A rail network fit for the 21st century: making the most of digital technology

7 February 2018

New digital technologies present an opportunity to modernise the UK’s rail network. Technologies such as 5G mobile connectivity and transport apps can improve economic growth and productivity, ensure seamless connectivity, and enhance the passenger experience.

On 21 February, Reform will be hosting a roundtable in partnership with BAI Communications, led by the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, to discuss the role technology can play to improve public transport.

Improvements to mobile connectivity and Wi-Fi on rail travel will have a positive effect on economic growth and the UK’s stagnating productivity. By ensuring digital connectivity on rail networks, it will allow business to be conducted on the move. This will mean that the time spent commuting, which is continuing to rise, could become more productive. Recognising the possible economic benefits of improved mobile connectivity and Wi-Fi, the Government’s 2017 Digital Strategy estimated that by the end of 2018, 90 per cent of Department for Transport-franchised lines will enjoy reliable Wi-Fi.

Uninterrupted internet coverage will improve the rail experience by allowing passengers to stream or download content, in addition to accessing news, emails and social media feeds. In New York, for example, Transit Wireless launched a free Wi-Fi system that enables passengers to stay connected while in transit. Transport for London have now taken steps to match their global competitors, stating that by 2019, commuters will have access to 4G mobile coverage on the London underground.

Reliable internet connectivity would also help to improve communication between staff and customers with real-time traffic updates. In the House of Commons Transport Committee’s assessment of passenger needs, Wi-Fi improvements were considered “a non-essential, though welcome, enhancement.” Providing punctual, frequent and cost-effective services were considered more important. It argued, however, that these aims are not necessarily mutually exclusive. An improvement in internet services would mean a more effective way of transferring information between passengers and staff through websites and online apps, leading to a more enjoyable service.

Transport apps can offer support to disabled passengers that have difficulties accessing public transport. Wayfindr is one such example helping people that are visually impaired to find their way through rail stations using audio technology. In 2015, the app was trialled in Pimlico and Euston stations, with TFL looking to expand the application more widely, with further trials across six stations.

New technologies can also help to expand passenger capacity and reduce delays. In the past 20 years, rail passenger journeys have more than doubled. To manage rising passenger numbers, the Chancellor’s 2016 Autumn Statement announced that the National Productivity Investment Fund would provide £450 million to trial digital signalling technology. In addition, a further £5 million of funding has been granted to Network Rail to develop this new technology between Manchester and York. Digital signalling technology will help to manage rail traffic and speed, enabling trains to run closer together without supervision.

Advances in technology present a great opportunity to improve the UK’s rail network. In his 2017 conference speech, Chris Grayling recognised this potential, arguing that new technologies “will help create a more reliable railway, increase capacity and create better journeys for passengers.” According to the National Infrastructure Commission, however, the UK is “languishing in the digital slow lane”, and is 54th in the world for 4G connectivity, worse than Peru, Romania, Albania and Panama. The Government has demonstrated its commitment to improve this. In its 5G strategy update, for example, it agreed to assess the commercial provision of trackside infrastructure to improve high-speed connectivity. By utilising new digital technology, there is opportunity for Government and business leaders to work together to provide a rail network that improves productivity, connectivity and the passenger experience.

Dr Luke Heselwood, Researcher, Reform

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