“The most visible changes in passenger journey experience will, in my opinion, be around smarter ticketing and better integration of the whole journey from door to door.”
Like many of the world’s rail systems, the UK’s network is undergoing the biggest change in a generation, with Europe’s largest infrastructure project, Crossrail, which launches later in the year and the Thameslink Programme, the £6bn project to improve connections in England’s capital, two cases in point. Helping direct many of these major upgrades is the publicly-owned organisation that manages the majority of the UK’s rail network, Network Rail, a job it has been doing in its current guise since 2002.
For this week’s 5 Minutes With… SmartRail World welcomes David Shipman, who is Network Rail's innovations engineering manager for the IP signalling that will replace the current outdated systems to help deliver reliability and safety improvements. Fresh from his talk at SmartRail, David gives some considered and in-depth views on how he sees UK rail, why he loves working in it and where he thinks the passenger will see the biggest changes to their journeys… oh, and he also reveals where in the world his favourite rail journey is.
Dave Songer: You’ve been directly involved in the running of UK rail for more than 20 years now – what is it about the industry that you most enjoy?
David Shipman: As an engineer the rail industry offers such a diverse range of challenges, and covers so many engineering disciplines – it’s hard to think of another industry where there are opportunities to get involved in quite so many, often unexpected, areas. Plus the rail network is such a visible and essential part of everyday life, no matter what role you are playing you can sense the contribution you are making to keep the railway, and the country, running.
Can you tell me a bit about your role at Network Rail and what it involves?
In five minutes? That’s quite a challenge! I lead a fairly small group with the part of @networkrail that delivers signalling projects, and our focus is on finding ways to deliver those projects better. That leaves us quite a broad scope to get involved with – from supporting projects and suppliers who are trying to introduce new technologies, to developing tools and processes that enable designers to work more efficiently, and supporting the use of those tools throughout the industry.
We provide a lot of expertise directly to projects of all sorts, including representing Network Rail as part of European initiatives such as EULYNX, the digital rail consortium, manage automated surveying from trains. Doing this vastly reduces the number of people we send to the trackside and introduces automation into design processes that free up specialist engineers so that they can tackle the key challenges where their skills are best applied. It also supports the development of technologies in a range of areas such as level crossings, signalling equipment, power supplies and much more.
What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
For me, solving engineering problems is why we do the job in the first place, so the really big challenges are around the non-engineering aspects of the job. And the biggest of those is one the whole industry is facing currently, and which we feel very keenly in our own area of innovations. There’s only so much money to go around and the priority is, inevitably and rightly, on keeping today’s railway running safely and as efficiently as possible. Improvements for the future have to make their case for priority, and doing this right now has to be one of the most challenging aspects of my career to date.
How has the industry changed since you began working in it?
I’ve been working in rail for more than 20 years now, and probably the most notable change has been in safety – the current record, particularly on passenger safety, is pretty incredible compared to just about any other period in history before that. But at the same time we cannot become complacent and stop striving to improve. Other changes include the growth in usage, which puts the safety record into even greater perspective, and a renewed confidence in the railway as a key part of the national infrastructure. Increased growth brings further challenges, but makes solving them even more worthwhile.
What will be the biggest differences between the passenger journey today and a decade's time?
For me, there are two distinct perspectives to that: the changes where technology will be obvious to a passenger, and the ones that quietly transform the railway operation without the underlying advancement itself ever being obvious to users. In the latter category the wider introduction of major technologies such as European Train Control System (ETCS) and Traffic Management will be providing greater reliability and more capacity while still achieving the highest safety standards. It will also bring about continuous improvement in the way we deliver renewals and enhancements, meaning that we can deliver more in the time available and for reduced costs. But for the travelling public it is only the end results that will be the noticeable part, the technology revolution is all behind the scenes.
The most visible changes in passenger journey experience will, in my opinion, be around smarter ticketing and better integration of the whole journey from door to door. It’s going to be a big upheaval to bring in a new approach to ticketing on the national network, but I believe it is absolutely essential to move towards something similar to Oyster (Transport for London’s contactless travel card), or smartcard ticketing in use in other countries, which both have a visible technology change at the level the passenger interacts with. All of these represent a huge amount of change, the difference between them is more how direct and tangible the effect is for our customers.
What are your department’s key priorities for the next few years, can you share some details?
There are a few areas we will be focusing on:
- supporting the introduction of key technologies that will support the future Digital Railway is an ongoing task, ranging from ETCS-ready interlockings down to lower-level components that improve reliability and monitoring;
- continuing to introduce more sustainable solutions particularly around power supply, such as further reducing the use of copper in power cabling, an initiative which has already had some major success;
- taking forward our design tool development across signalling and other disciplines, providing further support to designers through automation of the basic tasks to enable them to focus on the complex challenges, and accommodating the changes to approach that designing for the Digital Railway future will bring.
You spoke at this year’s SmartRail about the need for greater collaboration when using data – what are the key advantages with taking this approach?
It really all comes down to efficiency. Across the industry data is gathered for various uses and for every user that captures the same, or similar, data separately they’re spending money that could be better spent elsewhere, and in many cases is wasting access time to an ever-busier railway. Sharing data between (and even within) Network Rail, train operators means capturing it once and reusing it many times, which is so much more efficient. It means we need to better understand each other’s data requirements, so that whoever captures the data gets what everyone needs, but then we can do so much more without needing to duplicate activities.
Did you enjoy the show, what did you get out of it?
This was my second time attending SmartRail Europe, but and the first as a presenter which was a fabulous opportunity. What I really like about the show is the less traditional mix of attendees, exhibitors and presenters compared with some of the other rail infrastructure events – it’s been great to make connections with people from other industries whom have something to offer us in rail – and vice versa – which is key to innovating and moving our industry forward. We can’t realise our full potential if we only ever look inwards to our own industry, and this year’s show has given us an opportunity to look even further outwards than ever before.
What’s your favourite rail journey, and why?
That’s tough – for me rail travel isn’t just about the journey, it is about the total experience, which is one of the things that sets it apart from other forms of transport. With that in mind, one of my favourite rail journeys in recent years was in Switzerland on the Fondue Train, which travels up into the mountains on a heritage train while the passengers eat traditional fondue with a glass or two of wine – all while enjoying spectacular scenery from the windows. I guess that’s a little bit cheesy though!
Thanks for your time, David. I hope we can catch up at next year's SmartRail.
If you enjoyed this, why not check out the last edition of 5 Minutes With… Ezequiel Lemos, president of Belgrano Cargas y Logística.
Would you like to get involved in this feature? This informal feature gives our readership the chance to get to know more about the personalities behind the industry, what it is that inspires them and where they see the industry heading. Get in touch with Dave Songer: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.