The Journey to a Digital Railway – An Interview with Toufic

European Traffic Management Rail Systems (ERTMS) represents a fundamental change to the way in which the UK operates its railway network with the final goal of improving its safety and performance. The East Coast Digital Programme is the implementation of ERTMS (i.e. the transition from lineside to in cab signalling) on the East Coast Mainline – South and is the flagship scheme in the UK centred around a business model focused on user design and industry-wide partnership.

The person who has led the successful launch of this enterprise has been Toufic Machnouk. Now Director of Industry Partnership for Digital Railway in Network Rail, Toufic is shaping the way we are modernising our railway. Whilst speaking over a Teams meeting, Toufic talked candidly about how the case for digital signalling was made with the UK government and secured the cooperation of Freight and Passenger companies alike to work together towards this common goal.

Although the launch of ERTMS has been attempted before, there was insufficient momentum to enable tangible progress to be made. Realising the need to move away from a traditional railway approach, Toufic created a pioneering industry business case which later influenced the Department for Transport and Network Rail’s decision to fund East Coast Digital Programme.

On receiving the opportunity to take on the introduction of ERTMS, Toufic noted that the framework presented to government had been categorised as an infrastructure project. However, he determined that the creation of an ERTMS railway would necessitate a fundamentally different method of operation, different skills and different processes, and therefore the introduction of ERTMS was in fact a change programme. A change programme that would impact every type of passenger service, freight service, on track machine, heritage operator, network system, train owner, train manufacturer, and infrastructure supplier. Toufic knew that a new model was required which had never been executed in the railway before.

“This [change programme] impacts almost every aspect of railway, the whole thing. So, it had to be organised as a partnership model that brought everyone together, and that is not some sort of fashionable speak where we’re all just friends; it meant you had to actually bring together key people from every part of the industry – to create the clarity and energy we required –  to make the progress that builds together a viable plan and  business case.”

With clarity on who needed to be involved in this journey, Toufic focused next on his approach to fully realising the benefits of bringing ERTMS to the UK. Working closely with key stakeholders, he experienced first-hand the limitations of the current signalling infrastructure and where ERTMS could not only overcome these limitations but could transform the network for the better.

At this point of the interview, it felt important to reflect on how the initial vision had matured. Since Toufic became involved with ERTMS around 2018, the strategy has grown to involve all members of the railway community who have cooperated in the shared goal of ensuring the final product provides a positive benefit to all end users. Freightliner’s own ERTMS team collaborates regularly with competitors, manufacturers, union representatives, and colleagues at all levels within the company to support not only a finished product, but one which they can proudly stand behind. 

ERTMS has existed in Mainland Europe since the early 2000s an has existed on a few isolated lines within Wales and England. It is therefore somewhat surprising that it has taken so long for this technology to be widely adopted in the UK. Directing this query to Toufic, he reflected on the significant impacts of industry fragmentation on the ability to deliver industrial strategies. To accomplish an enterprise of the magnitude of ERTMS, there is the necessity for a strong and well supported national strategic direction and a well-coordinated capability building journey. This is where Toufic devised the East Coast Digital Programme.

“East Coast Digital (Programme) is the platform for the national network strategy, and we call this the digital master plan, which is all about a capability building journey, that shows you how to gain the knowledge and experience to go beyond.”

To be specific, the East Coast Digital Programme is the roll out of ERTMS on the East Coast Mainline South from Kings Cross to Stoke Tunnels. Currently planned to be completed in late 2029, it will be the first 110 miles of railway on the mainline to be fitted with ERTMS technology. Listed benefits include the ability to put more trains on the network, but can the full benefits list truly be achieved through the upgrade of just 110 miles and why was it decided to not fit the entire East Coast Mainline?

Toufic explained that the East Coast Mainline – South made the most compelling case for initial government investment as the signalling infrastructure was already up for renewal, having been completed from south to north in the 1970-80s, and from a review of the fleets traversing the line a high percentage was made up of passenger trains already fitted with ERTMS technology.

“What actually matters is that we create the […] collaboration that gets tens of operators to migrate into operating in ERTMS. Once that is done, frankly it just becomes a question of how quickly you can cascade, so it’s not really about the 100 miles, that’s just the way the case is constructed.”

The justification provided by Toufic is that this isn’t just about immediate benefits. Yes, improved safety is achieved the moment any piece of railway is ERTMS fitted; however, ERTMS is about achieving a new level of capability of network.

“You don’t get that from just having an island, but you’ve got to start at the island. So, you get something, you get safety, you get improvements, but then it becomes a question of how quickly can we expand from there?”.

In 2023, Toufic and his team are going to release the digital master plan which will outline the future of ERTMS in the UK. Included in this will be details on the capability journey out of East Coast and onto the Brighton Mainline, Midland Mainline, Trans Pennine and Northwest.

When asked what his biggest learning has been to date, Toufic responded,

“My biggest learning is that with a pioneering mindset, we can do so many great things in our industry. It is very easy to be consumed by the challenges we face, the structural misalignments, the political instabilities. […] but if we’re waiting for big solutions to come, then we’re going to wait a very long time. I really believe in this idea that no one is coming, and if we really think fundamentally about things and build a vision and create an environment that bridges boundaries, you can unleash a huge amount of passion and talent in our industry”.

Freightliner’s first in class, 66588, goes into fitment in Summer 2023.

Company-wide Driver training is set to commence in mid-2024.