Delivering a Digital Railway
London’s Euston station is a good example of how a railway evolves over time. Opened in 1837, it was the first inter-city terminal in London and home to the iconic Euston Arch, scandalously torn down in the 1960s to make way for the station’s current (and much maligned) incarnation. 
Standing on its concourse the other day, and witnessing the ever-fluid sea of people waiting to board a train, I wondered what this scene would look like 20 years from now. No doubt there will be differences, especially if the station becomes home to High Speed Two – even though the project is by no means guaranteed. But it’s not just about what we see as passengers.
Of greater significance – particularly to those of us who appreciate trains running on time – is what is not visible to the naked eye, namely the omnipresent hum of digital technology that is increasingly underpinning our rail system. These advances are already helping deliver improved benefits to passengers and freight users of the railway and there’s much more still to come.

But it’s not just about technology.

As my colleague Mivy James has pointed out, transformations require more than just applying the latest digital advance. Genuine change is also rooted in other factors, such as culture, people and leadership alignment. It’s about getting the right balance between managing the change process at the right pace against delivering benefits quickly. Given the hunger for better train performance, this is a particularly acute challenge in the rail industry.
So, how can we ensure that the vision for a truly digital railway becomes reality? While there is no catch-all solution, there are some key priorities which can help boost capacity, minimise delays, strengthen safety and reduce costs.

Tips for transformers

  • Don’t dive in. An intimate understanding of how the railway operates now and how it wants to operate is vital. Taking time to observe, engage and really get to the heart of critical parts of the railway – like how Rail Operating Centres work and the challenges they face on a daily basis – will underpin the transformation, and help gain support from those that want and need the change.
  • Technology enabled, not led. It’s not about the sparkly ‘box’ of technology. We know that it’s about people and how they work together. We need to be obsessed with performance and benefits first to make this work – the tech will help make this real, give options to accelerate the change and deliver new or improved benefits. Trying things iteratively and incrementally – such as rapid prototyping against new and old ideas such as Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence – will help clear the way forward.
  • Culture club. The railway has long-standing ways of working and a defined culture. Significant investment over time is needed to agree the vision for future culture and behaviours – and then to take small steps to get there across the industry (and demonstrate and celebrate as we go). The right culture and behaviours (in any organisation or industry) will always be what unlocks success.
  • Mandate and top-to-bottom support. There is a mandate from the ‘top’ to change and modernise the railway (which is great and much needed). The real challenge in a complex system of systems like the railway is the ‘hearts and minds’ journey to ensure support from all communities impacted by the change. Generating backing from representatives of those impacted will make the journey a lot smoother – from start to finish.

On track to deliver?

Transformation is never straightforward. But while barriers abound to successful delivery, it’s far from impossible. Communication – including listening – together with obsessing on the end goal and how to get there, and not forgetting about the people, are all critical factors. 
It’s important to reiterate, however, that the stakes are high. Passenger numbers are projected to keep growing and capacity issues will continue to echo across the network. The digital revolution has opened up a new window of opportunity to genuinely drive transformational change across the UK’s rail network – it’s one we must seize, and not waste.

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About the author 

Harjit Lota is the Head of Digital Services for Government and Transport at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence.

Harjit Lota

Head of Digital Services for Government and Transport, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence