Recognising the signals for a better rail network

Published in Rail Professional.

The McNulty Report should have provided the UK rail industry with a platform to embrace new signalling technology and innovation, but as John Judge points out, whilst it touches on the subject, it does so fleetingly.

Sir Roy McNulty's recent report was right to pick up on the challenge that signalling poses to the UK rail industry in realising its full potential. Signalling technology may well be expensive, but it has the potential to be the catalyst in making significant cost reductions to the rail industry. However, the McNulty Report failed to be clear enough on the subject of signalling. There are factors it should be shouting from the rooftops in order for the industry to move forward and implement pro-active and cost effective change.

Capital expenditure can be reduced by choosing to use newer andsmarter signalling technology. Page 276 of the report cites the German rail network Kassel, which have developed low-cost signalling and train control solutions. On page 153 the report states that in 2009 the Thameslink programme faced a series of difficult technical and scheduling challenges, which included introducing new operational concepts and technology, in the form of in-cab signalling and automatic train operation; but this is somewhat misleading. Whilst those technologies may be a new concept to the UK, they are not new in other countries. To put this into context, in-cab signalling has been used in the USA for decades, so we are certainly not breaking new ground, and as such the report includes very few examples of our rail network embracing genuinely new technology.

McNulty says that further costs can be saved by removing up to 500 mechanised signal boxes, and the labour costs they incur, but there's scope for a far greater improvement in the capacity of the running of trains. Greater flexibility of timetables would result in a smarter network. Smarter maintenance access would also drive costs down, especially if it was done in a controlled manner during the day. Night labour is far more expensive in comparison, not to mention a potential nuisance in terms of noise pollution to nearby residents.

The report fails to sufficiently challenge the conflict between Railway Group Standards and railway service, with only one page amongst its 320 dedicated to the topic. The report should be demanding a solution to that problem. Group Railway Standards are a key challenge to the rail industry if it is to stand any chance of giving a better value for money service. At present those standards are a substantial barrier to many of the industry's decision makers, who often cite them as the reason they are unable to enhance the newer and smarter technical innovation that would implement cost efficient change to the network.

Group Railway Standards could be made more responsive to embracing new signalling technology by developing the role of the ORR (Office of Rail Regulation) to undertake the approval of all signalling products. Alternatively, the responsibility of product approval could be transferred to British Standards. This would free up Network Rail to be able to make informed choices on the best technology to use in order to improve performance; thereby freeing them from their current role, which involves the setting of standards, as well as being asset owner. However, no possible solutions to this problem are explored in the report. This lack of challenge to Group Railway Standards, and railway standards in general, is a missed opportunity, one that the industry cannot afford to continue if it is to truly run a better value for money service, particularly as signalling is not the only discipline which would benefit from a challenge to standards.

Changing Group Railway Standards to a performance based approach will allow more cost effective signalling systems to be introduced, which in turn will offer greater capacity, flexibility and ultimately a more cost effective rail network. If changes are not made then much of what Sir Roy McNulty seeks to achieve will not materialise, resulting in the same questions being asked about the efficiency of our rail network in another ten years.

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