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How Britain’s rail network can become the transport of choice rather than a last resort

Professor McNaughton, FREng and Technical Director for HS2 sets out his vision for the future of Britain’s railways using best practice examples from around the world ahead of his Institution of Engineering and Technology’s 2014 Sir Henry Royce Memorial Lecture* in London this September.

Outside of commuting, the vast majority of people in Britain today don’t use the railway that often – if at all. “Is it the transport of last resort or the transport of choice?” is a wonderful phrase that has often been used, and looking at the results of PwC’s most recent consumer survey, the answer would be last resort.

According to PwC’s Voice of the Consumer (VoC) survey published in June last year, most regions showed predominant car usage as part of their daily commute, some nearly as high as 70%. The highest were West Midlands, South West, NI and East of England. London was the lowest at 25%. And if money was no object most people would still choose to go by car – either driving themselves or being chauffeur driven.

Nevertheless, demand on Britain’s major rail networks is forecast to increase significantly and it is essential that a transformation of the network occurs in order to cope with this demand. The West Coast Main Line for example, is the busiest mixed-use railway in Europe, and is used by 12 different operators and carrying a quarter of all UK rail freight. The cities it connects are growing, and the population is growing, and the West Coast Mainline will be at capacity by 2025.

By 2030, overall volumes are expected to be around 120% of current levels, growing at a rate of 3.3% year-on-year. From a passenger perspective passenger numbers have increased at a faster pace than expected and they continue to rise.

Big demand, greater expectations

According to Network Rail, each day 4m people use the network, which carries 50 per cent more passengers than 10 years ago. Meanwhile, a report published earlier this year by Arup predicts that Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon stations could serve as many as 250 million visitors into and out of central London by 2026.

Driven by population and employment growth in London and the South East, Arup’s figure represents 65 million more passengers than estimates suggested just ten years ago. On an annual basis, this number is equivalent to some 166 million additional passengers using the three stations today.

From a commercial perspective, ensuring capacity for rail freight is vital to protect the diversity of UK supply chains, to support decarbonisation and fuel security in the future, and to enabling UK companies to import and export goods efficiently to compete internationally.

Extensive research has been conducted globally attempting to gauge exactly what it is that freight users and passengers will need from and expect of railway systems in the future. All conclude that the ideal system would be easy, convenient, and utterly reliable, dependable, and secure.

But why has this not yet been achieved in Britain?

Mindful of the gap

The challenge is delivering on what a railway needs to be from a customer user viewpoint, creating a mode of transport passengers would choose above all alternatives. This means eliminating the significant gaps that exist currently between customer expectations and service delivery. It is important to start with an understanding of where we are today, because it provides a baseline for establishing just how much our railways must change if they are to be all of the things expected of them.

Ideally, I want the person choosing rail to feel as individual and in control of their journey as if they were driving in their car. For example, this means being able to choose a seat with privacy or together with friends, to recreate the experience of being in an office or mingling with a happy crowd; or choosing a seat with extra space for them or their belongings, or more economically with more limited room. And to be able to select a guaranteed seat up to a few minutes before a train is due. 

I also want them to have real time information at their fingertips all the way through their journey, alerting them to move from concourse shopping to the platform just in time for their train. And not just anywhere on the platform, but to guide them to the place where the door of the train nearest their allocated seat will be when it stops. And then to be greeted by name by the staff on-board, who know exactly who is travelling and whether or not they have any special requirements because their systems are fully connected to passenger and operational control systems. 

Moreover, the system will alert the passenger when the train is arriving at their stop, and will then guide them to connecting transport with the same fidelity. And on the rare occasion of perturbation, the system will re-plan that passenger’s specific journey, not advise them to “use alternative routes”.

Such a system will also adjust the speed of trains, and connecting ones, to optimise flow through key stations and junctions, thus ensuring minor delays never get in the way of the passenger’s seamless journey while reducing the energy use of the railway through the smoother running of trains.

Intelligent by design

In my IET lecture I will be discussing how future station and rail system design should ensure that passengers do not need to wait on the platform for their train. The aim is to provide an informed and high-quality service such that passengers are confident they can arrive at the station 5 minutes before the train is due. Should they have a problem at the last minute and miss their train, they automatically have a reserved seat on the next one.

For freight, delivering the railway system of the future effectively comes down to providing the same type of experience. Because freight is about logistics, and at its essence, people are self-loading freight. So the core concepts discussed previously still apply – i.e. easy, convenient, and utterly reliable, dependable, and secure.

It is important to consider what the delivery of this type of customer experience will mean for the train operator.  Technical elements and training, staff and staff roles, and operational processes also have to come into play, as does the engineering of the system, including the IT solutions needed. For example, how does the IT that delivers passenger information integrate with the IT that controls the train and handles operational issues?

