Opinion Former Article

Digital thinking to cut down on rail closures

Bank Holiday blockades of train lines to allow for engineering could soon be consigned to history with the advent of the ‘digital railway’, a conference heard yesterday.

Network Rail managing director of digital railway David Waboso said new technology and a willingness from the supply chain will help achieve “a starting point of no weekend closures”. This may not always be possible, he added, but with a changed mindset “the ability to close the railway is going to get harder and harder” with closures only “a matter of last resort”.

His comments came after thousands of passengers in Sussex this weekend had to board rail replacement bus services and suffered long delays after the line from Gatwick to Brighton was closed for engineering works.

David Waboso said that innovation is the answer to smarter working on the railways and threw down a challenge to specialist companies to come forward with new techniques and ideas. He remarked: “Where is the robotics in this industry?”

Rail engineering is far too often carried out by a “huge army” wearing high visibility clothing, he explained. “Why can’t this stuff be increasingly done by robots?” Innovators need to come in, he said, to help take away the ability to shut the railway and “flood it with people”. He added that Network Rail “is onto it” in thinking up new ideas.

David Waboso had earlier told the ‘From the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution’ event that there is more to a digital railway than smart ticketing; it is about the ‘command and control’ of the railways using technology such as remote telemetry, Automatic Train Operation and digital signalling with the European Train Control System.

He said that automated driving control can improve performance along a line as drivers behave differently to each other and are sometimes more defensive in how they approach a station, for instance.

But when asked what the rail sector needs to do to convince the public that driverless trains are safe, he replied: “The current plan for the digital railway is not about driverless trains.

“We see the role of drivers as being very important in the future. All trains are designed with cabs in them.” In a previous job he had looked at driverless trains and metros, but added: “You need a pretty unique environment for that to work. It is a big undertaking to decide to go driverless and I think we are a long way from that point, so we will continue to have drivers in cabs.

He added: “We want to give drivers, signallers and maintainers – the people who work on the railway – the best tools for a growing railway.”

Govia Thameslink chief executive Charles Horton – whose company will shortly use digital systems to allow 24 trains an hour to run on Thameslink in central London – pointed out there are many examples of metro systems around the world that do not have a driver, including a shuttle service between terminals at Gatwick airport.

“We all have experience of this; but we need to make sure the technology works and works really well to build the confidence of customers,” he said. “Once customers get confidence in the technology they will love it and move on with it.”

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