RFG Spring Group Meeting 2019

Tackling the future of rail freight in the UK

Digital railway, ETCS, electrification and the Williams Review were the topics under discussion at the RFG Spring Group Meeting on 1 May.

We were privileged to be hosted at Siemens in Chippenham, with many of the delegates also taking the opportunity to tour the facility where 900 people are employed in everything from design and manufacture to testing and installation.

Pieter Rypma and Ewan Spencer from Siemens gave a presentation on ETCS (European Train Control System), the in-cab signalling system which is beginning to be rolled out in the UK. It is already in use on Thameslink and has enabled the numbers of trains to be increased from 16 to 24 per hour.

Siemens are leading the work to fit ECTS equipment to the freight fleet, and the ‘first in class’ programme is now underway. They said the work was helped by a very good collaboration with colleagues in the FOCs and Network Rail but there was still a long way to go and there are a lot of stakeholders who need to buy into the system. The Class 67 and 66 locomotives are nonetheless advancing well through the programmes.

The development of the digital railway relies on greater levels of collaboration, agreed Nigel Jones, Chair of the Freight Stakeholder Group, which includes Network Rail and the FOCs (Freight Operating Companies), and said he has been very impressed with the level of information sharing in this group.

But he does not underestimate the task ahead. “The introduction of the digital railway means that most if not all railway operational procedures will have to be changed. And for at least two decades the railway will have a mix of conventional and digital signal systems with the transition between the two needing to be carefully managed to avoid importing risk into the network.”

David Clarke, Technical Director, Railway Industry Association (RIA) spoke about the need to restore government confidence in electrification and he showed that the industry has already delivered schemes on time and on budget. But funding needs to be continuous to stop the boom and bust scenario which resulted in the loss of skills and resources in the years when the programme is virtually halted, as it was for 20 years.

Bill Free, Rail Director, Civil Engineering Contractors Association, spoke about his organisation’s input to the Williams Rail Review, and the need for both collaboration and communication, especially in terms of agreeing possessions. “We need our members to be involved early so we can plan the work properly and ensure better communication about the disruption – and about the long-term benefits.”

Thanks very much to Pieter Rypma, Senior Key Account Manager – Digital Rail, and the rest of the team at Siemens for their hospitality and ensuring the meeting and site tour all went so smoothly.