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The future of the railway

On Monday the government unveiled the route for phase two of the new High Speed Two (HS2) rail network, extending the phase one London-Birmingham track north to Manchester and Leeds. This is exciting news if you live in Manchester, Leeds or the other stations along the route or connecting with those hubs – or if, like me, you are a consultant who spends a lot of time travelling to clients along those routes!

 Map of HS2 route

Source: High speed rail: investing in Britain 's future phase two - the route to Leeds, Manchester and beyond summary, Department for Transport, 28th January

 HS2 represents the latest advancement in the rail industry and an example of its evolution. The higher speeds are enabled by technology such as in-cab signalling. HS2 is set to decrease passenger journeys from Birmingham to London from 1hr 24min to 49min; Manchester-London journeys would take 1hr 8min (down from 2hr 8min); and Birmingham-Leeds 57min (from 2hr). (source: BBC)

The trains are expected to run at speeds up to 250mph, which would be the fastest operating speed in Europe. In the past, Britain has struggled to increase the speed of its network, with most trains still limited to the 125mph first introduced in the 1970s due to operational issues despite the capability of the trains for higher speeds. The Eurostar link to continental Europe was the first route to beat 125mph, introduced in 2003 it travels at 186mph. Kent commuter services have also benefited from speeds of up to 140mph since 2009. (source: Wikipedia)

When the railway network was first built in the early 19thcentury it was clearly leading edge and an important factor in the industrial revolution, enabling cheaper and quicker transport of goods and passengers. Whilst industry and technology has advanced since, it has not always been so for the railway in the UK.

The rail network has shrunk since the 1920s when it was challenged by the expanding road network. When British Railways was formed in 1948, the rail network extended to 19,598 route miles. These were slashed following the Beeching Report of 1963 and today’s network is just 9,828 miles.  It is commonly believed that the UK rail network is in need of growth and development. Demand is growing year on year and the network now carries as many passengers as in the 1940s, but on a smaller network, with over 1.3 billion passenger journeys in 2010/11 (source: ORR)

 Passengers by year

(source: Tompw, GBR rail passengers by year, 2010, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons License http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GBR_rail_passenegers_by_year.gif)

In addition to investment on existing routes to improve capacity through better timetabling and new rolling stock, the Association of Train Operating Companies has identified 14 other commercially viable schemes involving new passenger lines, using a mixture of historically closed lines, recently closed or currently operating freight only lines, or sharing heritage railway tracks with permission from their owners. (source: ATOC).

So an industry that began during the industrial revolution is still evolving but how do they take advantage of the ‘Digital Revolution’ of today? Increasing network size and demand leads to the need for more sophisticated methods of asset management for the rail network. With more trains running and higher capacity, heavier trains there is more wear and tear reducing the track condition. Rail companies need to make the most of the few hours of downtime every night when trains aren’t running to maintain and improve the railways. Rail companies are increasingly turning to digital solutions to gather, analyse and act on data about track conditions.

Where can the digital revolution take them?  The opportunities are endless, for example 4G will allow real-time streaming of large amounts of track data, whilst advancements in computing hardware enable much higher processing speeds.  So it will soon be possible to run predictive analytics in real-time, supporting rapid decision-making on when and how to maintain the assets and optimise the whole life cost (the total cost of the asset throughout its life). This would enable better utilisation of the rail infrastructure and lead to less track closures for unplanned works, so we as passengers will enjoy fewer delays as well as the increased speeds of HS2. 

However, the Labour MP for West Bromwich Tom Watson has suggested an alternative rail strategy via Twitter. What are your thoughts?

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Russell Hodge
Russell Hodge

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