Comment Blog 22 May, 2019

On track for the future: restoring trust in trains with digital technology

In the past 20 years, the number of people using the UK’s rail network has doubled. Despite this rise in passenger figures, passengers’ trust in the rail network is on the decline. According to Transport Focus, satisfaction with rail services is at a ten-year low with delays, disruption and ticketing prices cited as key reasons for this decline in confidence.

At Reform’s recent roundtable discussing the future of the rail industry, the conversation focused on the impact that digital technology can play in improving service delivery and the passenger experience. By harnessing the potential of digital technology, the rail network can restore passenger trust.

The Government has recognised the need to tackle this decline in passenger trust, launching the Williams Rail Review in September 2018. Improving passenger rail services are at the heart of the Review, which will aim to make recommendations that prioritise passengers’ and taxpayers’ interests.

Large-scale timetable changes in 2018, which resulted in severe disruption to Northern and Thameslink services, brought passenger satisfaction into sharp focus. The timetabling fiasco led to calls for reform as Thameslink and Northern failed to run about 12 and 11 per cent of their daily services respectively– with knock-on effects for other trainlines.

Train delays due to timetabling changes, or unforeseen events such as breakdowns, can be avoided through a more effective use of data and the adoption of technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT, which allows different trains to communicate with each other, can help to provide real-time information on disruptions that can be used to readjust timetables, platforms and train services to restore normal services.

This technology can also be used to better predict the need for train maintenance. Currently, rail maintenance is a result of scheduled repairs (even if parts are still working effectively) or because something has broken, which is difficult to predict. Enabling different parts of the train to communicate using IoT sensors, in addition to effective analysis of this data, can help the rail network to better predict when maintenance is needed.

As a result of the growth in passenger numbers, during peak times the busiest parts of the rail network are full. Building new infrastructure such as new tracks and platforms to meet demand is often disruptive and costly. Alternatively, digital signalling, which will help manage rail traffic and speed so that trains run closer together, can help to overcome capacity issues and reduce delays. According to Network Rail, the reduction in wasted space on rail tracks because of digital signalling will help the network to increase the number of trains by up to 40 per cent.

Digital signalling has already been adopted on other transport networks such as the London Underground, enabling Transport for London to run more trains. On the Northern line, for example, signalling has helped the service to deliver up to 20 per cent extra capacity equating to an extra 11,000 customers per hour.

Digital technology should not be considered a ‘silver bullet’ that will automatically restore passenger trust. Yet, as discussed at Reform’s recent roundtable, it has the potential to reduce delays and provide a more comfortable service. As passenger numbers are expected to continue rising, digital technology should be central to any strategy to meet this demand.