The Signals for Evolution

Published in Railway Strategies.

Following the release of the McNulty Report I believe it is time for the UK rail industry to now review the process in which signalling products gain approval. In order to move forward from the practices and technology of the 1960s and 1970s, and firmly into the 21st century, new regulations need to be introduced to encourage the development of new technology. As it stands, any new products are required to comply with the appropriate rail group and line standards, which are serving as an obstacle to fresh potential suppliers.

Examples of state-of-the-art track to train communication systems like the CITYFLO 650 deployed in both Madrid and Southern China, and Positive Train Control, which is used in the USA and Australia, illustrate the technological innovation that is available to propel signalling forward. Both would significantly enhance the UK rail network and deliver better service to passengers, but the industry’s archaic entry requirements prevent this from happening any time soon.

Our underground signalling industry already has the processes in place to take advantage of any new innovation. This is not so with overground signalling, where potential new suppliers represent an element of risk to decision makers. New suppliers need to become rail compliant first, which remains a significant obstacle, mainly because obtaining the necessary Contract Assurance Case (CAC) can be time consuming and expensive. This means many engineering companies with the talent to greatly improve our signalling technology are put off by trying industry entry requirements and end up taking their skills to other countries where opportunities to develop are more readily available.

Despite the lack of any real competition the signalling industry does still make progress, but it does so by creaking slowly forwards. We need to have an increased focus on the outputs of all signalling technology, with the view to minimising delays and improving the overall efficiency of the network.

However, it is often unclear whether the responsibility of safety lies with either the client or the supplier. Regardless of what procedure is in place, if there is a problem with a product the tendency is to revert the blame back to the supplier. This is a hindrance and trying to get to the bottom of matters can be a lengthy and confusing

business, which is far from a suitable environment to encourage new innovation.

We can learn much from the global airline industry. Standards for safety and engineering is at the forefront of everything they do, and as a consequence of legislation they have an open network where infrastructure approval is not the responsibility of one body, as it is in rail. This not only encourages innovation, but also lowers costs and has improved safety standards. It would be of great benefit to new suppliers if there were a series of fixed points of entry into the market. This would enable suppliers to know where they stood.

All too often new suppliers’ plans gather dust waiting for approval. Such a delay is a financial burden in itself. One possible solution would be the development of the role of the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) to undertake the approval of all signalling products, or to incorporate or transfer the requirement to British Standards. This would speed up the process and allow Network Rail to make informed choices on which of the best signalling products to use. Rather than dilute the system this could provide the industry with greater freedom from the corporate bureaucracy currently in place.

The McNulty Report provides the rail industry with a great opportunity. I believe there exists within the industry a strong desire to make signalling improvements. The weight of expectancy to deliver high profile projects like Crossrail and High Speed One within budget should encourage both the government and client into considering new signalling technology, which in turn should give engineering companies a chance to blossom.

Should we fail to embrace the opportunity that the McNulty Report provides us with then our competitors will continue to overtake the UK signalling industry. Why spend money on a report if we are not to act upon it? Despite the pressing need to move on, it is vital that all current signalling suppliers are fully involved in any review; their expertise and experience is invaluable. What we need is a process of evolution not revolution.

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