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In closing this series of articles on automation, RSSB CEO Mark Phillips reflects on what we have learned and what we can do.

Automation is inexorably picking up pace in many industries and likely to transform transport very soon, and we know that our ability to survive and thrive as an industry will depend on our ability to embrace this change, and to do so intelligently.

We should view automation not as a threat but an opportunity, as it has the potential to unlock more capacity, increase punctuality, add value to passengers, and better connect rail to other modes, while maintaining - and in some cases improving - the excellent safety record of the GB railway. 

We have seen that many of the technologies needed already exist, and the main obstacles to their successful adoption are not technical. The barriers are more due to the way we sometimes fail, as an industry, to plan for change and communicate our vision to employees and stakeholders so they understand the benefits or the necessity of that change. Confusion and problems arise when we let emotional arguments take over evidence-based reasoning and risk-focused thinking, so vital for taking sound decisions that stand the test of time.

An articulated industry vision of where automation makes best business sense, and how human talent can be best used is now essential, especially where we need to rethink supervision tasks and find ways for people and technologies to be more effective together when dealing with disruption and emergency situations. 

By being aware and thoughtful of the fears and insecurity our people will experience as their jobs are affected by this wave of automation and planning properly for it, we can create a better understanding on how the future of rail, and jobs within rail, will look. 

Embracing greater automation can increase productivity and help rail gain market share. To achieve this, we need to support our workforce in developing the required future skills and offer career-long development of new competences.

Autonomous systems present a particular challenge to regulatory frameworks, as legal obligations move from operators to designers and manufacturers, and as multiple systems with different levels of autonomy must be integrated and monitored. New standards and guidance is needed on how to facilitate and speed-up the introduction of such systems in the railways.

What matters is how we adopt technological change for the benefit of all, and how we minimise its adverse effects. Embracing and making automation a success is a collective journey. 

To accompany the industry on this automation journey, RSSB will:

  1. Drive the thinking about national and international regulatory frameworks in a way that facilitates cost-effective improvements in operational performance through the application of new technology. This includes revising standards to focus on functions and expected minimum performance, so that they are agnostic about whether a human operator or a machine is delivering them, as currently done for Control, Command and Signalling standards. We will also develop guidance to support the safe integration and assessment of autonomous systems.
  2. Engage with businesses who want to introduce greater automation and help them with whole-system safety, risk assessment and human factors considerations, as these are likely to constitute important challenges.
  3. In the context of the Research and Development programme, work with academic and business experts in machine learning, natural language processing and robotics to identify low hanging fruit and medium term opportunities, and develop practical guidance on the successful adoption of artificial intelligence across the UK rail industry.

Automation is a journey we are already all on. We hope this series has provided you with new insight, and we would like to hear your ideas on how to take advantage of increased automation and overcome its challenges. If you think there are other things RSSB can do to help on your automation journey, please get in touch. 

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