LIGHTWEIGHT trains, rejuvenated stations, personalised and smart ticketing, and high-capacity operations are all essential components of the vision for Britain’s railway network in 2040 presented in the Rail Technical Strategy (RTS).

Issued in December 2012, this document is a blueprint for how Britain’s railway should develop over the next 30 years in order to successfully meet the demands of a 21st century society.

Produced by the Technical Strategy Leadership Group, a Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB)-facilitated cross-industry expert body of senior executive staff from some of the leading actors in Britain’s railway industry, RTS fits within the context of the European Commission’s 2011 whitepaper, “Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area,” and directly addresses six technical themes and three common foundations which cover all six themes (see panel).

Rail Technical Strategy technical themes

  • Control, command and communication
  • energy
  • infrastructure
  • rolling stock
  • information, and
  • customer experienceCommon foundations covering each theme

Common foundations covering each theme

  • whole system approach
  • innovation, and
  • people

The document attempts to transform the industry’s cost base by eliminating many of the current cost drivers such as lineside signalling, oil-based traction fuel, service interruptions caused by asset failures, frequent unplanned maintenance, customer experiences of unreliability, and compensation payments. The potential savings here are vast. It also aims to lay the foundation for securing new business by increasing network capacity and offering a more attractive service.

Delivering such radical technological transformation in what is commonly perceived as a slow-moving and fragmented industry is inevitably a major challenge. But with the changes taking place in other sectors, most notably the development of automated cars, and the implications this might have for the viability of rail, there is an underlying understanding that to remain competitive, the rail industry needs to radically rethink how it aligns services with customer needs.

The Capability Delivery Plan’s 12 key capabilities 

1. Running trains closer together to increase capacity
2. Minimal disruption to train services by utilising predictive and preventative maintenance, plus faster repair times to improve reliability and availability
3. Efficient passenger flow through stations and trains through smarter ticketing and human-centred design
4. More value from data: data collection and real-time information will inform decision-making and provide customers with useful and up-to-date information
5. Efficient use of energy through intelligent distribution and energy storage technologies which deliver a more cost-effective use of energy on the railway.
6. More space on trains: generous and flexible train interiors that meet customers’ varying and changing demands.
7. Services timed to the second: knowing the exact location and speed of all trains in real-time will improve situational awareness, increase operational flexibility and allow for faster recovery from disruption.
8. Intelligent trains that are aware of themselves and their surroundings, knowing where they need to be and when, and able to automatically adjust journeys to meet demand
9. Personalised customer experience from tailored information and services so that travel by rail becomes a seamless part of the overall journey
10. Flexible freight: trains designed to carry varying loads, combined with better planning and tracking capabilities, will increase flexibility and capacity for freight customers.
11. Low-cost railway solutions: railway lines and trains which are designed, built and operated at low cost will make low-density traffic lines viable and allow rail to compete for new business, and
12. Accelerated research, development and technology deployment will more readily and rapidly integrate technologies into the railway system.

So nearly four years after the document was issued, RSSB and infrastructure manager Network Rail (NR), under the guidance of the industry’s technical community, are working to assist and grow collaboration within the industry to turn the vision into reality.

Supplementary document

While the original document, described as an “evolving beast” and not a “drop-and-done exercise,” remains unchanged, the industry through the recently-established Technical Leadership Group will issue a supplementary document, the Capability Delivery Plan (CDP), at the end of this month to further outline how this might be achieved. In particular, this is intended to inform the decision-making process for upcoming investments in Control Period 6, NR’s next five-year funding period, which commences in April 2019.

“The plan sets out a specific set of technical changes that need to be developed and introduced in order to deliver different capabilities to the industry, and which over time will help to realise the vision and strategy for the railway outlined in RTS,” says Mr Guy Woodroffe, RSSB’s head of Rail Technical Strategy. “We are attempting to offer a line-of-sight of how the industry can get to that vision.”

Severn Tunnel upgrade 2As the cradle of innovation, close engagement with the supply chain is critical to delivering any kind of substantial change. Woodroffe says that the key to achieving this with RTS is the leadership of both the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents British passenger and freight operators as well as NR, and the Railway Supply Group (RSG), which represents the British supply chain. Such active involvement means that these two organisations effectively have ownership of RTS and are driving it towards delivery.

“For suppliers looking ahead to the next five years, we want to offer a near-term vision so they have a better idea of what the industry is looking to achieve,” Woodroffe says. “It is intended to inform the decision making process so that specific products are developed and aligned with this way of thinking.”

