What is the "Digital Railway" and what are the next steps in its development

Published on 2nd Feb 2016

“Digital Railway” is Network Rail’s concept for change in the rail industry, with broad ambitions to improve many aspects of rail infrastructure and customer experience. But what is the Digital Railway specifically seeking to improve? And has any progress been made two years on from its introduction?

This article considers the recent developments, next steps and possible reasons for the slow pace of change.

What is it?

Digital Railway is an industry-wide strategy for change, its primary aim being to achieve greater capacity on the UK rail network. This will be achieved by replacing Victorian engineering with digital technology. Network Rail often compares its Digital Railway plans to Heathrow Airport’s move from analogue to digital air traffic control, which produced a 61% increase in capacity. Digital Railway is targeting a 40% increase in capacity on the railways.

In addition to increases to capacity, the Digital Railway is also targeting improvements in customer experience and safety. Customer experience will be enhanced via improvements to ticketing, fewer delays and greater access to WiFi and data. Safety will be improved by replacing track-side signals with an in-cab European Train Control System (ETCS).

Additional benefits include cost reductions as digital infrastructure will be cheaper and easier to maintain. Environmental benefits should also be achieved as trains will slow down anticipating traffic, rather than coming to a complete stop at signals.

How will the strategy be achieved?

Upgrades to infrastructure and assets are the cornerstones of the Digital Railway. From a signalling perspective, this comes in the form of
three core projects:

  1. a National Traffic Management System (TMS) to replace over 800 signal boxes across the country with 12 regional operating centres;
  2. building and retro-fitting rolling stock to be ETCS enabled; and
  3. replacing existing trackside infrastructure with ETCS signals.

The strategy sees customer experience improvements being made primarily via innovation from the Train Operating Companies (TOCs).
Commitments to innovations are being sought during the award processes for new franchises and also during direct awards.

Progress to date


Several contracts have been awarded to contractors by Network Rail, including ones to upgrade Regional Operating Centres and install TMS-enabled infrastructure across key sections of track, notably Thameslink. The aim is to complete the rollout of TMS by 2019.


Prior to Network Rail prioritising its Digital Railway plans, the ETCS rollout was due to be completed by 2062 on the basis that signals would only be replaced as their life expectancy expires. Network Rail is now targeting completion by 2029, with all trains being ETCS enabled by 2024. All newly manufactured trains will be built for use with ETCS with existing trains being retro-fitted. Osborne Clarke recently assisted with the
tender and contract award for the first in the program of ETCS retrofits following the success of the ETCS trial on the Cambrian line (on which we also advised).

Customer experience: a mixed picture

Network Rail has made many of its data feeds freely available, allowing developers to produce helpful apps to assist passengers. They have organised hackathons to incentivise and accelerate the development of solutions. The Department of Transport has also helped to setup The Hack Train hackathon and business accelerator.

Whilst the availability of data feeds has led to some innovative apps that make passengers’ journeys, easier, the story on ticketing is not so positive.

To date, no large-scale improvements have been made to ticketing. Network Rail and the Department for Transport have failed to deliver a flexible ticketing scheme similar to Transport for London’s Oyster card. The intended improved ticketing schemes will be different from Oyster, because national rail services require the option to purchase advance tickets, rather than using contactless payment on the day of travel.

The latest setback is the move away from “SEFT”. The South East Flexible Ticketing scheme was due to be rolled out across up to 12 train operating companies, mostly in the South East of England, by December 2015.  At present, there are no plans to introduce this scheme in its current form. Whilst the airline, entertainment and retail industries have been using electronic ticketing and coupons via smart phones for years, the rail industry is lagging behind. To address this, the rail minister, Claire Perry MP, recently announced that every operator bidding to run a rail franchise will have to show plans to offer smart ticketing tailored to customers’ needs.   That of course runs the risk of greater fragmentation, with each train operator adopting its own solution.  That is unlikely to facilitate seamless multi-modal, multi-operator travel for the passenger.

TOCs commitments to improve customer experience  

TOCs are increasingly being required to commit to deliver improvements aligned with the Digital Railway, for example, in the form of better
WiFi and online services. Here’s a summary of recent commitments by TOCs to improve customer experience as well as current Invitation To Tender
requirements for franchises up for tender, including “non-digital” commitments:

Franchise Commitments
Trans Pennine Express

(Direct Award) (First)

  • Additional customer service training for staff
  • Additional customer information facilities
  • Free WiFi at stations
  • Integration with West Yorkshire local smart ticketing
Trans Pennine Express

(Full competition) (First)

  • Increased capacity – more carriages, more services, additional frequency
  • WiFi on all trains by 2020
East Midlands

(Direct Award) (Stagecoach)

  • 22 extra services between Nottingham and Newark Castle
  • Improvements to station access, customer service, timetables
  • Funding for community station adoption scheme and work experience initiatives

(Full competition) (Arriva)

  • Investment in new and refurbished trains
  • More services and faster journeys
  • Significant station improvements
  • Free WiFi on trains
  • 45 currently unstaffed stations will be staffed
East Anglia

(ITT Requirements)

  • Free WiFi on trains
  • Customer and Communities improvement fund
  • Controlled Emission Toilets
  • 180 additional services
  • Improvements to rolling stock

Other improvements made outside of the franchising process include First Hull trialling USB charge points in carriage, and the introduction by Virgin of automatic refund payments following delays on the West Coast Mainline for passengers that purchased advanced tickets online.

Our assessment of the Digital Railway: complex and important

The objectives of the Digital Railway are commendable, but it has taken too long to plan these objectives, let alone achieve them. Capacity improvements via traffic management in the form of variable speed limits have been in place on our motorways for years. As noted above, the airline industry also embraced digital technology several years ago. The complexity of the rail industry, with its aging infrastructure, unusual public/private hybrid structure and idiosyncratic funding, certainly slows things down and is a barrier to private investment.

The very limited competition in the rail industry, with many routes operated by a single operator, also contributes to the lack of progress. Network Rail’s failed predecessor could be another reason for the delay to the leap into the 21st century. It is often said that during Railtrack’s tenure between 1994 and 2002, profits were prioritised over incurring expenditure on maintenance and upgrades to infrastructure, meaning that earlier opportunities
to innovate were missed.

Network Rail’s plan to introduce signalling upgrades 30 years earlier than the typical upgrade plan should hopefully address some of this delay. Whilst it is generally accepted that ETCS will produce safety enhancements, many people in the industry doubt it can make the significant capacity improvements that Network Rail desire.

Whatever happens next to Network Rail’s structure and funding, the importance of implementing the Digital Railway should not be underestimated.

Osborne Clarke advices clients at every level of the rail industry; to discuss how we can help your business, please contact one of our experts. 

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* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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