Matthew Flynn is a Director and Transportation sector specialist at Vendigital. He recently shared his insights with Rail Professional.
As the industry prepares for the launch of Great British Railways (GBR), decision makers across the sector believe there is a significant opportunity to improve operational efficiency, reduce cost and improve passenger services by adopting a more integrated approach to operational management.
With the prospect that draft legislation could be included in the King’s Speech later this year, plans to proceed with GBR are firmly on the Government’s agenda. Both Network Rail and train operating companies (TOC) view the transition to GBR as an opportunity to transform operational efficiency by managing capital projects, as well as infrastructure improvements and maintenance works, more efficiently and effectively. But how will it work in practice?
Currently, every time track maintenance work is needed, Network Rail has to take possession of the affected route, often for several hours. The time slot for the works has to be agreed with the TOC, taking account of the current timetable of passenger services and freight pathways. Depending on the urgency of the proposed works, it might be possible to select a slot when there are no passenger services… However, if this isn’t possible and some disruption is caused, Network Rail is required to pay the operator a fee to reflect any loss in associated revenues. Naturally, some routes are more profitable than others, and the period of possession might be longer in some cases than others. These and other factors can affect the possession fees payable.
With the current operating system, under utilisation of data means Network Rail is missing out on opportunities to plan routine track maintenance or other improvement works more efficiently. Under GBR, operator intelligence could play a significant role in improving efficiency. For example, TOCs could provide real-time video data to GBR from cameras inside driver cabs, to highlight any potential issues such as infrastructure damage, graffiti or encroaching vegetation along their routes. Much of this data exists already, but a lack of integration has left it largely unused.
In some cases, under utilisation of data could be causing Network Rail to make the wrong decisions. For example, Network Rail may be seeking to protect rail freight services as far as possible in order to increase freight volume. However, freight pathways are not always used – and Network Rail has no way of knowing this in advance. Equally, planned works expected to take eight hours, might only take four, which means other repairs could have been scheduled for the same slot. Instead, in this scenario, Network Rail would be forced to go ahead with taking possession of the same route on a separate occasion, disrupting passenger services again unnecessarily.
As a new public body that will own infrastructure and be responsible for operating services, fixing fares and earning revenues, GBR will have greater visibility of the rail network as a whole. This should enable a more joined up approach to planning and all aspects of operational management. For example, where routes or sections of track lack overhead lines, electric-only rolling stock can’t currently be used. Aligning track and train will empower GBR to take a whole-system view that considers the capital infrastructure projects required to decarbonise the railway, the current rolling stock portfolio, the requirement for new trains and balance this capacity with the demand of customers. In this way, GBR would be fulfilling its objective as a ‘guiding mind’, making well-informed, strategic decisions that are designed to protect profitability, while directing investment to areas where the commercial benefits are greater.
Taking on responsibility for overseeing infrastructure and operations is not without risk for GBR of course. Whereas TOCs shoulder responsibility for the fare box and ticketing under the current structure, this would no longer be part of their remit, and once GBR is in place, they will simply be required to focus on delivering a good passenger experience. Instead, GBR will take on this area of responsibility, although it is expected to retain some reliance on local operator knowledge.
Developing the role of data further, AI-powered systems could be trained using information from past and present projects to predict the most likely outcomes and assess the cost-value benefit of future projects as accurately as possible. This could help GBR to further improve operational efficiency by making better-informed decisions about whether a specific maintenance or improvement project should go ahead and if so, how to go about it. For example, if a section of track has minor repair requirements, and categorised as low risk, is it worth taking possession of the route to carry out repairs that will only deliver a small efficiency gain? Or is it better to wait until the next maintenance review?
In another application of AI and machine learning, bespoke algorithms could be developed to support decision-making processes. For example, an AI-powered system could be trained to predict the impact that a specific decision could have on certain passenger groups as well as its knock-on effect on the route’s profitability in the short, medium and long term. This could inform strategic decisions about whether to limit maintenance work to one day a week for a period of three months, or close the route entirely for a period of two weeks.
With GBR on the way and some structural preparations already in place, it is important that industry leaders don’t lose sight of the opportunity to make bold decisions and harness the decision-making power of AI and rich industry data to transform Britain’s rail network for the benefit of everyone.
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Recent troubles facing many train operators have underlined the need for transformative change. Urgent intervention is needed to restore services and reset the industry on route to a more profitable future.