Shaping the future of rail

RSSBWe take a look at a 30-year vision aiming to halving the cost of operations and their carbon footprint while doubling network capacity and increasing customer satisfaction to 99 per cent

Rail plays an essential role in driving sustainable economic growth, providing access for passengers into and between the major economic centres, and fulfilling a vital position in the supply chain to get goods to market. Having the right technology at the right time to fulfil this role is an essential element of the success of the railways and RSSB helps provide the place for the industry to think and lead, to anticipate these needs and secure development and research to enable the rail industry to achieve these goals.

The current cost of the British railway system is unsustainable. Therefore, industry also recognises the immediate need to reduce the £6 billion annual “direct debit” to the public purse and it has a keen eye on technology interventions that reduce its cost base.

At the same time, there is pressure on the industry to deliver more. The national rail network is central to the mechanics of the British economy and so crucial to the country’s short term recovery and long term competitiveness. It carries three million passengers per day, 450,000 of them commuters in the morning peak. Each day, two million people either begin or end their journey in London, and 200,000 tonnes of freight are carried. The network as a whole sees over 1.2 billion passengers a year.

There’s a demand to become more sustainable and a need to handle increasingly stringent environmental constraints. Further, there is an anticipated rise in demand for higher quality and more economic rail travel for passengers and freight use.

Realising the potential
The railway needs a systems approach and strategic planning to realise its full potential. Railway assets generally have long life-cycles and payback periods so we can’t rely on being able to change things quickly.

The railway industry is starting thinking now about the right technology and value-for-money schemes and associated incentives on a 30 year horizon, and not just the next 5. The Technical Strategy Advisory Group (TSAG) is a cross-industry expert body, facilitated by RSSB, and made up of senior executive staff from Network Rail, train and freight operating companies, rolling stock companies, suppliers, research institutions, Department for Transport, Office of Rail Regulation, Transport Scotland and RSSB itself.

Together we have illustrated this 30-year value-for-money challenge:
Cost: Halve the cost of rail operations
Capacity: Double network capacity
Carbon: Halve the industry’s carbon footprint
Customer: Increase customer satisfaction to 99 per cent
Competitiveness: GB rail as part of the fabric of economic success

Opportunities to change
TSAG sees these challenges as opportunities to change, enabling the rail industry to better meet the needs of its customers and society.

Technology will help reduce rail’s cost base, so now is the time to invest energy and resources into understanding how industry can achieve this, unblock complex cross-industry issues, and bring new insights to the sustainability challenge. Without this, the economy will have the burden of a more expensive railway, which will at the very least hinder its ability to compete and grow. The environment in which rail operates is one where sustainable affordability is key.

The industry – through TSAG – has identified five game changers that need to be researched and developed now so that decision makers in organisations can collectively identify and draw on the appropriate benefits and take technology decisions in a 30-year time frame.

1) Enable innovation, not re-invention: Systems leadership is key to innovation. Industry needs an incentive and a process to embrace the potential for improvement, without awkward technical, structural or cultural obstacles.
2) Establish next generation traffic management: Centralisation of rail traffic control into a single system or guiding mind to optimise the network’s capacity and increase customer satisfaction, reliability and safety. This will require the bringing together of commercially available systems and integrating them. Increases in rail’s delivery potential will be reflected in revenue increases, income which might currently be out of reach through capacity constraints, while reducing operations costs through better management of the network, better utilisation and lower energy consumption.
3) Optimise energy strategy: Companies want to make savings on the railway’s annual £500m traction energy bill through better exploitation of new and existing technology. Train regenerative braking is already in use on the network. This and other ideas need to be further deployed to make greater inroads into the collective traction energy bill, and reduce carbon emissions.
4) Build in whole system reliability: A business case for a whole system strategic approach to reliability is needed. This would help reduce the £600m annual cost of delays and a host of other related business performance costs in agreeing delay claims. Technology can help deliver better asset management, via deployments such as remote condition monitoring and systems for sharing performance data.
5) Provide smarter data and communications: TSAG promotes a strategy for rail mobile communications that relies on commercially available, off-the-shelf systems to provide enhanced information in line with the needs of both front-line railway operations and customers.

Securing the knowledge
Central to all this is addressing a big risk area for the railway – cost. The industry runs the risk of substantial unnecessary costs that would be incurred if industry doesn’t begin securing the knowledge now, and embedding it into its planning.

TSAG has contributed to the production of the ‘Planning Ahead 2010’ document produced by the rail industry, which acknowledges the role of technology in achieving the plans for rail over the next 25 years. This forms part of the process that will generate the next industry strategic business plan and the Rail Technical Strategy will be developed to support this.

TSAG works with a range of other cross-industry groups that deal with specific engineering interfaces on the railway, and particular business themes, like operations and community safety. Together they sponsor research in an RSSB-managed programme. This research is designed to enable industry to make the right call at the right time and enables research institutions to clearly see what the industry needs and have confidence that their work will be applied and deliver benefit. The result of this work will be decisions grounded in evidence on how technology is applied to meet defined future requirements.

The ultimate goal
Ultimately, the goal is the translation of innovative technical solutions into world-class products. This is part of the essential investment in the science base, engineering and operational capabilities of British industry. It will help drive the future growth of the rail sector and through that, support UK economic growth and exports.

The next major step to pulling these strands together is the next edition of the Rail Technical Strategy due to be published in 2012. But we don’t just write a strategy. TSAG has initiated a consultation, to sense-check these aspirations. Prompted by its publication ‘Shaping the 30-year technical strategy’ which takes stock of where industry is, the consultation seeks senior level engagement in forming and developing the strategy.

The Technical Strategy Advisory Group (TSAG) is a cross-industry expert body, facilitated by RSSB, and made up of senior executive staff, charged with developing and championing implementation of the strategy, supporting communication, managing strategic research, identifying opportunities, barriers and actions.

Guy Woodroffe is RSSB’s head of research and development.

For more information
For more information on this consultation and on the areas of research described in this article, go to

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