Alistair Gordon, chief executive of Keolis UK appeared in the April 2016 issue of Transport Times, discussing how Network Rail’s Digital Railway project has the potential to unlock major capacity benefits in the UK.

Thirty years ago, had you asked the board of British Rail for their vision of the railways in 2016 I don’t know if they would have predicted the huge passenger growth we’ve seen. However, I am certain they wouldn’t have dreamt that we would be using the same technology to signal and operate our trains. As it stands, the network can hardly meet existing passenger demand, much less cope with sustained growth, and our existing signalling is part of the problem.

Block signalling is safe and simple but we pay a huge price in the form of underused capacity. The essence of the Digital Railway is to address this by maximising our existing infrastructure. The widespread introduction of digital, in-cab signalling via the European Traffic Control System (ETCS) would allow trains to run more closely together on existing tracks with Automated Traffic Operation (ATO) and Digital Traffic Management ensuring safety and optimal frequency. This is tried and tested technology that is being adopted by new railways across Europe and Asia and has already made an impact on the Victoria Line of the London Underground, increasing the number of trains per hour by more than 20 per cent.

Without a digital railway, we risk reducing the sustainability and potential growth of the rail network and UK economy, and therefore it must be seen as a key part of the overall strategy to respond to growing demand.

The UK is on the cusp of a revolution in integrated transport. The new fiscal and transport powers on offer for Metro Mayors, along with the possibilities represented by the forthcoming Buses Bill, mean regions may soon be able to emulate the model that has been so successful in the capital under TfL. The Digital Railway will be an important piece in this puzzle, opening up the opportunity for real-time data to be used to enhance connectivity between modes, for the benefits of passengers and operators. When you consider this potential in the context of smart cities and the pace of innovation in the Internet of Things, it’s also a chance for the railways to be part of something much greater.

Of course, I have made this sound wonderfully simple, when in fact implementing the Digital Railway will take careful consideration and planning.  Significant capital investment will be needed to build new control centres and to retrofit existing rolling stock and will have to be considered alongside the ongoing investment to keep the current network functioning.

Perhaps more profound though, is the level of cultural change it will require from the industry. We’re talking about fundamentally revolutionising the way things have been done in this country for the last 40 years. It will demand a wholesale transformation of procedures and protocols, not to mention investment in digital and cybersecurity skills and new training for key operational roles. This requires cohesion and collaboration from the industry to plan, adapt and lobby for the right decision to be made in the best interest of the future railway.

To read the full version of this article, see the April edition of Transport Times.