Ultimately, it is about delivering an intelligent infrastructure, and bringing together myriad engineering disciplines – mechanical, electronic, civil, and others. Naturally, some of the capabilities outlined will come with significant cost; others will cost very little. The crucial point is that the technology exists to deliver all of this today.

Global view

Last year, the Central Japan Railway Company introduced its N700 Advanced high-speed train, which included a form of automatic train operation allowing the network control system to manage the trains’ progress even more accurately through a journey than their legendary drivers. Passengers may not notice the additional punctuality given the already high performance, but the prize is an extra train path every hour on an intensively used corridor, made possible by the reduction in allowance necessary for minor perturbations at key junctions.

A simpler form of this technology can be seen in the development of Driver Advisory Systems – non-safety critical supplements to conventional control that guide the speed of trains approaching key junctions so that they arrive when signals are clear to proceed. Reducing ‘stop-start’ driving not only improves punctuality and potential capacity at vital pinch-points, it can pay for itself in reduction traction energy and brake wear, which is why the idea is being pursued so enthusiastically on the heavy freight networks across North America.

In many smaller cities, the attractiveness of the rail network is compromised by the remoteness of the main station from the city centre. A variety of different solutions around the world are showing how this can be overcome.

In Auckland, New Zealand, the solution was to take advantage of urban redevelopment to extend the railway from its historic terminus, by cut and cover, into the edge of the central area with a new combined public transport facility at Britomart, using a former post office as the passenger concourse. At the same time, a suburban station was moved from a redundant location to underneath a main highway. This created an easy and cost-effective interchange with the bus network, enabled the remapping of bus and rail, and promoted rail for the heavy radial flows, fed by the bus network.

Best railway in the world?

The German ‘tram-train’ takes the combined public transport facility further. This not only brings the tram network out to the station, but connects the systems to allow through-running, by using lightweight rolling stock and the appropriate technical systems to make the tram-trains capable of mixing with heavy rail traffic. First developed in Karlsruhe, it is seen in a more advanced form in Kassel, where passengers are conveyed to within a short walk of their destination, and capacity is freed-up in the main station either for growth in longer distance travel or even property development.

A further innovation around this type of system can be found in Zwickau (also Germany). Here, connectivity has been enhanced by simply extending the tracks for the lightweight suburban trains from a remote terminus into the central city square along a public transport road corridor. Interestingly, while there has been much spoken of converting old railways to roads, it is now possible we will see the reverse. 

In Perth, Western Australia, a whole new north-south suburban railway has been built – the Mandurah Line. Apart from the tunnelled ‘last mile’, it has been carved out of the generous central reservation of a dual carriageway highway. Integrated bus and car interchanges have been set out at regular intervals to provide easy access from the sprawling suburbs.

When it comes to choosing the ‘best railway in the world’, the heavy haul railways of the Pilbara region of Western Australia lay claim to this title. They are operated to achieve a single business purpose of conveying huge quantities of iron ore from inland mines to coastal ports. The railway is considered as an integrated engineering system and every aspect of it is continuously improved within a total model that values infrastructure, rolling stock and control system together. The result is a totally reliable, profitable, just-in-time operation carrying 200Mt each year in some of the most inhospitable territory imaginable. 

Fundamental change

Many people today think of railways as a fascinating Victorian invention that’s vaguely useful, is potentially more environmentally friendly than cars but quite expensive and not really a preferred mode of transport. But the fact is the railway must change fundamentally.

More importantly, it can change fundamentally. The technology exists today and there are examples from around the world that demonstrate that if you blend best practice with next-generation technology, much can be achieved.

I want my IET lecture to inspire Britain’s engineers to help develop a control system that ingrates all of the necessary elements and provides the engineering backbone of a future railway system that delivers the best possible passenger and freight experience.  With Britain’s engineering heritage there is no reason why Britain should not once again have the best rail network in the world.

*About the IET 2014 Sir Henry Royce Memorial Lecture

Britain's Rail Future – User focused, technology driven and engineering led, is this year’s IET Sir Henry Royce Memorial Lecture. It will be delivered by Professor Andrew McNaughton, FREng, Chief Engineer and Technical Director for HS2, who passionately believes that success in transforming Britain's railways to become the transport of choice for coming generations relies absolutely on matching future passenger and freight users’ expectations.

Drawing on examples of leading edge practice from around the world and his own forty years of operational and engineering experience, he will take a practical ‘systems of systems’ approach to charting the way forward. He will also explain how much has to change and describe radical evolutionary solutions based on social needs, technology possibilities and engineering common sense, as well as emphasising the engineering profession’s leadership responsibility.

The IET’s 2014 Sir Henry Royce Memorial Lecture is being held 25 September 2014 at the Royal Institution, London, UK. For more information please visit http://conferences.theiet.org/henry-royce/about/index.cfm

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