The next steps for rail: challenges and opportunities
Despite a number of presentations and plethora of opinions, one clear message emerged from the next steps for the rail network in England event, held at the Royal Society. While the challenges of capacity and passenger satisfaction are not to be underestimated, the opportunities that a growing industry provides are to be embraced, for this is an unprecedented, and yes complex, time.
As the industry grows and passenger numbers boom, on the face of it rail is in pretty robust health. And while that holds true to a certain extent, the question that has to be asked is; how do you increase capacity and ensure the industry keeps pace with a fast-moving, technology-savvy populace?
In effect, that is what the next steps for the rail network in England seminar attempted to answer, at least in part.
With Crossrail moving ahead and Royal Assent for High Speed 2 expected by the end of the year, there’s certainly no shortage of infrastructure projects to grab the headlines. To this add Crossrail 2, enthusiastically described as another antidote to London’s anticipated population growth and the added strain this will put on public transport.
Yet while these large and expensive schemes stir opinion among the general public, not just rail insiders, other more regulatory matters are just as important. Take the Shaw Report as an example. Led by Nicola Shaw, Chief Executive of HS1, this will study the long-term future shape and financing of Network Rail. Shaw is expected to report in time for Chancellor George Osborne’s budget.
While those at the Royal Society were understandably wary of pre-empting the report, it holds true that whatever is proposed is unlikely to be business as usual. Some have suggested devolving more power to regional route managers, while others, such as Labour’s shadow transport secretary Lilian Greenwood, have warned against “more fragmentation and more privatisation”.
The digital railway
Any potential changes to Network Rail’s structure and financing, and the development of Crossrail and HS2, as well as electrification plans, mean that rail travel and the overall network will look and feel very different in the next 20 to 30 years.
This also includes digitisation – highlighted as part of the cure for capacity problems. The Digital Railway project is trying to drag underlying systems into the modern era; Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne has insisted “the alternative of persisting with 19th century signalling technology in the 21st century cannot be right”.
“We must do something to unlock the capacity of the existing 20,000 miles of track – and that is the Digital Railway,” he added.
Not to mention unlocking passenger connectivity. Wi-Fi and mobile phone connections are all too often seen as the exception, not the norm. If the track is going digital, passengers will, it is hoped, see a change in their daily commute or cross country trip, too. Again it’s a challenge, but also an opportunity.
The challenge is in finding and harnessing the necessary skills to pull this off. Government estimates say that 10,000 new engineers are needed for improvements to the existing network, but with digitisation emerging, the skill set could change.
The National Training Academy for Rail, opened in October and part funded by the government, houses digital signalling equipment, a de-constructed train and a virtual reality and 3D simulation room – tools used to train the next-generation. That’s an opportunity to showcase the industry to a whole new audience.
Complex and a little daunting at first? Yes, but only those who evolve and adapt survive. The landscape is full of challenges and opportunities.