A renewal or an enhancement, do we need some common sense?

By Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, RFG.


The railways industry and Network Rail is a huge ‘industrial complex’ operating within myriad rules and regulations born of decades of learning and convention, framed and codified at Privatisation and monitored and managed from the perspectives of safety, financial control and regulatory fairness. Innovation and progress become the preserve of often large programmes with ambitious objectives and equally large price tags that, understandably, are challenged rigorously on objectives, outcomes, value and impact. 

A distinction is made between renewal and enhancement, the former rightly focused on replacing worn-out infrastructure, the latter on doing things that deliver a better outcome, be that capacity, speed, capability or cost and operational efficiencies.

But within this world are many engineering specialisms, working with strategy and planning capabilities aiming to deliver outcomes that customers, passenger, freight and society more generally, will get benefit from.

It’s quite understandable that specialist silos might appear, and within those specialisms there is an ever more distant relationship with the end user of the railway. The railway perhaps becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end; that end being a passenger journey and experience, or the ability to deliver an efficient rail freight service.

Nobody can be an expert in everything, and part of RFG’s role is, I think, to understand enough about enough things to be able to contribute positively across a range of topics to further the opportunity for rail freight and terminal operators and their customers; end customers who have a choice of modes available to them.

On a recent educational visit to Network Rail, I met with a senior sponsor of a major programme. We spoke in broad terms about RFG’s role in promoting the growth of rail freight and influencing policy and within that some of the changes and challenges that were happening in industry; the growing demand of end customers looking to use rail freight to decarbonise supply chains, the aspirations for more efficiency with longer trains, the competitive challenges of road v rail and what this meant for overall average journey times, the more powerful locomotives that are emerging and their greater acceleration capabilities. I learned a bit more about ETCS, what digital signalling does and what it could deliver. But I also started to understand some more about how the network operates today in part as a function of its fixed signalling infrastructure and historical configuration. A network designed and built around operating safely with the lowest common denominator.

As we chatted, looking at page after page of Sectional Appendix marvelling at its analogue presentation in this digital world, I was encouraged to hear that my ‘Sage of Infrastructure’ had begun to step back and challenge his engineering team on why they were doing certain things. Why, for example, when renewing a switch or crossing was its capability not routinely improved for a modern equivalent?  Why take a worn out 10mph crossing and replace it with another 10 mph crossing when the incremental cost to install a 20 or 30mph or greater speed one might be marginal? The prevailing view appeared to be ‘because it’s a like-for-like renewal, anything more would be an enhancement, which needs a different business case. Unpacking that, why would the 10mph crossing be that way in the first place? Who specified that? Some of the infrastructure being replaced was installed when steam trains were omnipresent. What uses it now, or who could use it? What impact would a faster crossing make on the network in terms of decarbonisation, sectional running times, capacity utilisation or efficient use of operator assets?

Are we really approaching renewals on the basis of replacing one worn-out 19th-century specification railway for a shiny new 19th-century specification railway?  In places, it seems so. GBRf’s incoming Class 99’s may have 8,000+ hp and 110,000 lb of tractive effort and accelerate like a scalded cat, but faced with a 10mph turn-out spec’d because it’s always been that way and the desire to run ever longer trains, it’s easy to appreciate what an awfully long time it could take before the last wagon clears and our driver can open the taps properly. What an opportunity (and potentially a timetabled path), lost.

Try as I might, if I were to replace my trusty laptop with a like-for-like replacement, I’ll struggle to find one with an x86 architecture processor and 2MB of Ram, running Windows 95. Like-for-like replacement in the real world means something quite different – modern equivalent – and that’s how the world moves forward.

I was encouraged that conventions were being challenged and questions about what the network is seeking to deliver were being asked, at least in this instance. It also highlighted that deeper into the rail network supply chain, the link between what’s specified and what today’s and tomorrow’s needs of the customers are, perhaps aren’t as strong as they could be.

It also made me question what’s a renewal and what’s an enhancement, as technically and in accordance with the rules around which the industry operates, like for like genuinely does mean just that.

Perhaps we need an intermediate category – ‘Evolved Renewal’ or sum such. The Dave Brailsford approach to lots of small incremental improvements having the potential to remove embedded inefficiencies and dramatically improve the performance of the whole over time. It’s maybe not just about big projects but more intelligent renewals?