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Interview | Waboso pushes digital rail

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Should civil engineers – and civil engineering businesses – be getting excited about the digital railway? It is just signalling, isn’t it? And there’s no money for it, is there?

Those, ultimately, are the killer questions for Network Rail head of digital railway David Waboso.

The potential offered by the digital railway programme – fundamentally introducing digital train control through digital signalling upgrades as a more effective way to boost UK rail capacity – is hard to overstate. Analysis of the main South West Trains corridor has shown that replacing traditional signalling with digital train control allowing trains to operate closer together would yield a 40% capacity increase, enabling more services to run without building new lines. The potential nationwide is for a 60% capacity increase.

David Waboso 2by3

David Waboso 2by3

Waboso: trying to enthuse civil engineers about digital rail

And it is proven technology. The European Train Control System, which allows trains to run closer together and to travel at their best speeds while maintaining safe braking distances is in use across Europe. So are Connected Driver Advisory Systems and Automatic Train Operation, which provide decision support to drivers in the cab so that they have the information they need at the right time to boost performance and safety. So to is Traffic Management, which maximises performance as trains flow across the network, maximising the throughput that existing track can support and adapting in real-time as network conditions change to aid rapid recovery.

You’ve got to be understanding of what makes people nervous. But this is stuff people can be trained to do

Just look at London Underground achieving greater capacity on the Victoria Line. Yet on UK heavy rail, traditional signalling remains; and on average 50% of the network is empty at any one time.

And there are spin-off benefits too: the trains are equipped with technology that report not just their own condition and service needs back to the depot, but the condition of the rail infrastructure they are travelling on. So that is less intensive maintainance and less people out on the railway in high-risk situations. Again, Look at London Underground. 


Digital railway

Digital railway

Digital railway: Major government investment

So digitisation is a logical step. But the civils industry is slow leaping on board. Hence Waboso, fresh from the hotbed of digital railway that is London Underground is ready to drive some momentum into the national rail digital railway programme.

He is a clear advocate, but does understand the caution in the industry.

After all, it is not civil engineering as we know it. It is not even electrification, where there is (or was) a hefty civil engineering component in building the bases for the structures supporting the overhead cabling. This is in-cab signalling, using the latest, minimalist, technology to tell the train and its driver where it is and how fast to proceed.

This is one of the few industries where there is no link between performance and delivery

“You’ve got to be understanding of what makes people nervous,” he says. “But this is stuff that people can be trained to do,” he says, referencing the different skillsets needed, as the work becomes less about traditional civil engineering and more about project managing a technoology upgrade. “In my view, this is giving people opportunity,” he adds, urging businesses to embrace the change that is coming.

“This involves some changes to the industry – to the roles and the skills. The integration of systems with train companies is going to cause change.

“But it’s a vote on the industry’s future. It’s going to happen, so let’s embrace it. Let’s build a new skillset, a new digital skillset,” he insists.

Confidence issue

But there are doubters. There are those that cannot foresee there ever being the confidence or the funding to roll out what will be a mammoth and, if it went wrong, massively disruptive 10 year-plus programme.

The hugely problematic electrification programme has clearly not helped.

Waboso accepts this, and accepts that work needs to be done.

“Some things haven’t gone well. This is not easy stuff. We have got to be resilient to that and demonstrate we have learnt the lessons,” he says.

“So I say to the supply chain – what do you need to do better? What do you need from us?”

£450M from government

He points to the £450M set aside in the Autumn Statement for the digital railway as a sign that there is belief in the programme at high levels.

And he is preparing the industry for change.

Because Waboso, the man who brought early contractor involvement (ECI) to London Underground and its parent Transport for London, has spent much of his first year at Network Rail engaging early with the supply chain again.

Stage one of his ECI programme was completed in December 2016. That stage brought nine companies from Network Rail’s supply chain together and tasked them with recommending changes to a number of areas in which the industry works. They also identified savings that could be made to the cost of digital technology.

Message to supply chain

“To our supply chain partners – and I genuinely mean partners in this – I said: ‘if we’ve got this role, how would you approach this?’ says Waboso. “They didn’t hold back,” he reflects.

What they said was probably unsurprising.

It is summed up in an ECI report that reads like a blueprint for a revamped industry.

“The cost to deploy digital train control could be lower if the industry radically changes the way it works with the supply chain,” its first main finding reads. “Telling suppliers what is needed should be replaced with conversations about the issues, so that the right solutions are developed together.

Engaging supply chain

“Changing the current practice would result in the supply chain being more engaged to deliver performance outcomes for the railway, which is supported by supplier investment, productivity and lower ‘whole life’ costs. A conservative estimate suggests this could be 10%, with significantly more savings over time, which could exceed 30%.

Customers, says the second main finding, would benefit too.

“Rail customers will receive a better experience when suppliers take a holistic view of deploying digital solutions. This is encouraged through earlier engagement with the supply chain. As an example, disruption could be minimised during project deployment. Risks could also be identified earlier. This would reduce unnecessary costs and delay, resulting in a positive relationship for clients, suppliers and ultimately, rail customers,” it reads.

And while work continues to follow-up on and develop many of the recommendations from the first ECI phase, stage two of the ECI programme is now firmly underway.

Drawing on non-rail expertise

This pushes more boundaries. Whereas ECI1 focused on the industry’s established supplier network, ECI2 engages with non-traditional suppliers, drawing on the experiences and expertise of companies and organisations in different sectors who, it is hoped, will be able to enrich the digital railway programme.

It all means that the digital railway is fast becoming less of a rail upgrade programme and more of an industry change movement.

And Waboso is keen to play to that agenda. “This is one of the few industries where there is no link between performance and delivery. Do that and you start to get different relationships out of the supply chain,” he says.

But you need to get the industry excited about the opportunity ahead and Waboso believes sufficient encouragement is coming.

He looks forward to the soon to be published detailed business plans for rolling out the digitisation programme across the network route by route.

Investment plan clarification

“There is an element that the supply chain is looking for the investment planning. ‘Where do I bid, what am I bidding for?’ Once that becomes clearer you’ll then see them aligning,” he says.

And again he reflects on the importance of that £450M in the Autumn Statement.

“What everybody is going to say now is that we can’t have a hiatus, as we have to remember that skills – people – can go anywhere.

“Again that is why the £450M was so important. I am incredibly grateful to the government for that,” he stresses.

And finally, the big question – how much, and who pays?

How much, and who pays?

“The business case will indicate across our eight routes where to get the best bang for the buck,” he says. “How much it is all going to cost then depends on how quickly you do it. Whether we do two routes, four routes, six routes, eight routes… it’s premature to say.” In short, he is not saying.

“Strategic outline business cases will feed into Department for Transport decision-making processes,” he adds. “And hopefully agreement comes out to take 0 to 8 routes to detailed design.

“And then hopefully we will see the skills base grow,” he adds.

And that is crucial.

Belief in capability

“There is the continuation of discussions around capability,” he says, “so people believe it can be done.

“Confidence that there is a set of solutions, is the message I want to be giving,” he says. “As fundamentally there has to be a product and a capability to deliver it.”

And that leads to the final challenge.

“I say to supply chain partners – you have got to get better,” he asserts. This, says Waboso is absolutely a civil engineering programme.

“It is not all about the technology partners. Your big tier ones will provide the project management muscle,” he states.

For Waboso, the consummate project manager, it always comes back to project management.

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