What Does a More Automated Railway Look Like?

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RSSB CEO Mark Phillips introduces a new series of regular features looking at the enablers and the wider trends that will impact the pace and success of increased automation on our railway.

At RSSB we’re proud of the depth and rigour of our work, allowing our members to focus on the right data and analysis, that informs good decisions grounded in evidence.  Now industry is asking us to raise our game further and to look ’over the horizon’ and go beyond day-to-day issues and immediate challenges, and consider future threats and opportunities. We also need to look at other industries and developments as we consider the ‘bigger picture’ and the challenges our industry faces.  This is in keeping with our overall mission: to provide research, analysis and insight to our members and stakeholders, to help deliver a safe, more efficient and sustainable railway.

The first article in our series of ‘over the horizon’ pieces considers the increasing role of automation and its potential impact on rail. At present the industry is in an ongoing, heated debate over Driver Controlled Operation (DCO), which is just a part of the increasing automation likely to impact the industry. Extending the deployment of DCO has been difficult and, whilst this series is not seeking to repeat the current debate all over again, it does assess the many dimensions of the issue and bring them together. It’s clear that that people feel strongly about DCO so over the next few weeks our experts will share reflections on emerging trends and offer new insight beyond the limits of the current dispute and help the industry prepare for a future of increased automation.


Automation goes far beyond cost-efficiency imperatives. For example, Automatic Train Operation has been put in place to deliver level of capacity and punctuality that could not be achieved otherwise. In fact, the railway has always automated, and automation continues to be central for the rail industry to achieve its '4 Cs' objectives (Customers, Cost, Capacity, Carbon) and the vision in the Rail Technical Strategy. But, increased automation brings new challenges that need to be overcome, whether it concerns the management of accidents and incidents, the need for greater accessibility, customers' security expectations, or the disruptive nature of automation on jobs and the workforce.

In the coming weeks, we will look into the enablers and the wider trends that will impact the pace and success of increased automation on our railway. In the next article we will look at attitudes to risk, following the experience of implementing Driver Controlled Operation; can a rational approach help us be more confident about automation in general?  Later we will reflect on the implications of accessibility. We will investigate a range of issues including passengers' expectations for security and better information; the challenges for staff of working alongside more 'machines'; the pace of automation in other national railways and transport modes; the impact of automation on jobs, and more. We will conclude the series by reflecting on what we will have learned, and on how well prepared the industry is for the changes ahead.

We hope this series will spark some new thinking, and we'd really like you to join the debate – so look out for posts on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Mark Phillips

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