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Rail boss wants private cash for digital upgrade

Digital railway

Network Rail chief executive has called on the private sector to “step up” and start working on how it could finance the digital railway programme.

The digital railway, a Network Rail-led industry-wide programme to increase capacity through digital train control, is currently at feasibility stage with a business case for the multi-billion pound programme due to be published this spring.

The concept is to accelerate the traditional piecemeal approach to signalling upgrades and compress a 50 year replacement programme into one that would see signalling on the network fully digitised by 2029. This programme is yet to be costed but Carne has made no secret of his desire to make it happen and this week used the annual George Bradshaw Address at the ICE to urge the private sector to start thinking about how it could finance it.

“The digital railway is the perfect example of how we should be using the private sector to invest in technology [projects],” said Carne. “We don’t have all the answers. They are much better at managing the risks. It is their technology, after all,” he stressed.

But he was emphatic that potential private sector partners would need to take their fair share of risks.

“This does require industry to step up,” he said.

“There is a wall of funding there,” he said, adding that a reluctance to take on risk was preventing those funds from being invested.

“I am not interested in people who say they want low risk, long-term returns,” he stressed. “I want to see skin in the game.”

The House of Commons Transport Select Committee is supportive of the digital railway programme, although doubtful about Network Rail’s ability to deliver it.

Early studies have shown the potential for the programme. Analysis of the main South West Trains corridor has shown that replacing traditional signalling with digital train control, which allows trains to operate closer together, enabling more services to run without building new lines, would yield a 40% capacity increase, and the potential nationwide is 60%.

And it is not untried technology, with London Underground already achieving greater capacity on the Victoria Line using digital train control. Yet on the UK heavy rail network, traditional signalling remains, and on average 50% of the network is empty at any one time.

The government can see the advantage and set aside £450M in the Autumn Statement for early deployment of digital signalling in some trial areas.

Industry experts are hopeful that the programme will develop.

“From where we were last year, I think we have moved forward,” Siemens managing director Paul Copeland told a New Civil Engineer round table on the digital railway late last year. “The supply chain has come together. We can see that traffic management is being implemented, European Train Control System (ETCS) is in Thameslink, and Crossrail is moving on.

“The digital railway is here, particularly on London Underground, and the main line needs to catch up. It is much more positive than this time last year.”

The digital railway programme is not the only capital project that Network Rail is considering opening up to private investment.

Carne said the ongoing review by former Government Construction Advisor Peter Hansford was an instrumental enabler of private investment in the railway.

“I’m not going to give you a shopping list,” he said. “But the whole purpose of Peter Hansford’s review is to look at all the things that make this [attracting private investment] so difficult and then knock them down one by one,” he said.

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