What infrastructure investment and innovation is needed to build back a smarter, faster, greener and more reliable rail network, improve the passenger experience, and accelerate decarbonisation? Artists impression of a through station for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail at Manchester Piccadilly. Image by Weston Williamson.
Investment must be directed where it will have the most effect.
Making the railways greener is not necessarily rocket science. For example, railways are green when you maximise loads, be they passengers or freight. A relatively small investment in unblocking key pinch points and providing longer loops with decent entry and exit speeds would make sure that the longest 775 metre freight trains can be pathed on the network.
Some smart investment in Railfuture’s proposal for rerouting freight trains to Trafford Park would unlock the Castlefield Corridor. Photo by Phil Smart for Railfuture.
The big investment has to be in electrification. Railfuture supports the Rail Decarb21 call for a rolling programme which is needed to meet decarbonisation targets. A rolling programme will give the industry the confidence it needs to build experienced teams and so reduce the cost. Priority must go to intensively used routes, with a focus on freight - a 2000 tonne freight train can save much more carbon than a 2 car passenger train.
The other big thing is train weight. An obsession with crash worthiness, rather than reducing the risks of a crash in the first place, has meant that trains have got heavier, not lighter over the years. We need an innovative risk based approach, using modern materials to make trains lighter, not heavier.
To accelerate decarbonisation we also need to achieve modal shift of passengers and freight to rail, which is the most sustainable transport option. Electric cars still leave a large carbon footprint and so are not the whole answer.
People make door to door journeys, so the railways have to be smarter, offering integrated travel solutions and reliable services to deliver the improved passenger experience needed to encourage people to use rail for part of their journey.
Achieving integration is more about getting agreement between the different organisations and people involved than technology. We need rail and bus timetables that align, selective marketing and flexible pricing to optimise passenger loadings, single leg pricing to remove anomalies, and zonal fares in urban areas. Only then will the railways regain the trust of passengers. This is necessary for investment in digital retailing to pay off, which will enable booking of door-to-door journeys, including perhaps autonomous taxis or car hire, and providing Mobility As A Service.
Achieving rail reliability requires a laser focus on operation, managed by experienced teams with the right skills. It's about people. However there are some opportunities for innovation and investment in digital infrastructure which will help:
- Artificial Intelligence systems to help the railway cope with disruption, providing relevant and accurate advice to passengers
- Scheduling and real time traffic management systems can help to drivers to drive a smooth profile, rather than repeatedly slowing or stopping and then having to speed up again because they have caught up the train in front.
- ‘Just in time’ maintenance regimes and inspections using drones can reduce cost.
Finally, when we succeed in building back better we will need more rail capacity. Investment in Northern Powerhouse Rail will effectively bring the northern cities closer together, enabling them to operate as a single economic entity and so enjoy the same agglomeration benefits as London.
Computer-aided design technology for stations is not new, but there is now the opportunity to use it to model their position in the city. Superimposing the new buildings on photographic images of the city gives context, integrating the station with the streetscape. There are massive opportunities for reducing cost and for improving passenger flow to travel connections and into the city.
Birmingham Curzon Street could have done with this. It is designed only within the site with the front door on the wrong side and no integration with other stations.
An imaginative design for a through HS2/NPR station at Manchester Piccadilly would enable through high speed services from London and Birmingham via Manchester to Leeds.
So in summary:
- Invest strategically for the long term
- Build skilled teams and provide them with the tools to work efficiently
- Bring organisations and people into alignment to do it right.
Based on the presentation given in the Mini Summit 2 session ' How do we build back infrastructure investment AND create greener journeys by road and rail?' at the Northern Transport Summit on 27 May 2021 by Chris Page, Chair of Railfuture. The session recordings are live on YouTube.