Although it hasn't exactly happened the way it was planned, anyone who has been following the Williams Review has expected that major changes were coming in the way passenger rail is operated in Great Britain.
The COVID-19 pandemic could have sent the rail sector into a tailspin from which it might not have recovered, had the government not suspended rail franchise agreements and assumed financial risk in March.
As a result, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) declared that the sector has effectively been renationalised, and in September the government chose to permanently end the franchising system, using a new Emergency Recovery Measures Agreement (ERMA) contract structure to manage the train operators for the next 18 months, with a view to implementing the Williams Review's recommendations when normal times resume.
Although that white paper has still not been published, it is widely anticipated to propose a move toward London Overground- and Merseyrail-style concession contracts for operators, with a new independent ‘guiding mind’ for the rail network assuming the financial risk, taking the lead on an overall coordinated strategy and contracting operators directly against performance targets for efficiency and passenger service.
Most rail engineering work assumes decades-long life cycles for the assets it produces and maintains, and the ability of engineering to respond directly to the present crisis in the rail industry is of course limited. But the structural changes we are seeing in the industry now, or something like them, are going to persist for decades to come. Engineering, like every other aspect of the rail industry, is going to have to account for this new reality in planning its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The impact of a change in the passenger-facing operating model might seem to have only rather abstract implications for engineering, but as the stakeholders change, so too will the requirements. Future rail engineering will have to adapt to a different set of priorities, both with respect to the greater degree of central coordination applied to the rail network, and with respect to the changed incentive structure of the operating companies.
Rail engineering has been dealing with increasing system complexity for some time, from projects like the Digital Railway, as well as greater pressure from stakeholders on safety, accessibility and decarbonisation. But with this faster-than-expected transition to greater central coordination for the network, these pressures for greater complexity will both accelerate and change in character.
Rail systems will need to collaborate better, as rail strategy becomes directed from the centre and more focused on the integrated performance of the network as a whole. And even insofar as parts of the rail network can be treated as independent systems, more direct incentives on operators to improve efficiency and passenger service will doubtless also translate into more demanding requirements for engineers.
Systems engineering has already become an important tool for certain parts of the Great British (GB) rail network and has, in the last decade, been fully embraced by infrastructure owners like Network Rail and Transport for London (TfL) as a critical component of the sophisticated engineering necessary to deliver a more complex, interconnected and digital rail system. Even before these major structural changes to the industry, rail suppliers were starting to wake up to the idea that participating in systems engineering processes with those major contractors could help them work more closely with their stakeholders and deliver better, more complex systems, that integrate more closely with the broader understanding of the network and its systems.
With this accelerated transition to requirements being driven from the centre, suppliers will accordingly need to step-up their transition to a more integrated approach to engineering. Systems engineering techniques are fundamentally about finding ways to analyse, model and plan the behaviour of a system as a whole and in its context, above and beyond the details of individual components. By having a suite of processes and tools designed to model and anticipate the structure of a system, projects can have assurance from the start that the right asset is being built in the right way, and that the project will interact appropriately with its context.
Systems engineering has developed a wide range of processes and tools for modelling and simulation, requirements analysis, scheduling, and all parts of the life cycle, tailored to better manage the development of complex systems. In particular, systems engineering takes a robust and scientific approach to requirements management that cleanly and specifically identifies ambiguities and gaps in stated stakeholder needs.
The requirements that result are – among other benefits – clear, verifiable, functional, minimal and consistent. And, critically, they are managed using tools which can integrate those requirements across every part of the network, with seamless supplier collaboration and the ability to see in requirements and models, how any given system is expected to interface with the network around it.
As the rail operating model changes, more requirements will be ultimately derived from the central coordinating body, and more of what is expected of rail systems will require seamless, integrated coordination with the network around it. Stepping up progress toward systems engineering use could be the right way to engineer the railway out of this crisis, and beyond, to the challenges of the future.
If you have found this article useful, and would like to hear more about how your organisation may use systems engineering to better embrace change, visit www.synthesys-technologies.co.uk or contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org