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UK railways to save billions of pounds through digital signalling

Network Rail hails digital transformation plans as “a turning point in the history of our railways”

By the 2030s, almost three-quarters of UK train journeys will be controlled by automatic signalling under a project to use digital technology to replace analogue systems, saving billions of pounds.

According to Network Rail, digital signalling technology will help increase the number of trains running without having to embark on highly expensive railway infrastructure projects that take many years, such as those for Thameslink and Crossrail.

Network Rail said more than half of the country’s analogue signalling systems would need to be replaced over the next 15 years, and that a like-for-like update would cost £20bn, with no real benefit for customers.

UK train passenger numbers have doubled over the past 20 years and the railway infrastructure, which largely dates from Victorian times, is struggling to cope.

Network Rail said that by the 2030s, 70% of journeys will benefit from digital technologies on trains and tracks that will automate signals, allowing more trains to be run closer together.

Mark Carne, CEO of Network Rail, said the opportunity to transform the UK’s railways through the latest IT is the biggest opportunity since trains changed from steam to diesel in the 1960s.

“The age of a digital railway has today moved from the drawing board and into reality as we reveal a blueprint that will improve the lives of millions of passengers and freight users across the country,” he said. “Today’s commitment is to adopt and roll out new digital technology, for both trains and track, that will deliver faster, more frequent services for passengers and businesses alike, giving our economy a massive boost.”

Read more about the use of technology by Network Rail

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  • Digital-by-default railway infrastructure operator Network Rail is building a cloud-based archive to protect the organisation’s data assets for future use.
  • The man in charge of the IT supporting the UK’s largest critical infrastructure project – the redevelopment of London Bridge station – tells Computer Weekly about life in a portacabin.

The first services to use the new technology will be those that go through London Bridge, into London King’s Cross, Waterloo, and across the Pennines. The technology will be introduced over the next five years.

“In a world first, digital train control with ‘fly-by-wire’ trains [automatic operation] – coupled with smart infrastructure – is now a reality on Thameslink services through London Bridge,” said Carne. “We now have a plan, impetus and the funding to introduce these systems across large swathes of our railway network over the coming years.

“This is a turning point in the history of our railways as we move firmly into the digital age.”

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