A better future for rail

Development director for the Consulting & Rail Business Unit at Amey, talks to Spotlight about the challenges and opportunities of technology, integration and devolution in the rail industry

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What links improved public transport and wider social and economic aims?

Improving public transport isn’t an end in itself. Having high quality transport services is about transforming and driving economies. It’s about encouraging investment, regeneration and opening up opportunities for people and for communities.

The current round of rail improvement in Wales is about kick-starting growth in the Welsh Valleys and spurring on the economy, connecting towns and cities and unleashing the benefits of improved connectivity and conglomeration. In Scotland the decision to reopen the Waverley line is about opening up the border, bringing in jobs, making those jobs accessible, and regenerating the towns and villages in that area.

So there’s a whole range of economic and social multipliers that we see from transport spending, but to maximise benefits and improve efficiency we need to see a properly integrated transport system where service providers work together rather than against each other.

How important is integration between train companies, regional authorities and the rail network?

Efficient public transport services have to be based on partnership and collaboration between all stakeholders and all interested parties. Rather than having multiple organisations competing to deliver or maintain different aspects of what customers experience as one overall service, it’s essential that there is proper integration between operators, train companies, the rail network and regional authorities or devolved bodies.

Transport for Wales, set up by the Welsh government, has some excellent case studies in good practice. On the Cardiff Valleys network of the Wales and Borders franchise they have prioritised real integration as an immediate aim, and have decided that the same company that runs the trains should run the infrastructure. (In the rest of the network, it’s Network Rail running the infrastructure and a whole field of operators running the trains.) KeolisAmey, the operators working on behalf of Transport for Wales, have designed an upgrade that involves both track and trains, with the two essential parts of the system considered together rather than separately, and delivering a joined-up transport service.

How is technology driving integration?

We’re slowly making our way to automatic signalling controls, digital signalling and “in-cab” signalling. It’s a matter of when, not if, this technology is adopted on every modern railway, and it’s just a case of whether we want to be ahead of the curve or playing catch-up. The basic infrastructure and technology is already there but it’s going to take some time to design and implement. The Thameslink service through central London already uses in-cab signalling, as does the Docklands Light Railway, the Victoria, Jubilee and Northern lines. The benefits are obvious: 50 per cent more trains can operate on the same lines (up to 33 trains per hour on the Victoria line compared with 20 trains per hour on the Bakerloo line.) The technology uses in-cab tracking systems and so there’s no line-side system that manages the services. Many lines are already at full capacity, with operators running longer and longer trains and running them more often, but with trains that are twice as regular you can double line capacity using the same infrastructure, and it’s far cheaper than building new lines through environmentally sensitive areas costing billions.

Big data will also have a major impact on the industry, facilitating moves towards a better integrated service. Data can now be collected on any asset, any infrastructure, any train. It can measure performance and help manage the system far more reliably. It can show service providers where to prioritise spending on repairs and maintenance, whether on tracks, trains or other infrastructure. This prevents asset failures, reduces costs and improves safety, driving the potential benefits of integration in an industry that is too often siloed.

This kind of massive increase in capacity and efficiency, with new technologies acting as the catalyst, requires a more integrated system and holistic outlook to manage it. Network Rail already agrees common operating procedures with train companies, trying to initiate a more joined-up approach between the different parts of the transport service. There’s good evidence that the private sector and public sector can work together to improve system performance, particularly where transport authorities have acted to nurture and oversee an interconnected and cohesive network.

Will further devolution help?

It’s a long time since privatisation – 25 years – and a lot has changed since then. A lot more people are travelling by rail. At the time, privatisation was seen as the sale of an industry that was in terminal decline as passenger numbers went down and car sales and intercity motorways seemed to grow and grow. But now there’s a compelling case for doing things differently. Passenger numbers are higher than ever and the industry has been a victim of its own success. We’re at a point where new models are required to deal with issues of capacity and with the application of new technologies – devolution can play a huge part in this.

Running a light rail system is different from running heavy inter-city rail, but Transport for London, Transport for Wales and Transport for Greater Manchester provide really significant clues as to where the future should lie in the heavy rail industry. The Welsh government, with the help of KeolisAmey, is in the process of taking control and integrating infrastructure and assets. London’s devolution settlement has had an incredible impact on public transport in the city, and TfL’s franchise system provides real cohesion as standard. Transport in Manchester has been transformed by the regional authority taking responsibility for assets like the trams and the airport.

Devolution is about localities taking responsibility and being held accountable for decisions, and can be a real driver of transformation and integration. Devolved bodies have greater clarity of policy aims and outcomes, and have a genuine desire to link transport to social and economic objectives. We should never lose sight of this ultimate goal – breaking down the siloes with better integration of track, trains and assets, and partnership between public bodies and operators leads to better transport outcomes that transform lives and communities.