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Creating a railway for 2050

This article was first published in Rail Professional Magazine

What does the future of rail in the UK look like? The answer depends on how far into the future you look. If the Williams Review is as penetrating as we expect, the coming year has the potential to radically kick start the change in the way our railways are run. However, will that be radical change for today, for the next five years, or for the next 30? Previous reviews have been unable to effect deep, long-term change, because they have not looked beyond the next steps for the coming control period, or the next swathe of investment. This time, that will not be enough to deliver the change required to secure the future of rail in the UK.  

As competing modes of transport evolve, and new technologies enable faster, seamless, even autonomous journeys across the country, the fixed schedule of trains we have today could well become obsolete, both for passengers and freight. If rail is to compete with emerging alternatives and remain a leading mode of transport, it needs a clear vision and a sharper focus on how it meets passenger needs. New technology, better use of data and increased integration can all help with this and transform the sector but, to date, it has been slow to embrace the changes that are needed.

A recent article in Rail Review reported the findings of a survey of 20,000 passengers in which only 46 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied with their journey. What is most startling is that this percentage was exactly the same as in 2008. In ten years, despite huge amounts of investment, and activity, the industry has not improved customer satisfaction rates. Yet in the same period, the way we shop, work, or even travel in taxis, planes and buses has been transformed whilst the way we book a train ticket has hardly changed. 

There are a clear set of actions the industry could take to make the passenger experience better for both existing users and to attract new customers. New technology and data could enable more flexible timetabling. Digitalisation could provide instant, high quality information on the passengers’ phone, and easy access to e-tickets and a guaranteed seat. Embedding future-proofed technologies into assets and infrastructure across the rail network could prevent costly, and frustrating delays. However, to make them a reality will require a commitment to change the way the industry works. 

The industry’s problem can be seen very clearly in the failure to take steps to deliver seamless, integrated transport systems. When we asked industry leaders how relevant Mobility as a Service is to the future of transport, almost all say it is highly or somewhat important. Counterintuitively however, those leaders – when asked if they planned to do something about it in the next twelve months, only 38 per cent said they would. 

This kind of inertia hampers progress across the industry. There are always reasons not to do things. Faster trains are not acquired because of safety fears, though in Japan they go twice the speed and operate safely. A fear that the unions will block changes to driver conditions means that they are not presented and so change either does not happen or happens very slowly. Yet DSB are preparing for the procurement of autonomous trains, with driver welfare and next-generation workforces at the heart of the initiative. 

In short, UK Rail needs a revolution and to make this happen, rail, supported by government, needs to set out a clear vision for 2050 and beyond, or at least longer than the next control period. That long term view is the only way to make sure the right strategic decisions are made today. Other countries are already doing this. Sheikh Mohammed has set out an ambition to make Dubai’s transport 30 per cent autonomous by 2030 and in Sweden, Trafikverket is already developing plans to integrate and automate road and rail. 

The industry also needs to foster a new mindset that is open to change, and is agile enough to test, prove and scale the activities that will make sure rail is seen as an attractive option. That will require a flexible approach which enables a way of operating that can provide different services to different customers, or integrate with autonomous vehicle pods. It should be able to develop a single app for customers to plan, pay for and receive updates on integrated multi modal journeys. 

Once that plan is agreed, the industry should be seizing the opportunity of technology and data to provide a better passenger experience. For example, PA has worked on a project in the Netherlands which provides passengers waiting on a platform with information on their phones which shows them where seats will be available when the train arrives and TFL are now looking at something similar for the tube. 

Data can also be used to develop and maintain existing infrastructure. We worked with a European tram operator to find out why their trams kept breaking down, even though they were being serviced and passing every mechanical test. By looking at operational data, rather than mechanical engine information, we identified the cause of the problem and now they have less than one breakdown per month. 

The railways also need to embrace new, future-focused technologies. In France, by 2030, autonomous trains will run on the busiest lines using sensor technology on existing stock, increasing capacity by 25 per cent and cutting the time between trains from 180 seconds to 108 seconds. Other developments include a European Rail Traffic Management System that will enhance cross-border interoperability and signaling procurement through using black boxes in train cabs which can talk directly to each other and effectively take traffic signals off the track. All this underlines that the technology is available, but needs the right environment for it even to be considered, let alone implemented. 

Another option is for dynamic timetables and services, based on passenger demand and capacity. Rather than a full carriage service running at set times, there could be a single carriage service for the 15 passengers who need to travel on that day, creating extra capacity and reducing the environmental impact of rail. Carriages could be reconfigured based on the volume and needs of the passengers at that time, so that, for example, trains serving major sporting events could have reconfigurable seats and tables to create extra room. It is conceivable that autonomous vehicle pods could be digitally connected to train services, to ensure passengers arrive at the station at the right time to board the service. These are truly passenger-centric innovations that would revolutionise rail and some of these are already in our reach.  

The UK rail sector can make these step changes happen, but only with the right politics, procurement and regulation. In the short term, that means there needs to be faster recycling and customisation of assets to ensure that they are fit for purpose. Speedy commissioning and decommissioning cycles, the evolution of stations into business hubs, and even subsidising passenger fares would then be longer term steps towards the kind of railways that other countries are already able to offer. 

All of these developments would make rail a more attractive option today and help to create a sustainable future. However, to achieve them will require collaboration across the industry and across transport sectors and a real willingness to embrace change by coming together to agree what that future will look like. 

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