a cluster of demand-led demonstrators will be established which will showcase companies’ capabilities and enable new digital products and services for the rail industry.

Who will benefit from the project?
Digi-Rail will provide eligible SMEs across the region with:

  • Access to world-class technical expertise
  • Demonstration infrastructure
  • Research programmes
  • Technology providers
  • Rail industry buyers
  • Facilitated small-scale collaborative R&D partnerships to develop new digital rail products and processes.

Eligible companies include SMEs with a presence in the whole Greater Birmingham and Solihull and the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP areas, including companies in the digital sector who do not currently consider themselves part of the rail sector but who have the potential to diversify into this sector.

What if my company is not an eligible one?
You can still benefit from the expertise from across the UKRRIN network. In addition to the founding companies, it is possible to join UKRRIN as a new member; enquiries are welcome at You can also access UKRRIN facilities on a one-off or contract research basis.

What the benefits will be?
By working with on specific R&D challenges, we anticipate seeing the development of new products, processes and services into the rail industry. These will be both new to the company involved and, in some cases, entirely new to the market.

We anticipate that a proportion of these new products, processes and services will see substantial benefit to the businesses through increased turnover and the creation of new jobs in the region.

European Regional Development Fund
The project is receiving up to £1.5 million of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (and in London the intermediate body Greater London Authority) is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund.

Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information visit

Find out more
To find out about engaging with Digi-Rail and BCRRE, please email

2018-10-01T12:32:38+00:00October 1st, 2018|Magazine, October 2018|