However, a major challenge remains to encourage the private sector to deliver the innovations that will form a next-generation railway system without losing sight of the fact that private industry needs to make a profit to survive. Simply put, why should the supply chain put money into something like a system to convoy trains, when at this point there is no tangible application?

Mr Trevor Bradbury, RSSB’s Rail Technical Strategy delivery manager, says the objective of reducing operating headways is included in CDP, which effectively breaks RTS down into 12 key capabilities (see panel). The document identifies the priority activities that need to happen now and subsequent activities that will follow over the next 25 years or so.

For example, he says the starting point could be the introduction of moving block signalling, something like but not necessarily ETCS Level 3, which would reduce headways. Deployment of automated train operation (ATO) and vehicle-to-vehicle communications system already in use in other industries are all feasible subsequent steps, which suppliers already have, or are close to having, the capability to deliver. At this point virtual coupling and vehicle-to-vehicle control, while at present a true leap in technology, become a lot more feasible.

“While developing a new control system is the key capability, it has implications for other areas, such as energy and how these trains are supplied and optimised,” Bradbury says. “By dividing it into bite-sized chunks it becomes more feasible to deliver this and multiple areas, which may appear apart at the beginning, soon come together.”

Bradbury says RSSB is again working closely with the industry, including RSG and Britain’s Railway Industry Association (RIA) on delivering CDP, and describes their positive participation in various workshops on the subject, which often includes representatives from operators, Network Rail and government.


RSSB, on behalf of the industry and the government, is also attempting to facilitate innovation by funding a variety of research schemes and supplier contests relating to the strategy’s specific technical themes.

Since it was conceived, 18 programmes have been run or are underway to identify solutions to problems associated with the proposed upgrades to the network. These include gauge clearance issues with bridges and tunnels when installing catenary, improved pantograph capability, the development of remote condition monitoring systems for infrastructure maintenance, and innovations in customer service and ticketing. There are also several rolling stock-based projects. The Radical Train project, which is described as a “key project in the Future Railway Programme,” and aims to significantly improve the performance of rolling stock by developing radical train systems and sub-systems; Powertrain, which looks at improving energy efficiency on self-powered vehicles; and Tomorrow’s Train Design Today, which invited companies to propose innovative rolling stock design concepts, with the AeroLiner3000 double-deck train one of the three finalists.

Bradbury says that while these programmes are rightfully ambitious in their scope there is no expectation that they will all be deployed as delivered. Instead the hope is that at the very least they can provide certain building blocks for further technical development in a subsequent study, or by a particular supplier. For example, while the AeroLiner project is an interesting solution to capacity issues on certain routes, and it does have potential for application, it is just as likely that in the long-term specific components or systems developed here will become the true legacy of this project.

“They partnered with the German Aerospace Institute (DLR) on the project have done very interesting things with the bogie and bodyshell,” Bradbury says. “By funding this project we now have access to that intellectual property.”

Of course developing these new technologies is one thing, but implementation is very much another. Woodroffe says there is an understanding that the industry must adjust its approach to procurement in order to facilitate and deliver greater innovation. He says that when issuing tenders, the industry while needing to be clear about outcomes should not necessarily specify a certain solution to solve a specific problem. “We are assessing options for how we do that and allow people to become more innovative to solve the challenges we have,” he says.

Fostering the skills to deliver the level of innovation that the industry requires is another area which requires careful attention. After all the rail industry is one of many sectors seeking people schooled in data-driven processes and tools.

Yet the outlook is positive. Bradbury points to the success of NR’s graduate recruitment programme, which is recognised as one of the best in the country. The industry has also taken steps to engage with the next generation at an earlier age to make them aware of what a career in the railway could offer.

RSSB is similarly helping to forge greater collaboration between the industry and universities through the Rail Research UK Association (RRUKA) to encourage research and development that will benefit RTS as well as introduce the strategy into their teaching.

“We are delivering this in harmony so an individual will have the right understanding and skills in place so when it comes to a practical application they can adapt any new technology in an agreeable, respectful, and flexible way,” Woodroffe says.

Four years in, and RTS is living up to its billing as an evolving beast. There is clearly still a long way to go to achieve its vision for the railway - the upcoming devolution of NR will doubtless present a new set of challenges. But with an established framework in place, which is providing the foundation for successful cross-industry collaboration, the British rail sector appears to agree that RTS is the right path to follow.

“We recognise that the RTS Capability Delivery Plan is the next stage of the conversation and provides the framework,” Woodroffe says. “The whole industry should be pushing to get behind this, and we are attempting to provide the line of sight to enable them to do so.”