Digital railway 'needs cash to realise full benefits'


Network Rail has published what it called a blueprint to improve the lives of passengers and freight users through the use of digital technology.

The rail infrastructure operator said the aim of its Digital Railway Strategy was to see 70% of journeys benefit from digital signalling technology within 15 years.

Chief executive Mark Carne and transport secretary Chris Grayling also committed to ensuring that all new trains and signalling are ‘digital or digital ready’ from 2019.

Mr Carne said: ‘The age of a digital railway has today moved from the drawing board and into reality as we reveal a blueprint that will improve the lives of millions of passengers and freight users across the country.

‘Today’s commitment is to adopt and roll-out new digital technology, for both trains and track, that will deliver faster more frequent services for passengers and businesses alike, giving our economy a massive boost.’


The document states that Network Rail’s Digital Railway Programme will enable the delivery of benefits by embedding a number of new ways of working and technologies, including the European Train Control System (ETCS), which allows trains to run closer together and travel at their optimal speeds and provides enhanced train protection.

Department for Transport (DfT) officials said new digital rail technology will:

  • safely allow more trains to run per hour by running trains closer together
  • allow more frequent services and more seats
  • cut delays by allowing trains to get moving more rapidly after disruption
  • enable vastly improved mobile and wi-fi connectivity, so that passengers can make the most of their travel time and communities close to the railway can connect more easily

The strategy appears to have been a long time in the writing. The need for such a document was identified in a report from a DfT ministerial group on the digital railway in late 2016, following an allocation of £450m in the 2016 Autumn Statement.

That report stated: ‘The group believes that an effective change in the industry can only be brought about if the Government shows leadership by setting outs its vision and a clear strategy for the introduction of the next generation of rail signalling technology.’

The strategy notes a number of initiatives taking place in the current Control Period (CP5), which runs to 2019.

It states: ‘In the medium term, from CP6 to mid-CP7 (2019 to c.2027), the delivery strategy is "Targeted Deployment", whereby Digital Railway schemes will be identified and prioritised according to the most compelling, stand-alone business cases.This will be based on a set of principles, using an integrated and targeted approach, set out in this strategy. In addition, £450 million from the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) is proposed to accelerate the deployment of a selection of digital schemes to deliver benefits by mid-CP6.’

It adds: ‘Currently there is no allocation in the statement of funds available (SoFA) for CP6 for digital signalling (ETCS) renewals, and additional funding will be sought on a case-by-case basis.’

Richard Robinson, chief executive, civil infrastructure, EMIA at AECOM, said: ‘After years of industry wrestling with the productivity gap, the time has come to fully embrace digital innovation and take the necessary step forwards to accelerate delivery. We now have the keys to unlock the future - and they lie in the combination of new delivery models and the smart use of technology.

‘However, in order for the full benefit of this transformation to be realised we must continue major enhancement investment in the railway, including from the private sector.’

Maggie Simpson, executive director at the Rail Freight Group, said: ‘Digital transformation of the railways is an exciting proposition and one that we fully embrace.

‘Government and Network Rail have taken the first steps to ensuring freight is part of this story but must now commit to fund ongoing fleet fitment in CP6 to ensure that freight operators and their customers can take full advantage of the benefits of digital railway.’

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