With record sums of investment planned for the UK’s rail network what will the future network look like?

5 min read

Over the coming five years, more than £25billion will be invested in the UK’s rail network. While that includes big ticket items like High Speed 2 (HS2) and Crossrail, there is considerable innovation taking place across the network – from traditional heavy urban rail networks to innovative city centre mass transit systems.

This investment is vital: the UK rail network is the fastest growing in Europe, with operators carrying twice as many passengers as they did 20 years ago and many key routes are overcrowded.

The market for suppliers is huge. Based on figures for 2014-15 Network Rail spent upwards of £887million on track and £644million on signalling and almost £400m on information technology, asset management and intelligent infrastructure.

Current enhancements to the rail network are costing Network Rail £3.3billion each year.

Rolling stock renewal

The UK Rolling stock market has been estimated to need between 3000 and 3500 new carriages in the foreseeable future and given that each carriage can cost upwards of two million pounds, there are billions of pounds at stake

From Wales to the North East of England, investment is accelerating as the UK’s regions look at a mix of cheaper, more flexible rail solutions capable of carrying more passengers.

In Wales, for example, there is a clear proposition to replace the existing heavy rail network with a combination of light rail and trams.

Longer-term plans include proposals for a rapid transit in and around Cardiff, new routes within the city, a new light rail system and new rail lines on an existing disused rail corridor.

“Many of these projects are still in the planning phase,” admits Richard Jones, business sector director, rail, at the Transport Systems Catapult. “Most of the investment is at a very early stage or a concept stage. In London, Crossrail, a high capacity, high frequency service, is about to open and Crossrail 2 is now in the planning phase.”

Schemes such as Crossrail and HS2 are seen as crucial to meet spikes in demand in key economic regions, but investment in new tracks, trains and facilities can’t happen fast enough to meet rising demand. Can technology play a role?

There has been a perception that the rail industry has been overly conservative when it comes to embracing new technology and innovation and Jones tends to agree.

“When it comes to urban rail, there has been an attitude of ‘build it and they will come’. The industry has been painted as being overly conservative, but you need to put that approach in context; every morning this large, interconnected industry has to support up to 15million people who expect their service to run on time and without incident. Change is not necessarily seen as a great idea – if it works, why break it?”

Safety related or safety critical directives and regulations – at the European and National levels –impose a burden of proof on the person making the changes and, as a result, the rail industry tends to be wary of too much technical change.

“Safety constraints have certainly impeded and slowed innovation,” suggests Jones.

The Digital Railway

“The Digital Railway concept is the plan to tackle the UK’s capacity crunch by accelerating the digital modernisation of the railway. It will see more trains running on existing tracks, helping to increase the impact of vital upgrades like HS2 and Crossrail. It is key to the future development of the rail network in the UK and Network Rail intends to start implementing it by the end of 2019,” argues Jones.

“The UK has an ageing infrastructure, while there is a growing need for more capacity – these are the two main challenges facing the railway industry.”

To tackle this effectively, the rail network is looking to upgrade signalling and traffic management, with the aim of bringing forward by decades the replacement of signalling so more trains can run on the existing network.

“The network will be more reliable and more resilient as a result,” suggests Jones.

The project is not without its critics, who warn that more trains on the existing infrastructure will only solve part of the problem; what is needed, they contend, is further investment in the country’s infrastructure.

Network Rail (NR) is also deploying technology to better manage its assets. Across a network of more than 22,000 miles, NR has to maintain more than 6500 level crossings, a large signalling infrastructure, 43,000 bridges, viaducts, tunnels and 17 key stations. To do this, it has invested £330million in asset information – the Orbis programme – designed to help NR better manage its assets with the aim of providing real time infrastructure traffic management.

“Using Orbis, NR will be able to better map the network’s infrastructure, know where all its assets are and the configuration of trains. It will be able to distribute data to operations staff to maintain and repair assets, but also to anticipate maintenance needs,” says Jones. “Orbis will effectively turn maintenance on its head.”

Better data for better management

NR is looking for more consistent and authoritative data in order to better manage and operate the company’s assets.

“Traditionally, the network runs on a maintenance period of three months. All equipment is visited, calibrated and tested on a regular basis, whether it has been used frequently or not – that is both expensive and time consuming.

“Orbis offers more accurate and reliable information that will enable more informed business decisions and a more innovative approach to asset management, planning and execution which will benefit the rail industry as a whole.”

Alongside better asset management, NR is investing in new signalling technology.

“Traffic Management and the European Train Control System (ETCS) will greatly increase capacity on the existing network by allowing trains to run faster and closer together without comprising safety,” Jones explains.

“ETCS will remove the need for lineside signals, with a control mechanism in the driver’s cab meaning that railway signalling will be managed wirelessly from inside the train. Information from one of just 12 regional operating centres around Britain will be sent to the driver instantly,” Jones explains.

ETCS will allow for automated routing and ‘conflict detection’ so more trains will be able to be run across the network.

“This will enable predictive planning and proactive incident management,” Jones added, “which means more capacity, greater reliability and a safer network.”

It is a major project and a pilot of the system is currently running between Norwich, Lowestoft and Yarmouth.

“This new signalling system is expected to be rolled out within the next 15 years and is likely to enable 30% more trains to run on the network. Safety will be based on the actual speed of trains, rather than a ‘worst case’ scenario, in which each train enters or leaves a section of the track,” Jones suggests.

Rail companies are also investing in systems to advise the driver on speed and braking strategies. “There is a real difference between an aggressive and an intuitive driver,” said Jones. “Drivers that brake excessively are up to 30% less efficient when it comes to electricity consumption – and energy consumption is becoming increasingly important. New rolling stock is being designed to provide energy storage and electrical energy recovery, much like hybrid cars. It’s important that the next generation of trains is designed to be lighter so they use less energy and keep systems cooler.”

Embracing automotive technology

The Warwick Manufacturing Group, for example, is focused on very light rail sector developing solutions that embrace technology transferred from the automotive industry focusing on self-powered vehicles with energy recovery and storage systems as standard and reduced infrastructure operational and maintenance costs.

Technology is helping to transform the rail network, whether that is through intelligent signalling or through proactive maintenance.

"The rail industry is evolving and looking to use technology to improve people's and business' experience of train travel, making journeys easier, faster, and cheaper and making the overall experience more intelligent, helping to transform how we use the rail network,” Jones concludes.

Digitisation and new technologies are the key drivers in this new world.