Rail 757: industry catching up with technology at last

There is something rather troubling about standing at a platform and seeing a train indicator suggest a conflicting movement. For example, recently at Cheltenham, the indicator suggested that a late running Swindon service was going to arrive at the same platform simultaneously with a Cross Country service. Now I have enough knowledge to realise that this was not going to happen but it is perhaps unnerving for some passengers who might think that if this kind of conflict is occurring in the electronic ether, perhaps, just perhaps, it might happen in reality – rather worse, in fact, than wrong type of snow announcements.

The cause of this misinformation was the fact that there are numerous sources of data that found their way into station information systems. Indeed, according to the Rail Delivery Group, there used to be 66 different systems feeding into the network. Given that some had different algorithms or were on a different time scale, misinformation was an all too frequent hazard.

Now this is going to end. Now, over the next few months, all these data streams will be rolled into an existing system called Darwin which has the scheduled timetable as its base but adjust it with real time train movement information from across the network. Crucially it will now incorporate all information about cancellations, something that had been lacking before with the result that some apps on people’s smartphones showed trains that had, in fact, been cancelled. Darwin (it is not actually an acronym) is a ‘predictive real time train information system’ (ah, trust the rail industry to come up with snappy names) that will now also be available on board trains, allowing much better provision of information to passengers.

Moreover, it will be available to app developers, mostly for free, though there is a charge for the really big users, those who have more than five million users in a four week period. Even then it is pretty cheap at £400 per million. Already 400 clients have been signed up to receive the data, most for free, and more are expected to come on stream.

This is a true information revolution and is part of a wider technological change on the railways. The new boss of Network Rail, Mark Carne, an outsider who has come in from the oil industry, sees the faster introduction of technology as one of his key aims – along with improving safety and performance. He is frustrated that some aspects of the railway still seem to have 19th century characteristics. Indeed, there are aspects of signalling, for example, which are on the face of it little changed. Some stations are offer little more than they did a hundred years ago and sitting on a Pacer is probably not that much more comfortable than being hauled by Stephenson’s Rocket. There are too many level crossings on the railway, posing one of the greatest dangers, to both passengers and the general public, and it is right to ensure that those which are not closed have more sophisticated technology to boost safety.

Therefore I have some sympathy with Mr Carne’s aims. Certainly there are parts of the operation of the railway which need to embrace the technological revolution. It is somewhat unambitious, for example, to be saying that we can wait for the ETCS (European Train Control System) Level Two in-cab signalling for another 50 years when even many of our children will be pushing up daisies, let alone ourselves. Preparing a plan for quicker implementation should definitely be considered and in order to stimulate progress on this and other technical fronts, Network Rail is setting up ‘banging heads’ committee in the next few weeks.

Network Rail is right to take stock and to try to press ahead with progress. At times, the railways can be slow to adapt to change. It was, ironically, easier in the days of British Rail. Not only was there a unified railway, but in one of the more crass and short sighted aspects of the break up of the industry (and there are many contenders for the worst one), British Rail’s Research Department was sold hastily and effectively killed off. It had developed innovations such as the Advanced Passenger Train, the first tilting train which was within a hair’s breadth of being a world wide leader. Subsequently spending on R & D by Railtrack and then Network Rail has been pitiful.

However, as my example relating to the coordination of information shows, the railway has not stood still in the past 20 years. The railways, despite being hampered by fragmentation have made enormous progress in many areas. Just think of the comfort of modern trains compared with those built 30 years ago. I accept that Mk 3 coaches remain the high point but in general trains are quieter, air conditioned, give a smoother ride and are safer. Look too how Network Rail is gradually getting rid of signal boxes, consolidating the railway into a few control centres. And just think of the improvements to stations across the network which have been completely modernised with all sorts of high tech accoutrements.

Some things undoubtedly could be done quicker. Indeed, one aspect where the railway has failed is in using technology to cut costs. The technology does seem to get introduced, but where are the savings? The problem there, though, is not so much technical but organisational. There is no one, as George Muir formerly the boss of the Association of Train Operating Companies wrote recently, in the railway who has sole responsibility for driving down costs, as there was in the days of British Rail. That is probably an even bigger challenge than simply introducing new technology. It has to be done at the right price.

Meanwhile, to learn more about all this, I am off to go on a yellow Network Rail train to find out what they really do – and whether they are really better than the men tapping rails and walking the track all night long.


Mystic Wolmar scores early

I do not want to gloat – well I do really – but it took less than a fortnight for Mystic Wolmar to be proved right over rail fares. George Osborne clearly decided to go early with the announcement about rail fares not going up by more than RPI (Retail Price Index) and abolishing flex by making it on the Andrew Marr Show to distract from the bad news on the opinion poll on Scottish independence that morning, rather than waiting for the December Autumn Statement.

That was fortunate for the rail companies who last year had lots of frantic recalculating to do as the announcement was made at the last minute. So clearly we are in a new world where RPI is the norm but this still means that fares are going up and not, as much of the coverage implies, being ‘capped’. Moreover, many commuters, particularly those in the public sector, are receiving wage rises well below RPI and consequently are still losing out.

The most hilarious sight was the Rail Delivery Group (by the way do they know there is going to be a Rail Delivery Authority in the Department soon so they will have to change their silly name then?) justifying the reduction in rail fare rises with virtually the same statement as before. Its boss and fellow QPR fan (Is that relevant? ed; yes, because he can’t be all bad!) Michael Roberts who the previous week was applauding the higher rise, now commented: ‘We support the government’s decision to ensure a real terms freeze in next year’s season tickets and other regulated fares. The rail industry will continue investing in more trains, faster services and better stations while getting more out of every pound spent.’ One suspects that the RDG would support the government if it advocated ripping out half the tracks on the network or shooting every second passenger!

There was, of course, no mention of the fact that supposedly there would be £40m less for investment next year – that’s because, as explained in the last issue, the relationship between investment and fares rise is tenuous – or rather non-existent.

Nor was there any word about the poor passengers in the North who suddenly, in a gesture that seems more borne of spite than economics, have had their right to use off-peak fares in the afternoon peak removed. This happened in mid-year with very little warning. Where is an organisation speaking up for the rail industry when you need one?

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