In railways shake-up, UK embraces technology

The UK government hopes a new plan will entice commuters back to the railways. The tech-focused overhaul could also benefit industry
High Angle View Of Train On Railroad Station

Failed franchises, disastrous timetable updates and a gaping north-south divide: Britain’s railways regularly garner bad headlines. But it’s the most recent crisis – plummeting demand amid the pandemic – that’s credited with launching a long-awaited government overhaul of the flagging system. 

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, outlined in a May white paper, hopes to lure discontented commuters back to the railways, while also furthering the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, aimed at addressing inequalities between the north and south of the country.

The shake-up scraps the current decentralised franchising system and replaces it with a new centralised public body – Great British Railways – which will run most aspects of the network, including fares and ticketing. 

“This is an opportunity to unpick some of the complexity behind the running of the railways,” explains Simon Moorhead, chief information officer at the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents rail passenger, freight and infrastructure companies and delivers national ticketing, information and reservation services. “It can then be stuck back together in a more efficient and customer-focused way, helping the industry to grow post-pandemic.” 

Streamlining rail services 

Since British Rail was privatised in the 1990s, the system has largely consisted of dozens of fragmented organisations, each with silos and individual priorities that don’t always work together. 

The new plan shifts away from this disjointed approach. While it doesn’t go as far as nationalisation, it introduces a more centralised and coordinated system. Train operators will no longer be revenue-based but simply paid to run a service. 

Although the white paper lacks much detail on the ‘how’ aspects of the overhaul, the plan clearly aims to foster technological innovation, such as integrating different technology systems and services like ticketing. 

This is an opportunity to unpick some of the complexity behind the running of the railways

The government recently announced an investment of £360m to roll out pay-as-you-go ticketing across the midlands and north over the next three years. The understanding is that eventually this could be streamlined across the entire country as part of an effort to end complex pricing structures. 

Given that fares will be set by Great British Railways, rather than train operators, this should be doable. However, it will mean working with other, more localised services, such as buses. 

“This is not technologically difficult – we already have mechanisms by which we allow smart card use across the country,” explains Moorhead.  “But first we must agree on a fair system and common set of rules, whether it be regionally or nationally. This will allow us to properly integrate smart ticketing technology.” 

Open data access 

Other reforms are also exciting industry. Since privatisation, passenger data has been a closely guarded secret due to its commercial sensitivity for franchising. But under the new plans, most rail data will soon be ‘open by default’. Having access to this information could improve the running of the railways, incentivising travel at quieter times and the development of new services. 

Transport for London (TfL) – a national leader in smart ticketing – has published open access data for a decade. An independent review found the information has informed over 600 apps used by 42% of Londoners and generated annual economic benefits and savings of up to £130m for travellers, London and TfL.

RDG is learning from TfL and plans to set up a £5m Rail Data Marketplace, a single-access data platform. Information access and increased digitisation is also expected to improve infrastructure maintenance, management and construction services. It could benefit suppliers, too, who could use it to create new value propositions. 

Jake Cartmell is a senior consultant and head of policy at engineering services company Ricardo, who previously worked on the Railways Act 2005 and with the Department of Transport. While the railway network already has many systems in place that can communicate with each other and collect data, Cartmell believes streamlining this work across regions will be a challenge. However, it will provide economies of scale and better data collection. 

“For different regional rail networks, a common technology approach, rather than several different connected interfaces, would create savings when buying systems or paying for maintenance,” he says, while also leading to data standardisation across the board.  This could help the network achieve the white paper plan of making savings of around £1.5bn a year, adds Cartmell. 

The Williams-Shapps plans envisions continued work on digital upgrades for signalling systems. However, the scale is different says Tim Whitcher, digital services lead for rail at WSP, an engineering professional services firm. The rail is currently divided up into micro control areas; under the white paper these will be made bigger, increasing project complexity. 

As mechanical legacy parts of the rail are replaced and aggregated, Whitcher thinks technology like digital twins – which use sensors and data analysis to model complex systems – will be adopted to create a single source of data while achieving fully simulated operations. 

“Ultimately, shifting to completely computerised control systems – from traffic lights to in-cabin displays – will see more flexibility built into systems and eventually increased automation, with a person remaining in the loop,” he says. 

Public benefits

The Williams-Shapps plan could see a better, more streamlined national rail service that costs less to run, the experts agree. It’s still uncertain whether these cost savings will be fed back to consumers. However, as the government looks to entice people away from more polluting forms of transport in line with climate change commitments, it’s certainly a possibility. 

Cartmell also cautions that train operators no longer reliant on ticket sales revenue could kick-start a ‘race to the bottom’ as they look to boost income with efficiencies and cost savings. 

The shake-up, however, won’t deliver much on the government’s levelling up plan, given that scant services and infrastructure is the main problem facing the north and midlands. New regional services and capacity were announced as part of the follow-up Integrated Rail Plan. This delivered part of what northern leaders had asked for but also cut key planned HS2 routes in the region.