Technology could make or break the railway

Traditionally, railway mangers have always had an uneasy relationship with new technology. Because the rail network is so extensive and, in many cases, so old, it is very difficult to introduce an entirely new system of working. Investment tends to be lumpy and therefore, tried and tested methods are often favoured by rail managers, who dare not risk innovation.

It took nearly a century between the introduction of the first safety system that gave a warning to drivers who passed a signal at danger and the full scale mandatory implementation of such a system across the network.

The next stage was to prevent signals being passed at danger entirely. British Rail began was beginning to test such a system, Automatic Train Protection, when privatisation halted the programme. Instead we have a slightly lower level of protection, the Train Protection & Warning System, which has eliminated nearly all the risk of an accident caused by a driver going through a red light.

Now the European Commission wants rail companies to adopt the completely new technology required by the European Rail Traffic Management System which would not only eliminate this risk entirely – initially through ATP but eventually through the replacement of line side signals with in-cab control. Ultimately, the aim is to have a European wide interoperable system with trains being controlled through radio signals without the need for trackside signals.

Theoretically, such a technology – called ERTMS level 3 – would allow a substantial increase in capacity as the distance between trains would be determined by their proximity to each other rather than being dependent on the distance separating signals, as at present.

Amazingly, a dozen years ago, in the heady days of Railtrack’s doomed plan to run the railways privately, this was the technology that underpinned its plans for the West Coast Main Line. On the basis of a consultant’s report that, Railtrack signed a contract with Virgin that guaranteed the installation of this moving block technology about halfway through its 15 year franchise. This was such an absurd fantasy that the consultants should be sued for all the billions – paid by the taxpayer of course – resulting from this fiasco which contributed much to the demise of Railtrack.

On October 3rd, the Department for Transport published an implementation plan for ERTMS, which sets out the plan for installing the system on some 72 per cent of the railway which would be achieved by 2038. The industry and the Department fear that uninformed comment in the tabloids will suggest that this means that passengers lives are being put at risk by the tardiness of the industry and the government in installing ERTMS.

This, of course, is nonsense. The main driver of installing a totally new signalling system is not safety, especially given the implementation of TPWS, but to reduce the cost of signalling and increase the capacity of the network. However, a table in a report on ERTMS by the Community of European Railways (CER), A new signalling system for Europe’s trains, published in March suggests that the new system would only reduce the cost of signalling by around a half, and that does not take into account the expense of introducing the system. Crucially, these savings would only be realised once there was no need for a back up system – in other words, there would need to be a 100 per cent secure radio signalling system that could be used throughout the network.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there are major doubts among many railway managers that the implementation of such an all singing all dancing signalling system will ever happen. This is not being Luddite. While the technology, which is the subject of a trial on the Cambrian line at the moment, appears feasible for relatively straightforward sections of railway, the notion that it could be used in, say, the throat of a major London terminal seems fanciful. Yet, the march of European legislation through a series of ‘interoperability directives’ appears unstoppable. Already new lines are required to have ERTMS, which has caused serious delays to the opening of the high speed line linking Holland with Belgium, running between Antwerp and Amsterdam and it is European legislation that has forced the Department to issue its implementation plan.

The Department’s plan contains a short paragraph giving the risks which range from ‘the implementation capability of the industry’ and ‘delivering on the cost assumptions’ to ‘engineering and operational integration into the current railway’ and ‘commitment across multiple control periods and franchises’. Significantly, there is not a single assessment of the cost of this project in the plan, but an estimate of £3.4bn has been suggested elsewhere.

This is a lot of money given that, crucially, the plan only talks about Level 2 or ERTMS, which only involves the replacement of lineside signals by in cab signalling, and not the full ‘moving block’ technology of Level 3, which currently is not really even being developed.

Thus the Department seems to be about to commit a staggering sum to an untried technology for little benefit and at huge cost. Contrast this with the statement in the White Paper issued in July, that further electrification, a tried and tested technology known to be cost effective and popular with passengers, was unlikely to be viable because a new technology, hydrogen, would be introduced before the life span of equipment was reached. Just possibly it might be an idea if ministers and civil servants considering new technologies for the railways exercise the caution which real railway managers always have.