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17 things the rail industry must act on

The rail industry has come under heavy fire this week after transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced that Network Rail was unable to deliver on its five year spending plan. Here are 17 things that the industry could and should act on, at least according to speakers at NCE’s UK Rail 2015 conference.

1. The potential offered by digital train control is ridiculously hard to overstate. Analysis of the main South West Trains corridor has shown that replacing traditional signalling with digital train control would yield a 40% capacity increase. The potential nationwide is 60%. And it is not even untried technology, explained Network Rail digital transformation director Patrick Bossert. “Heathrow has put 60% more traffic through its two runways with digital air traffic control. London Underground has achieved similar results on the Victoria Line. Meanwhile we have traditional signalling where you can only have one train in any block at any one time. Some of our blocks are 5km long. It means 50% of our network is empty.”

Bossert’s team is currently building a business case for the massive investment that would be needed to digitise the signalling system. The complexity of the rail industry means this work will take until September 2017 but Bossert plans to have a convincing argument before then. “We’ll have a national view by next June,” he said.

2. The UK has a lot to learn about how to make money from rail infrastructure. “There is a lot of learning in how to generate income from over site development,” said Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme. “On Crossrail it’s [paying for] 15% of the project; in Hong Kong it would be 85%. In Kowloon you’d be building a 60 storey building over a station; at Bond Street it’s four storey one. There is a lot of learning here as we build the business case for Crossrail 2 and refine High Speed 2.”

3. But Building over railway lines is a miserable experience, or at least according to project leaders of three major current railway station projects. “I will happily never build over another railway for the rest of my career if I can avoid it,” Dundee City Council director of city development Mike Galloway said. Dundee City Council is currently leading on the upgrade of the city’s station as part of a £1bn redevelopment of the city’s waterfront and has spent 10 years getting the plans from drawing board to site. London Borough of Ealing planning director Pat Hayes has struggled with getting what he wants from his Crossrail station and even Network Rail London Bridge principal programme sponsor Nick Gray agreed: “If it’s any compensation for Ealing and Dundee, over-site developments are a nightmare - and that’s coming from someone inside the organisation,” said Gray.

“We looked at it and it absolutely crucified the costs. The only way to make it work was to dump the over site development in the first proposal,” he explained, adding that insurance is a key issue, with the Tesco collapse at Gerard’s Cross living long in the memory of what can go wrong.

4. Double-decker trains need serious consideration as a means to providing extra capacity, at least according to Marius Sultan, head of asset management at the Office of Rail and Road. “People dismiss it, but it needs to be looked at,” he said. “You see them in France, you see them in Australia. Yes, there may be some infrastructure changes needed, but we need to seriously think about it.”

5. Engineers are still too mute and not grasping the need to sell their projects better, according to London Underground programme director for stations and Crossrail Miles Ashley. “We’ve convinced the general public that we need to spend to solve the capacity problem we have now. But the real issue is that we’ve not convinced them that infrastructure pays back. That’s the challenge for the next five years.”

Ashley was backed up by Office of Rail and Road head of asset management Marius Sultan: “We need the Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s; engineers who can articulate the business case and make the case for the infrastructure we need.”

6. Another new approach to procurement is on its way from London Underground. Main contractors are going to have to re-invent themselves as “Integrators”, with the main role of encouraging and yoking innovations from down the supply chain is programme director for stations and Crossrail Miles Ashley gets his way. His new procurement concept would also see London Underground taking on all design risk in a further bid to encourage innovative solutions.

“We are going to need to access innovation. But the way we procure in many cases discourages innovation as market tester gets no return on their efforts. Design -based compliant bids offer no latitude. You don’t get bid winning ideas until ideas win bids.”

7. Network Rail is beginning to embrace modern technology to inform maintenance and operations. Route managing director Richard Schofield explained how 8,000 of Network Rail’s frontline staff now have iPads and iPhones to ensure they have access to the latest information on assets.

8. Social media is a great untapped resource. “How do we use Twitter?” asked Network Rail route managing director Richard Schofield. “It takes 30s for people to tell me when their train has stopped via Twitter, yet it takes my control centre six minutes. We need a smaller, differently skilled workforce.”

9. But there is a massive shortage of engineers who really understand data and digital engineering – at least according to two major clients. High Speed 2 commercial director Beth west: ”We will be creating 25,000 jobs and very different jobs in many areas. We have talked a lot about BIM and asset information. We need to have people more skilled in using BIM.” Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme was particularly scathing of consultants. “Consultants - you don’t understand data and you don’t make it easy to bring people through who do,” he said. “And we’re going to lose out to rest of the world.”

10. London needs investment in its rail network as much if not more than the north west, at least according to Transport for London managing director for London Underground and London Rail Mike Brown. “It’s all about High Speed 2 but also Crossrail 2,” he said. “We’re going to add the equivalent of the population of Manchester to London by 2030. “Yes, the Northern Powerhouse is very important. But there are still economic regeneration opportunities in London and we know new links unlock homes and jobs.”

11. Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese has set a “test” for government over its commitment to High Speed 3. “We are clear that investment in a modernised rail network is key and our vision is for fast frequent services between the six city regions. Studies show the validity of an east-west rail link using both arms of the High Speed 2 ‘y’. We must now continue our work to develop our solution. The test for government is its support for that development work and the cost of that development work to allow us to deliver in as short a time frame as possible.”

12. Plans to extend the Croydon Tramlink to South Wimbledon and Sutton are building momentum. The £200M-plus project is heavily supported by local authorities on the route and is now the “most plausible” future expansion option, according to Transport for London head of transport planning rail & underground Geoff Hobbs. It’s got great potential, he said.

13. Advances in materials technology could make a major difference to efficiency in the rail network, such as using Graphene to make stronger, lighter and therefore cheaper to run trains and 3D printing to produce spare parts more efficiently.

14. The reconstruction of Tottenham Court Road could have been scaled back. London Underground head of station capacity programme Ralph Freeston admitted that the station box created is larger than it needs to be. “It’s probably the first station we have rebuilt since Angel. It is a great scheme. But in hindsight it is more expensive than it needs to be. We have made more underground space than we needed. There are lessons for everybody there.”

15. Crossrail is getting cautious about who it shares its lessons learned with in the interests of using them to promote UKplc. “We can generate value from our learning legacy,” said Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme. “Forty one organisations around the world have been to see us, and we are a little wary about giving [our learnng] away for free. Certainly we will to UK projects. But this is about UKplc.”

16. Network Rail was overly ambitious with its plans to keep London Bridge going during the major reconstruction works. “With the benefit of hindsight we would have set our expectations lower,” Network Rail principal programme sponsor Nick Gray told the conference. In an honest and frank reflection on the problems getting passengers through the station following a New Year blockade where wholesale changes were made to signalling, track layouts, customer information screens and passenger routes through the station, Gray added that he didn’t ask for a soft launch as he knew the answer would be no.

“We finished our blockade and within two hours had to be operating at 100% capacity. Why no soft launch? We didn’t ask the question as we knew answer would be ‘you’ve got to joking’. It is a challenge back to the industry.”

17. Ambitious young engineers might be best served looking for opportunities abroad, according to Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme. Wolstenholme, who himself honed his skills through years working on major projects in the US and Far East, said there will be little practical major project experience to be had in the UK over the next five years. “Wouldn’t it have been great if Crossrail 2 was ready to go [as soon as Crossrail finishes]?” he said. “But the reality of it is that if I’m a bright young thing I might go to the Middle East, or Far East, or Africa for the next five years.”

UK Rail 2015 took place on 23/24 June. Selected presentations are available on request. Email To register your interest for the 2016 event, please visit

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