Resetting railway standards: from prescriptive to performance

Published in Railway Strategies.

Archaic regulation of UK signalling companies is holding them back in a growing world market, says JOHN JUDGE. In this article, he argues that switching from a prescriptive to a performance model will unshackle UK signalling companies, allowing them to produce better quality products to improve the UK rail network and increase global competitiveness. Failure to do so, he warns, will cause UK signalling companies to continue stagnating and Network Rail to miss an opportunity to drive down costs and improve efficiency and safety.

As Network Rail undergoes a review of the current national rail network standards, I am hoping special attention will be paid to the future of signalling. This review presents an excellent and potentially exciting opportunity to consider the subtle changes required to modernise the present infrastructure and shift the emphasis from prescriptive to performance signalling standards. Seizing this opportunity will provide a foundation that allows signalling development to grow within the UK, something that has been stifled over recent decades.

As it stands, UK signalling companies are held back in what they can achieve by regulations that prevent them from developing signalling technology that is now needed to cope with the 1.3 billion and rising railway journeys a year and the ever-increasing demands and expectations of passengers. On a global scale, the lack of technological advancement made by UK signalling companies means they are unable to compete for the many lucrative contracts happening around the world. The result of all this is that the UK signalling industry is being strangled.

The UK has led the world in railway engineering for much of its history, and indeed,

older railway systems in other countries that are based on ours will always need our knowledge and skill. The problem our industry faces is the slow pace of evolution for new railway schemes, which we then struggle to leverage. As a consequence, we’re losing market share across the world.

Since the introduction of Solid State Interlocking in the mid-1980s, we have seen no courageous advances with our signalling system. A risk-averse culture has grown amongst most of the engineering fraternity. Yet we see other infrastructures, such as the recently completed project in Sydney that introduced Positive Train Control, benefit from advances in signalling technology. Unless Network Rail alters signalling regulation, these types of project opportunities will continue to pass the UK rail industry by.

The problem with our current signalling system is its heavy reliance on commodity-based products such as copper wire, when we could lose that reliance and drive down costs with a wireless system. In the long-term it makes economic sense to gradually phase out the current system by introducing a wireless, satellite-controlled and driverless train signalling system that increases rail efficiency and safety.

The UK has the engineering expertise to do this, and the unit cost for implementing and maintaining such a system would tumble through good investment and flawless production. The challenge is, can it meet safety criteria and communicate with the historic system?

Judge 3D helped deliver the Airwave project for TfL, where in a short space of time a hi-tech London Underground communications system for police and emergency services was developed and introduced. The same could be done for signalling. It is not inconceivable that in the not-too-distant future a signalling system will be in place that removes the need for train drivers.

In many ways, with rail passenger numbers up and their comfort increased, our rail network is an outstanding success story in an era of widespread general economic depression. Yet there is still a reliance on the Exchequer for funds. Last year’s McNulty Report and the work of Tim O’Toole and the Railway Delivery Group demonstrate a commitment to drive costs down. In looking at the infrastructure signalling system, there is an opportunity ripe for economic development.

A thorough review of the infrastructure and the introduction of new and better technologies, such as wireless or satellite signalling, would go a long way to helping Network Rail achieve financial independence.

There can be no compromise on safety. Passenger trust is paramount, and Network

Rail has worked hard over the past decade at maintaining this. However, if we are to have a modern, safe and efficient railway, Network Rail needs to respond positively to the challenge of looking at the current infrastructure. It has to understand the context of the scale of change needed. It has to grasp the opportunity for improvement by allowing new technologies to be brought safely into operation.

New regulations for signalling, and indeed new regulations in other areas, should reflect the historic infrastructure. As with any review of standards, there needs to be a joined-up approach in the approval process for new products. It is also essential to allow all parties from Network Rail through the supply chain to know and understand how innovation can be brought in safely, and in a cost-effective and timely manner.

Let’s hope this review of standards is used by Network Rail to spark a renaissance in UK railway signalling that can be exported around the world.

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