Changing rail industry, digital in the north

Like most industries, the rail industry is experiencing a tidal wave of digital transformation like never before.  From IoT sensors and smart monitoring to paperless records and ticketless gate lines, all kinds of digital breakthroughs are allowing for better network performance, improved safety and enhanced efficiencies.

Although not the only initiative dedicated to the digital railway, one project in particular that highlights the transition towards digital is Network Rail’s East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP). This is the first step in a long-term deployment plan that aims to digitally transform how the region’s railway works for passengers and rail freight users. A digital railway is about upgrading train control systems to convert a fixed, conventional railway, to one that is flexible, reliable, safer, faster and cheaper. It is designed to modernise how railways are operated and maintained, and has been a growing concept for many years.

The ECDP aims to fit the latest in-cab signalling control technologies and intelligent traffic management systems to increase efficiencies and reduce passenger delays. It will allow signallers to talk to trains constantly in real-time, rather than just at set points.

The implementation of ECDP has triggered not only an increased need for technological uptake, but a cultural change too. The programme requires Network Rail to implement a partnership approach, working closely with the government, train operators and technology providers – the first of its kind in the industry. It’s change management on a grand scale. The government and supply chain are working closer together than ever before, whilst taking the workforce with them on the journey. It’s necessitating new ways of working, learning and communicating.

Bringing together these many partners places importance on embracing new technologies and employing collaborative working methods to ensure the success of the programme and beyond.  This is a step-change, not only in how train control is modernised, but in how all relevant stakeholders need to work together. Heralded as the flagship programme, ECDP is an exemplar of how the rail industry will work in the future, and the robust business changes that will need to happen.

Northern potential

There has been a noticeable change in recent years in terms of regional input in rail, with the North emerging as a major player and finally receiving the recognition it so rightly deserves. In addition to ECDP, which will see considerable involvement from northern regions, HS2 will be pivotal in enhancing the northern transport network and untapping the potential of our local workforce and supply chain. The capability of the North, from manufacturing to digital technology, all have a part to play in transforming the rail network, both locally and nationally.

Northern Powerhouse Rail and Transport for the North is just as important in helping to unlock the substantial opportunities of the north and promises to invest in skills, innovation, transport and culture. It made history as the first Sub-national Transport Body in England, and is acting not only to drive the northern economy, but to support intra-regional connectivity as well. It’s connecting our urban centres for social economic and environmental benefit, and enabling better road and rail links to airports and ports. Establishing strong connectivity to our deep sea and inland ports is of the utmost importance to the UK plc if we are to maximise the north’s global reach.

And let’s not forget that the north is thriving with digital agencies and tech companies making critical contributions to the digital railway revolution. In fact, 3Squared’s home of Sheffield is a renowned tech hub. And then there’s, Sheffield Digital; an independent trade association that recognises digital as a sector in its own right, acting as the voice for businesses and individuals involved in Sheffield’s digital industries. The potential is huge, to say the least. Continuing to revive the north is so important if we are to encourage businesses to set up shop outside of the bigger cities like London and Birmingham.

Change in product goals

The types of products and services being conceived by the rail industry are evolving too. Enhancing the passenger experience is vital if we are to transform the capabilities of our railway network and continue as our habits change.

Engaging with the end-users and ‘putting passengers first’ will be crucial in helping customers understand why we need better transport and why short-term disruptions are worth the longer-term gains. While technological advancement can help to simplify fares and reduce the dependency on paper ticketing systems, making the experience much more streamlined, they can also help to manage the operations of the railway increasing safety and efficiency.

Changes due to Covid-19

Along with digital technologies, coronavirus has played a part in shaping the rail landscape in recent months. While COVID-19 has no doubt been a catastrophic event that had disrupted people’s lives, it has brought unforeseen benefits to the rail industry. The pandemic has instilled a sense of urgency forcing us to invent, innovate and collaborate at a faster pace than ever before.

It has helped to accelerate the approval of new technology, and further cultivated the collaborative mindset that is so crucial for the growth of the digital railway.

If one thing is for sure: the rail sector has had the opportunity to change like never before. Digital technologies are a key driver for change in the industry, and the possibilities are endless. But it is imperative that we adapt our methods of working accordingly to keep pace with the railway’s ever-increasing demands.

3Squared are at the forefront of delivering innovative products as we move towards a digital railway, helping organisations to support their teams, improve performance of their assets and drive operational efficiencies. Find out more about our innovations and what we’re doing to help our customers.