Britain stands to gain massively from Europe’s Digital Railway Programme, we shouldn’t let Brexit de-rail us

Steve Denniss

There’s no denying that the transport sector has been in a tailspin since June’s Brexit votes with some worrying that the rug could be pulled under EU-funded transport and infrastructure projects and that rail fares could spiral with rising inflation.

However, Brexit could provide the unforeseen opportunity for the UK rail industry to lead the European technology revolution.

Europe has done a lot for rail in the past 25 years; one can travel easily from London to Lyon, Berlin to Bordeaux and Amsterdam to Avignon on what I’ve coined the “Europa Line”. This has been made possible by the range of European Railway directives that have come into force since 1991 in order to open railways across Europe to competition and boost technical harmonisation for tracks, ticketing, licensing and safety among others.

The UK has been working towards upgrading and harmonising our Victorian railway via the Digital Railway Programme. An industry-wide initiative, the Digital Railway Programme will use European technology and standards to create a digital environment around it in order to increase line capacity and reliability. It’s something that hasn’t been attempted anywhere else in Europe.

At the moment, when train drivers look out of their cab what they see is an array of signals, poles and other infrastructure that can break and cause delay. To improve capacity, the Digital Railway Programme will use European Train Control System, the digital equivalent of the traditional signalling system, which removes fixed-blocks and in turn the need for trains to stop and start at red lights.

Now the real question is whether the referendum result signals an exit for the Digital Railway Programme or is the European Train Control System still the way forward for UK rail?

The UK railways are in need of a technology refresh and implementing the European Train Control System would be a major step forward

The European Train Control System has been specified by Europe, and for Europe, with the sole purpose of harmonising train control across the continent and therefore enable seamless travel across our borders. All member countries must abide by these train specifications whenever they signal a new line or upgrade an existing one for instance.

The UK railways are in need of a technology refresh and implementing the European Train Control System would be a major step forward.

For rail passengers and commuters alike, the European Train Control System has the potential to improve capacity by as much as 40% by removing ‘traffic-light’ signals and speed signs alongside the track. There can be more trains per track km as drivers would know exactly where the trains in front and behind are, thanks to the data transmitted via control centre.

The European Train Control System also represents an opportunity for train companies and infrastructure managers among others as it could reduce the cost of the railway by 25% through the removal of trackside signals and the associated cost of maintenance.

Furthermore, when it comes to operation and maintenance there is a wealth of experience across Europe and indeed the rest of the world of how the European Train Control System performs so operation and maintenance becomes standard practice. Repairs and spares are off-the-shelf and maintenance principles, manuals and tools can be reused; and safety is at the core of the system’s specification.

In short, complying with European standards makes for efficient and reliable railway for passengers with the delivery of high performance systems, reliable operation and maintenance, and a high level of safety.

Now that we have voted to come out of the European Union it would make no sense to abandon all the advantages of the European Train Control System.

What is likely to happen is that all those digital technologies that rail operator might want to add (i.e. a new system that could tell you where there’s an available seat on the train for instance) might now become much easier to implement because there will be no need to seek approval from Europe if these technology don’t precisely fit EU standards. We could also benefit from not having to “dot every I and cross every T” with respect to the compliance documentation which Europe has specified must be produced.

On the whole Brexit might be the opportunity for a bright future for the UK rail industry. Out of Europe, but leading the technology revolution. 

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is working closely with the Digital Railway team providing system engineering, safety, cyber security and interoperability planning and assurance support. The UK rail industry has a responsibility to select the right technology and evolve the right operational culture to implement the Digital Railway vision without allowing Brexit to de-rail us from delivering the benefits. This moment in our railways history is an opportunity to provide leadership to steer a clear course through the next few years of uncertainty, providing the necessary technical assurance and programme guidance to ensure delivery of the vision for the future of rail transport in the UK.

Steve Denniss is rail technical director at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff