Rail 824: What is digital railway about? And a call for defribillators

David Waboso is unique. I’m pretty sure that no one else in the world has the title of managing director Digital Railway. I’m sure guests he meets at dinner parties invariably ask what on earth does it mean. Then probably, unless they are techno geeks, they regret having asked the question.

They shouldn’t. Waboso is very articulate about precisely what the ‘Digital Railway’ means and what it does not, and it is fascinating. Though he will not say it, or criticise either his predecessor or his boss, Waboso, who has only been in the job at Network Rail for nine months, has sorted out what looked like a severe case of overpromising and began to set out clearly what the concept of Digital Railway involves. That is no simple task.

For a time, Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, got hooked on a futuristic vision for the railway. Why, he asked, do we use technology that would still be recognisable to Victorians? A man who was used to the rapid technological change in the oil industry where he had spent his previous working life, was frustrated by the inability of the railway to adopt new inventions. Therefore he promoted the idea of a Digital Railway which would see the widespread adoption of the ERTMS –European Railway Traffic Management System – Level 3, which does not require external signals by 2030 and enables moving block signalling (in other words, allowing trains to be much closer together as there are no fixed blocks and, instead, their separation is guaranteed by radio signals).

We had, of course, been there before. When the railways were being privatised in the mid 1990s, the newly created Railtrack signed a deal with Virgin Trains that required the introduction of precisely such technology by 2001. It was a pipedream as nowhere in the world had such sophisticated technology been introduced on a mixed use busy railway. The scheme had to be scrapped and Virgin was compensated with untold millions (we have never been told how much but it was certainly in the tens of millions).

The arrival of Waboso at Network Rail has seen a similar and necessary reality check. The promises of a 40 per cent increase in capacity thanks to the introduction of the new technology have been ditched. So have detailed plans that had been set out to bring in the new system in phases across the network. No more overpromising seems to be Waboso’s starting point.

His experience of introducing new technology onto the railway is unparalled. At London Underground as Director of Engineering, and later Director of Capital, he oversaw massive investment projects involving the introduction of new trains and control systems, as well as enormous station refurbishments. While many of the challenges are the same, with the overall aim of increasing capacity on a system that is a century or more old, he admits that the national rail system is more complex than the Underground, not least because of the different types of trains it accommodates: There are many more players, and different speeds’.

Waboso has completely changed the way that the Digital Railway programme is being implemented: ‘We took the programme away from being implemented everywhere to specific schemes’. The Digital Railway has been characterised by some people as just resignalling but Waboso is insistent that it is much more than that: ‘The Digital Railway will only work if the entire industry is involved: it is about train fitment, operations, management – and therefore the Railway Delivery Group, the Railway Supply Group, the operators all have to be involved’. Waboso’s team, which currently has around 100 people, is advised by a team that includes representatives from all those groups.

Initially, he is seeing through four schemes that were already underway when he took over: Thameslink and Crossrail, and the introduction of traffic management systems at two of the Rail Operating Centres (all signalling will eventually be consolidated into ten or so such centres) at Romford and Cardiff. The key is the introduction of traffic management system. Waboso explains: ‘Traffic management is a massive brain in a rail operating centre which runs the railway when it is going really well and replans and recalculates the timetable when it is not, providing the basis for the decisions that need to be made on cancelling and retiming services. The decisions can then either be made by people using the information, or it can directly reprogramme services.’ He is conscious of the deterioration of performance in Network Rail in recent years and stresses ‘performance is largely about when things go wrong, how do you recover the situation well and get back onto the timetable’.

Once these schemes are bedded in, which will be the end of next year or in 2019, it will be a matter of introducing the technology around the network but, as mentioned above, there is no clear plan yet: ‘We have not yet made transition from this saying this is a really good idea, to this is really going to happen’, he said, ‘We need to show to the funders and users of the railway, especially passengers, that this technology can actually solve problems’

The process will then be for Waboso’s team to draw up business cases – unfortunately using the crazy Department for Transport methodology which is all based on time savings – to convince Network Rail to invest in them. The Government has made £450m available for these schemes but Waboso does not have direct access to it: ‘I have to bid for the money and we are still working up business cases’.

Ultimately, he says, the aim is simple: ‘Improve capacity and performance at places where we are running out of capacity’. That means focussing on places such as terminuses where there is the greatest need for more capacity and where delays are currently caused by the lack of it. This may well be instead of other infrastructure schemes: ‘There are places where we simply can’t physically add a platform or extra tracks – there’s a limit to the number of back gardens you can take.’

There are two factors necessary to make the Digital Railway a success. First, the coordination within the industry and with the Department has to constantly be in the forefront. The key, here, is that the trains must be fitted with the equipment to allow operation without external signals and this must happen when they are ordered. As Waboso puts it, ‘retrofitting is like pulling teeth without anaesthetic whereas if it is done during manufacturing the cost is marginal’.

Secondly, and this is also something that the British rail industry has been poor at especially since privatisation, the same people need to be retained from scheme to scheme. Waboso points out that it cost about half the amount to resignal the Northern Line than the Jubilee because by then he had an experience team that had learnt from the mistakes on the Jubilee. He wants to see the team, who he has brought together from London Underground and abroad, as well as from Network Rail, working through the railway implementing schemes. Older readers (well very old ones!) will remember that this is how Sir Herbert  Walker electrified the Southern Railway so cheaply between the wars. Waboso is the sort of chap who will appreciate following in the footsteps of such a great man.

The vision which Waboso has for the railway of the future may be less exciting, less headline-grabbing than was presented before. However, it is realistic and the gains that can be delivered, while not necessarily being 40 per cent more train paths as was originally suggested, will be substantial and transformative. Being realistic is not incompatible with having a vision. But it is a vision rather than a dream.


Time for defibrillators

A friend of mine was recently on a train when an elderly woman had a heart attack. Trained in first aid, he and another passenger gave CPR for half an hour until the emergency services arrived. Sadly, the lady died but my pal has made a good point. He tried to get a defibrillator but there was none on the train.

This is something that could save lives. They cost around £500 each which is not a vast expense even if just half a dozen people were saved each year.

Of course there are issues about where it would be kept and who would have access, but these are not insuperable. Indeed, on long distance trains, which always have a train manager on duty, there seems no barrier to installing them straight away. There is an online petition (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/177347)  which can be signed to put pressure on the government but perhaps this is something Rail Delivery Group or the train operators could pick up.


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