As of 20 May this year, The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail alongside the announcement of Great British Railways – a plan to transform the Britain’s railways by setting out priorities, changes and new transport solutions – took place.
The plan aims to ensure that UK rail is the backbone of a cleaner, more environmentally friendly public transport system by replacing, accelerating, and integrating new technology and regulations.
Andy Bell, VP ground transportation systems, Thales UK, discussed the company’s perspective on the announcement as well as what the potential challenges could be along the way.
He said: “The investigation was triggered off the back of some difficult experiences in the industry. Station overcrowding, some poor services for passengers and number of operating companies struggling.
Thales certainly recognises that there is a need for change. The initial reaction to the report and the plan was that Thales welcomes the plan, Thales welcomes the opportunity to change the way that railways operate in the UK, for the better.”
Frankie Youd (FY): What part will Thales play in realising the new scheme which has been set out?
Andy Bell (AB): Thales is a global provider of technology solutions across the world, we pride ourselves on providing world class passenger experience, connected networks, greener transportation. A lot of what Thales does fits very well with what The William-Shapps Plan has outlined.
So, trying to bring some of that technology into the UK network, I think Thales has got a lot to offer in that space. We certainly think that we can support that journey, and are committed to the UK rail market so we want to be part of realising that change of building a railway that everyone’s proud of.
Some of the railway principles and the way that the railway operates are still based on Victorian times and the philosophies that were around when railways were first invented. Some of that hasn’t really moved on, even though technology is much more advanced.
Embracing technology on something like Station Information Systems which with today’s technology, we can integrate that onto a cloud-based system, which is much better information for the station supervisors and passengers. It saves costs because it’s more integrated and enables passengers to plan journeys across multiple modes of transport, or different routes. This is a real opportunity for the industry to provide a better service at reduced cost.
Similarly, Thales would encourage GBR to look at moving towards the new technology on Signalling Control, with moving block technology providing more reliable infrastructure, a better service for customers, and reduced maintenance costs.
The plan itself sets out quite an ambitious plan about how railways are to be run in the future, that gives us the opportunity as an industry to look at how we provide a better service to the travelling public, better value for money for taxpayers, and also specifically in Thales’s area look at how we move towards new technology and introduce innovation.
Thales warmly welcomes the plan and looks forward to working together with the new organisation with other organisations around the sector, with other suppliers and partners that make it a reality and to make a change.
FY: What do you think the most important benefits are for the passenger as well as the industry?
AB: The Williams-Shapps Plan outlines a more centralised organisation, a more centralised way of operating. That gives the opportunity to provide a more integrated railway network and allows investment decisions to be made on a more strategic long-term approach, rather than a short-term local approach.
It should be good for the passengers in terms of the service, more integrated journeys, more modern technology. For the industry it is a chance to look at how we can build for the future.
The plan outlines an intense, more dynamic competition, encouraging new organisations into the market, which I think is good for the industry for driving innovation. It’s good for bringing in technologies from overseas, or from other sectors. I think all of that is good news for the industry moving forward, challenging us to innovate, challenging us to bring better levels of service and better levels of operation.
FY: Do you think there will be challenges along the way?
AB: Changing how the railway has been operated for years, I think you can’t underestimate the challenge that will be. I’m sure time will tell how well the country and the rail sector is equipped to respond to those challenges.
It’s quite bold and ambitious so it’s going to need courageous steps to make that transition to the new kind of Great British Railways. I think that’s from everybody from the government, the operators, other parties in the industry, the supply chain. It’s looking at how we can work together to make that plan happen, whether you’re a big organisation like Thales or small subject matter experts.
I think how all of those respond to the challenge will determine how successful it is, or whether it passes us by. Hopefully we’ll be able to look back in a few years’ time and see that this was a bit of a turning point.
FY: Which areas do you think should be addressed first?
AB: I think there’s some operating principles that the plan is designed to address as well as how do you bring together- in a more centralised way – the different routes, the train operating company, and try and gain benefits from doing that.
Setting out how that more integrated organisation is going to operate is clearly one of the first steps, because then you can start to look at how you leverage the benefits of that. Whether that is a more centralised strategic operating policy, whether that is using the best practice from different areas and rolling that out across the country.
I think integrating the operations, so the track maintenance, train maintenance, project roll out, the service I think that’s key first step. I think the other thing that Thales would be keen to see set out early is how we work together around innovation and how we look to introduce some of those new technologies.
It’s not just about a quick fix, there certainly are some areas where improvements can be made in the short term, but if we want to build a railway that is fit for the future, some of it’s about how we can work together to look at what the future needs are, how we work together to look at potential innovation.
FY: Where would you like to see the scheme one year on?
AB: Over the next year or so Thales is looking forward to working with the new organisation, working with partners and the industry to look at how that 30-year strategy gets formed.
I think it’s important that everybody works together to make sure that this challenging and bold strategy is delivered. It’s important that we all work together over the coming months to shape that strategy.