The digital rail strategy was welcomed by infrastructure expert Jonathan Hart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. He said the strategy will enable the UK to modernise the rail network and bring it into line with how rail travel across continental Europe is delivered.
Network Rail said an integrated programme of work is needed to digitise the rail network and deliver improvements to services. Its plans include using technology to allow trains to run closer together and travel at their optimal speeds in a safe manner, the installation of digital signalling, and equipping the network with improved mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity
"The deployment of digital technologies has the potential to revolutionise the way we implement the replacement of conventional signalling, leading to a transformation in the way trains are operated and controlled around the existing network," Network Rail said in its strategy paper.
"In doing so, this will deliver benefits to rail users and the wider economy, including increased capacity, improved performance and enhanced safety for passengers and workers. This means that many passengers will be able to enjoy less crowded, more frequent and more reliable trains than they experience today," it said.
The strategy sets out plans to implement digital rail technologies in a phased fashion, with short term measures including the operation of new smart infrastructure to support Thameslink services in London. In the longer term, plans include the digitisation of command, control and signalling assets, Network Rail said. The strategy envisages improvement works up to 2027 and beyond.
Mark Carne, Network Rail chief executive, said: “In a world first, digital train control with ‘fly-by-wire’ trains (automatic train operation) – coupled with smart infrastructure, is now a reality on Thameslink services through London Bridge. We now have a plan, impetus and the funding, to introduce these systems across large swathes of our railway network over the coming years."
Hart said there will be challenges and limitations to delivering the digital solutions envisaged in the new strategy.
"Digital solutions are envisaged to squeeze more out of the capacity-constrained 'hard' infrastructure, but there are limits on what technology will be able to do on its own in terms of capacity increases – whilst signalling solution changes, the civil engineering left us by our Victorian forebears are going to limit the gains that can be made," Hart said.
"In addition, implementation of digital solutions also raises some challenging legal, contractual and regulatory questions, including how best to implement them, given the devolved structure under the Railways Act: the cabs in the rolling stock in which kit is installed are owned by different parties to those who operate the kit, who in turn are different to the entity with track and lineside infrastructure responsibilities," he said,
Network Rail's strategy is backed by public funding and has been endorsed by the Department of Transport.
Chris Grayling, transport secretary in England, said: "We are investing in the biggest modernisation of our railway since Victorian times to deliver what passengers want to see – faster, more reliable and more comfortable journeys. Passenger numbers have doubled in recent years – which means we need to invest in new technology to help deliver the reliable and frequent trains that passengers want. Investing in a railway fit for the twenty-first century will help the UK become a world leader in rail technology, boosting exports and skills."