British railways: The march of the machines

When I was a kid, I always loved a nice jaunt from my then home-town of Durham in the North East of England to nearby Newcastle-upon-Tyne by train.

Although only a short 20-minute journey away, it was one filled with anticipation and excitement as it always preceded an adventure of some kind in the big city. And no matter how many times I passed it, it always gave me a thrill to see the iconic Tyne Bridge, which was built by the same guys from Middlesbrough as the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and to a very similar design – essentially that of Hell Gate Bridge in New York City on which they were both modelled.

 

Tyne Bridge
Tyne Bridge

After living in London and the South East and undertaking hellish commutes and other assorted nightmare trips for years though, I can quite honestly say that the novelty of train travel has quite worn off. But that doesn’t mean to say that I’m not interested in what happens to the railways, which, even in this age of the autocratic automobile, remain an important means of getting both people and goods around the country in a relatively environmentally-friendly way.

So it was with some curiosity that I learned from my dad, who knows about such things, of a huge change going on in how our railways are managed and run. In what is being billed as the biggest shift since steam trains were abolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Network Rail, the entity responsible for looking after the UK’s rail infrastructure, is going to centralise and automate the country’s signalling operations, axing thousands of jobs and saving millions of pounds in the process.

The move will result in more than 800 Victorian-era and still surprisingly mechanical, trackside signal boxes – 89 of which have listed status in England alone – being consolidated into 12 modern-day, high tech Rail Operating Centres (ROC) in places as far-flung as Cardiff, York, Edinburgh and Romford by 2029.

The move forms part of Network Rail’s so-called National Operating Strategy, which is intended to try and improve both the capacity and performance of our railways while at the same time cutting the costs of running them – by an estimated £1.6 billion, in fact, once the Strategy is fully implemented and which one can only vainly hope will be translated into cheaper ticket prices.

But according to Michael Rhodes, author of “Resignalling Britain”, a recent supplement from Mortons Media Group, which publishes the Railway Magazine, it is these very hopes of cost reduction that are actually top of the agenda rather than any real desire to enhance the passenger experience by making things run more smoothly.

And the easiest way to achieve such goals, of course, is for Network Rail to try and automate all of its many troubles away. Which in this instance means introducing a European Railway Traffic Management System based on two components.

Impact of automisation

The first is a European Train Control System (ETCS), which will enable each vehicle to know exactly where it is on the network and to send that data back to its local ROC on a continuous basis. The ETCS will also enable in-cab signalling – and it is this particular little innovation that will make trackside signal boxes surplus to requirements.

All of this information will then be fed into a new Traffic Management System, which will help operators both optimise network capacity and the movement of trains around that network, particularly if trouble strikes anywhere. The aim here is to minimise delays by an anticipated 20% and improve the accuracy of passenger information at the same time.

“It is this Traffic Management System that looks certain to bring the biggest savings,” Rhodes says. “As train operating companies levy heavy penalties for delays, Network Rail can potentially reduce these fines substantially using TMS.”

But as ever with these things, there will be human casualties as part of the shift too, with the number of signalmen employed across the UK likely to fall from 5,000 to 500 over the coming years.

As Rhodes points out, “the driving force behind the ROC strategy is, of course, the savings on salaries”, otherwise known as cutting operational expenditure. He estimates that if 4,500 jobs with an average salary of £30,000 a year are axed, it adds up to a substantial “potential saving of £135 million per annum”.

Other hefty savings will also emerge from no longer having to repair and renovate ageing signal boxes, which when taken together with staff wage bills had become an unwanted expense amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

Signal box
Signal box

But the move in more human terms will, sadly, lead to the disappearance of a way of life that goes back over 100 years along with its traditional paraphernalia of manual crossing gates, paraffin lamps in the signals and such like – a heritage that many who grew up loving the railways will feel an inevitable nostalgia for.

On the other hand, confirmed materialists may be wondering just what all of the fuss is about – why worry about a few thousand jobs going over the next few decades when one in six UK steel workers are losing their livelihoods now and the demise of the British steel industry is widely feared to be imminent?

The rise of AI

But the move is an interesting one, not least for what it points to in terms of future employment trends. According to a report by Oxford University and management consultancy Deloitte, a massive 35% of existing UK jobs will be wiped over the next two decades due to computerisation and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)-based machines.

AI is a particularly clever kind of software, often referred to as a robot, that can learn what to do based on patterns found in data – in a similar way that a person might learn to play music by ear. So it can be trained to provide particular responses based on the information that it reads – for example, it could be programmed to monitor and deduce whether you are likely to have a heart attack by studying your vital signs over a given period of time.

This means that in some areas, AI-based systems are simply more effective and efficient – and cheaper, of course – at performing labour-intensive, mundane admin tasks than humans. Such activities might include sifting through CVs based on pre-defined parameters for recruitment purposes, or even answering call centre queries and advising remote workers in the field – as is the case with an avatar called Amelia who is currently being trialled at a handful of big corporations such as NTT Group, Shell Oil and Accenture.

 

Robot
Robot

But the implication of all this is that, in the same way that computer automation did for lots of blue-collar jobs in the past, so AI-based automation will hammer white-collar employment.

Some commentators have even claimed that the technology will spark off another Industrial Revolution, with all of the dislocation and social upheaval that this implies.

But others are more sanguine. They believe that AI systems will simply supplant particular roles and tasks that are widespread today, with low-skilled workers, as ever, bearing the brunt.

On the bright side though, other previously unthought-of, higher skilled jobs will inevitably emerge from the ashes to save at least some people’s day. Who would have thought such positions as digital marketer or data scientist would have existed only a few years ago, for example?

And so the march of progress continues, it seems. Which is fine – as long as we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of course.

 

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