Every second counts: Reliability on the rail network

Taryn Hide, Market Director - Advisory and Analytics
24 May 2023
Image of railway tracks.
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The Railway Industry Association’s recent “Data and Digital Technologies in Rail: Industry needs, opportunities and priorities” report sets out a framework for the sector’s digital future. Taryn Hide, Principal Strategic Consultant at Amey Consulting explains why seconds count when it comes to embracing this future to transform the reliability and predictability of the national network.

The dealbreaker

Most people that use the UK train network have quite simple demands from the system; we want our trains to be safe and we want them to get us where we need to be; we want them at an affordable price and to have some degree of comfort.

But perhaps most importantly, we also need our train services to be predictable and reliable. That means operating to a timetable that more often than not bears reference to reality and that, hopefully, also interlocks seamlessly with the other transport services that make up our vital door to door journeys.

Yet in many ways, it is this final piece in the demand jigsaw which is the hardest to consistently deliver. And as we have witnessed for commuters across the North, this failure is so often the source of greatest frustration and the deal breaker when it comes to our choice to move away from the car as the primary means of travel.

Seconds count

To meet this challenge, the entire rail sector needs to change its approach and mindset. At the moment the focus is largely on boosting productivity and driving efficiencies of activities to save minutes. The reality is that, across the UK rail network, while these minutes certainly matter, it is the seconds that count - and we need to radically change our approach to embrace this reality.

So why are seconds so important, you may ask. Surely most passengers today would be content if their trains could reliably arrive within a handful of minutes from their published timetable? The answer is firmly rooted in the fact that the UK rail network is a highly complex system made up from multiple moving parts. Capacity on this network is constantly being squeezed to get more and more services and trains running meaning sub-threshold delays quickly propagate through the network.

From operations to maintenance, asset renewal to monitoring, timetabling to ticketing, each part of the system is reliant on the others to achieve overall success. Similarly, failure in one part all too often cascades through the system, creating far reaching impacts for passengers and train operators.

The key to solving this predictability and reliability conundrum comes down, therefore, to collaboration and seamless interoperability between each of those activities which, all too often today are planned and managed in discreet silos. This has to change – and the good news is that we already have some of the tools at our fingertips.

Data at our fingertips

As the Railway Industry Association points out in a recent report, the use of data and digital technologies will present the opportunity over the next decade to transform industry performance and the customer offer, enabling these tools to break down the silos and deliver a true systems-based solution.

Its “Data and Digital Technologies in Rail: Industry needs, opportunities and priorities” report sets out six asks of government, policy makers and clients, which it says will enable, accelerate and ensure the success of the UK railway’s digital transition over the Digital Decade, a transition which will redefine the way that the network is operated and maintained:

  1. The railway’s digital transition requires leadership, strategy, and action, starting now
  2. The UK workforce need to be empowered: through upskilling and creating the right culture
  3. Every organisation should place customers at the heart of everything it does and remain receptive to change.
  4. Invest in Innovation. Invest In Implementation.
  5. Operations and maintenance must embrace the digital future.
  6. Collaboration and openness are vital, and this starts with clients.

They are powerful statements that should accelerate a transformation and enable a raft of improvements – boosting efficiency, operations and safety, not to mention the reliability and performance of assets. But fundamentally, they also underpin the adoption of the digital systems that will relentlessly gather, analyse and act on data in real time – and then turn that data into the actionable intelligence that will create a real difference.

Because when it comes to measuring delays on the network, as mentioned earlier, the minutes matter to passenger, but it is the seconds that count when planning, operating and managing capacity on the railway.

Sub-threshold delay

Currently, the threshold for train delays – the buffer if you like against passenger coats getting stuck in doors, unexpected technical glitches or drivers turning up late – before they impact the train timetable and start to prompt cancellations and reorganisation, is two to three minutes.

The use of digital technology such as the Quartz, SPRINT and Cosmo software which make up the Amey Rail Suite, enable access to ‘to-the-second’ data and the so-called sub-threshold delay - the seconds that count - which is not measured but thought to account for around 40% of delay on the railway.

This “to-the-second” data already enables Network Rail and operators to better understand its station operations and sub-threshold delay along the network Quartz and Cosmo, for example, use dashboards and tools to examine rail delays and delay propagation in real time, identifying worst performing trains, poorly performing platforms, dwell and start delays, and the overall impact of sub-threshold delay. SPRINT highlights the true impact of a speed restriction on passenger and freight services, helping asset maintainers and train operators to prioritise maintenance activity and put passenger need first.

Quartz has already delivered results for Network Rail by highlighting train dispatch delays during peak hours and by prompting an increase in staff at key times and locations, reduced delay minutes by 40% and saved an estimated £3.5M over the last 5 years at East Croydon alone.

Change on the ground

Certainly, digital systems have been the backbone of the UK rail network for decades, underpinning signalling, driving the development of timetables and helping to plan and prioritise maintenance regimes. And this has contributed massively to improvement. But transformation requires more - and this work to access to ‘to-the-second’ data has demonstrated clearly that real change is only really possible when you truly understand what is happening on the ground.

As the RIA points out, the railway’s digital transition requires leadership, strategy, and action, starting now. Nobody, it adds, can afford to wait. Fortunately, we already have the tools and the talent required to drive forward with this vital transformation and are committed to investing to continue their development.

What is needed now is the cross-industry leadership and mindset change to embrace data and the systems that will make those seconds count; to embrace change and collaborate so as to accelerate transformation across the UK’s railway network today.

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