Delays and cutbacks in TMS plans cast doubt on entire Digital Railway

Changes to Network Rail’s Enhancements Delivery Plan (EDP) following the Hendy Review – including further delays to ETCS commissioning on the East Coast and Great Western main lines – mean that phase 1 milestones are likely being pushed back to CP6, “inevitably” creating uncertainty about the entire delivery of the Digital Railway, Hitachi has said.

In its evidence submission to the Transport Select Committee’s inquiry into rail technology, Hitachi Rail Europe outlined a series of concerns around the many ambitions for delivering the Digital Railway proposals.

It cited, for example, reductions in the ETCS Cab Fitment Fund, delays to ETCS commissioning and the revision of the Innovation Fund for CP5 from £52m to £19m and the Strategic Research and Development Fund from £50m to £13.5m.

“Beyond the above references to ETCS infrastructure plans, there is no mention of Network Rail’s plans to implement an accelerated vision for a digital railway, including the traffic management pilot scheme in Norwich and Great Yarmouth. This is in contrast to Network Rail’s Digital Railway plans for CP5 and CP6-7, as well as the DfT’s focus on digital solutions,” the company added.

Hitachi, which has been contracted to provide the Traffic Management System (TMS) for Thameslink as well as a portfolio of train builds across the country, argued that rolling out TMS can increase railway capacity by around 40%.

But the current plan “lacks the pace, prioritisation and scope needed to meet passenger and freight growth”, as has been pointed out by the Digital Railway Programme Steering Group.

“There is a real need to address the capacity challenges for fare paying customers today – by rolling out TMS capacity enhancement can be achieved more quickly,” the company said.

“This current plan is based on making the most use out of existing signalling infrastructure and achieving the lowest whole-life cost approach. It therefore fails to account for the range of economic benefits that could be derived from a faster programme of implementation.”

It added: “Given the various complex elements involved in a digital railway, an effective joined-up approach to ERTMS is crucial. The current slow development of ETCS-enabled signals means that ETCS-enabled trains and TMS developments cannot fully take advantage of the capacity and reliability benefits proposed.”

While the full business case of the accelerated Digital Railway programme is still being drawn up – with a target submission date of September for the CP6 initial industry plan – there is already “too much uncertainty” around the programme at present, Hitachi said, as well as around subsequent tender opportunities.

In addition to that, a lack of information about existing assets and access to date is “discouraging the supply chain from investing in research and development, new services and skills”.

“It is also a barrier to businesses within the supply chain to developing collaborative working arrangements on digital solutions,” it added.

“Given the complex technologies involved, it is vital that suppliers across each of the different digital railway systems collaborate to better understand the challenges and interoperability of their technologies, and achieve stated milestones.

“Likewise, supplier input needs to be greater on the Digital Railway Programme Steering Group. At present, industry representation is largely comprised of train operating companies, rather than those who would be providing the technology.”

As well as including greater supplier input in the steering group, the entirety of Network Rail’s Digital Railway team must also operate “with a degree of separation” from the rest of Network Rail in order to “prevent any operational conflict with the day-to-day rules and organisational structure”.

Greater supplier input and training

To break down current barriers to achieving a digital railway in the UK, Hitachi recommended that Network Rail and the DfT publish a clear programme of works for this programme for CP6 and beyond, as well as develop a supplier steering group linked to the current general steering group “to drive collaborative and innovative approaches”.

“In order to deliver the accelerated Digital Railway proposals, more extensive supplier collaboration is required at a technical level, and decision-making level within the Steering Group,” it said.

“International expertise from companies such as ProRail can help to understand some of the challenges experienced with implementation in other European countries, looking at lessons learned and the most appropriate actions necessary to improve procedural developments.”

But the Digital Railway programme will also require a digitally-talented workforce, Hitachi said, of which the requisite skills exist in the industry at the moment, but not in the necessary amounts to “bring innovation to scale”.

“Greater visibility on plans for rolling out the digital railway will allow the supply chain to invest in the talent and training required,” it added.

As well as placing greater focus on suppliers, Network Rail must work closely with TOCs to develop efficient plans for training on integrated systems.

Read more about this in the April/May edition of RTM, where leaders from Network Rail and NSAR discussed the fundamental need to support suppliers to invest in skills and training.


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BDC 303 Apr 2023