by Phil Marsh

Network Rail Chairman looks at the digital transport revolution

Part of the Imperial Business School's Insight Series

Published: 16th June 2014

Driverless trains and cars to speak to each other in the future?

The Network Rail Chairman Richard Parry-Jones gave a fascinating glimpse into how technology will transform lives and transport over the next generation to a fortunate audience at London’s Imperial College, Kensington on June 10.

His background with Ford ranging from an apprentice to Chief Technical Officer and senior positions at Loughborough University and the Royal Academy of Engineering perhaps make him one of the best people to offer a view on what the future looks like when technology is developed and harnessed to transport and other everyday tasks.

Transport competition or synergy?

Growing transport demands from a growing population and economy

Mr Parry-Jones explained that although transport modes were in competition with each other, they were also complimentary as all transport solutions in reality meant multi-modal methods were growing. For example, he asked how many transport modes the audience had used that day, the average was three or four with heavy rail, tube, buses and cars featuring alongside walking or cycling.

There is a steady long-term growth potential for transport directly linked to the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and population growth which are both forecast to grow.

Changing economy changes transport demands

Other transport drivers are created when concentrations of wealth or industry generate changing demand for mobility as does growing a population in different areas. This change in demographics combined with the change in the UK economy from for example, farming to service industry and heavy industry to technology centres and the centralisation of specialist services further boosts demand for transport.

As demand grows, rail becomes a better option to avoid congestion and to reduce pollution. But this modal shift Mr Parry-Jones said means that transport infrastructure becomes inadequate to cope with demand and pinch-points constrain growth. Sometimes demand management is introduced to manage the demand but this only pauses growth and puts more pressure on other transport modes.

For example, congestion charging and traffic delays make commuters switch to rail putting pressure on rail facilities and passengers often find that they can work or relax on most journeys. Introducing traffic demand schemes is also unpopular with voters, politically risky and is generally expensive to operate.

Driving = wasted time?

Driving is wasted time in productivity terms and many long distance commuters and business travellers now consider that the rail journey is valuable working time because of the digital revolution. The connectivity that mobile phones, laptops, tablets now offer with wireless internet access means that rail travel now offers higher productivity over other modes for many passengers.

The challenge is now to provide better value by the railways is a real one alongside quality and reliability and resilience to climate change Mr Parry-Jones added.

Passenger & Freight growth

Freight is also increasing because of the digital age and economic changes. Freight by rail is about 5% of the total moved in the UK but this conceals that container traffic to and from UK ports by rail is 40% of the total volume moved. This is due to the UK’s manufacturing base shrinking and importing goods made oversees, perhaps ordered by the internet.

So while road transport levels are currently static, the rail share is increasing and is seen in many areas as good value. This may help to explain why passenger numbers grew by 5.7% last year and by 50% in the last decade, well ahead of other countries.

It is acknowledged that rail is safe while road is less so but this could even out as technology progresses in the automotive industry.

The cost of rail per passenger kilometre will reduce as more and more passengers travel on more and more trains as the fixed costs do not rise with increased usage. But in the future, technical advances will reduce costs and increase track and road capacity. How?

Mr Parry-Jones forecast that once 5G was rolled out nationwide combined with unlimited bandwidth and similar processing power, computers could revolutionise the way we travel, work and live. Widespread rail electrification would also assist the digital revolution and inductive battery charging points at stations could mean electric trains will be able to operate away from fixed electric supplies brought by overhead wires or 3rd rail.

For example, an electric train could run from London to Lancaster and then carry on using battery power to Morecambe, thus reducing costs and carbon emissions. Trains also regenerate electricity when braking and pump it back into the rail system saving more power consumption and reducing emissions.

End to level crossing misuse?

The computing and processing power of the future could lead to the end of vehicle drivers ignoring warnings at level crossings as technology could disable car engines if a train is approaching with electronic signals transmitted from the train via transponders to the vehicle.

This digital driving development could also mean the vehicle drives itself with autonomous vehicle control and via sensors would avoid all road users, cyclists and pedestrians by computing power. These systems are already under test and will be introduced to Milton Keynes in 2015 as ‘car pods’ which will drive themselves between the railway station and the city centre a mile away. Test in Scandinavia have reduced accidents by 37% and insurance costs are dropping as a result.

Some of this technology is already under test on our railways on the Cambrian line west of Shrewsbury and is the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). There are no signals by the railway but all train movements are controlled by computers and balises on the track. Once this has been refined and rolled out across the UK, track capacity will be increased with lower signalling maintenance costs. This is called ERTMS level 3 which is yet to be tested in the UK. And who knows when this is introduced, even the balises may no longer be required.

This was Railtrack’s vision for the West Coast Main Line 20 years ago which failed because the technology was not available at that time. And of course when all this technology becomes available, asset management, ticketing and information will become easier and cheaper.

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