Patrick Bossert of Network Rail explains why proactive maintenance is a prerequisite for UK rail’s digital future
Over the past two years, the main engine driving economic recovery in the UK has been the growth of the service and production sectors. A service economy depends on the movement of people, just as manufacturing depends on the movement of raw materials and finished products – and both therefore rely heavily on the country’s rail network.
As a result, the growth in demand for rail services is forecast at 3 percent per year – and around urban centres, we’re actually seeing year-on-year growth rates of 5 to 7 percent. Yet the existing rail network is already operating at – or beyond – its planned capacity. On some key commuter routes, we’re seeing overcrowding rates of 150 or even 200 percent.
So what are the options? We either need to build more infrastructure, or make better use of what we already have. The more efficient option is to optimise the existing network, and we’re looking at several ways to do that.
First, we want to replace the UK’s aging signalling network. The current system involves dividing the track into “blocks” and ensuring that no train can enter a new block until the train ahead has moved out of it. This means that at any given time, more than 50 percent of the track must be completely empty of trains. By moving to a more modern method of signalling, using similar principles to modern air traffic control systems, we’ll be able to fit as much as 40 percent more trains on the same amount of track.
Second, we want to make the network itself more interconnected. Commuting is no longer about getting from the suburbs to the city centre: more and more people work in suburban areas or business parks, and it doesn’t make sense for them to take a train into the centre and then another train out again.
We want to have more station stops, better links with other modes of transport such as bus services, and timetables that respond dynamically to changing transport patterns. If we can achieve this – and open up the data to app developers who can help our customers make better travel decisions in real time – we’ll build a network that actually meets the needs of 21st century lifestyles, and supports the country’s economic recovery and growth.
However, making more intensive use of our existing infrastructure poses its own challenges. In particular, how do we balance the need for more trains, more connectivity and more convenience with the even higher priority of providing a safe and reliable service?
Part of the answer, which we’ve been working on for the past two years, is to ensure that data about our railway infrastructure is treated as a valuable asset in its own right so that it can be used to help us plan, operate and maintain the network more effectively. Mobile-enabled decision support tools supported by smarter data are being put in the hands of engineers to help them manage our track assets based on their current condition and risk of failure. This enables a more proactive – or even predictive – approach to maintenance, identifying and preventing faults before they occur.
By enabling our engineers to gather accurate asset data on mobile devices and feed it back into a more responsive maintenance planning process, we are going to realise benefits of around £150 million this year. And that’s just for our track assets. As we bring more of our infrastructure online with the digital mobile maintenance programme, the benefits will only increase.
A reliable infrastructure is a prerequisite for everything we’re trying to achieve with the Digital Railway – laying a firm foundation for a truly modern rail network that will continue to meet the UK’s needs in the years to come.
For more information on our work with Network Rail, read the latest case study.