Iain Coucher, chief executive at Network Rail

6 min read

Iain Coucher, chief executive at Network Rail, explains how new technologies are changing the face of the UK’s railways. Jon Excell reports

Welcoming The Engineer into his office — a bright and modern eyrie overlooking Kings Cross station — Network Rail chief, Iain Coucher, is keen to talk about the future. ‘There are times,’ he said, ‘when I think people characterise the rail industry as a somewhat antiquated, backward-looking, heavy engineering type of organisation — it is quite the opposite.’

Coucher, who studied aeronautical engineering at Imperial and began his career designing surface-to-air missiles, is certainly no sentimentalist. Glad to see the back of the pictures of steam-trains that bedecked the walls of the rail operator’s old offices in Euston, his gaze, he said, is firmly fixed on the future — and new technology is at the heart of this vision.

Part of the team that helped set up Network Rail after the collapse of Railtrack in 2001, Coucher took over as chief executive in July 2007. He is now presiding over what he has termed the biggest investment in our railways since the age of Brunel. Indeed, it’s a telling measure of the industry’s ambitions that, despite the extent to which we have been desensitised by large sums recently, a £35bn package still manages to sound like a big deal.

While agreeing that much can be done to improve the rail system, Coucher mounted a meticulous defence of Network Rail’s record since taking over from Railtrack. ‘Over the last five years we have transformed the rail service; we have record levels of passengers and record levels of punctuality,’ he said, gesturing to the display screens that line his office wall. ‘We are running record numbers of trains, up to 24,000 a day — it was 18,000 when we took over. We have stripped away billions from the cost of running this railway. It is a success story, but we need to make it better.’

Coucher reeled off the challenges facing one of the world’s busiest and most complex rail systems with relish. ‘We’ve got to push punctuality to levels that have never been seen before. We’ve got to make the railway open-for-business a lot more — starting earlier in the morning and finishing later at night. We’ve got to be working at weekends and on bank holidays. We’ve got to invest in some huge projects on a scale that we’ve never seen before. And we’ve got to do all of those things while dramatically reducing our costs.’

The first aim is to deliver on the promise of a seven-day railway, and this, explained Coucher, means bringing an end to the irritating practice of ‘bus-titution’ — the substitution of trains for buses. He said: ‘There are instances where we put people onto buses far too often. We want to move work away from the weekends to midweek nights so we can run more trains at weekends and stop putting people on buses.’

But restricting work to the eight-hour chunks available during the night presents a number of challenges.

On the technology side, new techniques promise to rapidly reduce the time it takes to replace bridges and damaged sets of points — two of the biggest causes of downtime. Coucher is particularly excited about the roll-out, sometime next year, of mobile factories that will enable engineers to reduce the time it takes to replace sets of points from around 54 hours to six hours. Key to this system will be innovative tilting wagons that will enable the transport of pre-assembled sets of points that would otherwise be too wide to transport on the railway.

But the technology is just part of the mix, and in a refreshing reversal of current trends, Network Rail is embarking on a recruitment drive, and looking for 1,000 or so engineers who will help put these plans into action.

Coucher explained that he is looking for engineers with a particular mindset, who are comfortable with the scale and time pressures of the rail industry. The offshore oil and gas industry, which faces many of the same challenges, is a particularly promising recruiting ground. He said: ‘It’s the same principle in the railways. We get very small amounts of time to do huge engineering projects and the experience that oil and gas people bring to that sort of stuff is absolutely right.’

While bridges and points might be regarded as the traditional ‘heavy engineering’ aspects of the infrastructure, at the other end of the scale a range of less-intrusive technologies is playing an equally critical role. Coucher said: ‘We’ve got tens of millions of pounds covering the railway in what we call “intelligent infrastructure”. We’ve invested in technology on trains that can detect at high speed defects in the rail. We also have helicopters with ground-penetrating radar and we are flooding the network with remote condition-monitoring equipment that tells us about the performance of the assets so that we can take action before any breaks occur.’

As well as helping avoid downtime, similar technologies are also being used to improve safety. For instance, the biggest safety issue the network faces today is posed by level crossings where road intersects rail. Last year, 15 people lost their lives at level crossings, while there were 20 collisions between trains and motor vehicles, and around three near-misses a day. Clearly, there is room for improvement, and Coucher believes that radar-based obstacle detection systems that can release the level crossing and automatically apply the brakes on an approaching train could make a big difference.

With punctuality up from 70 per cent to 92 per cent, and the number of rail-breaks last year down to 109 from 1,000 at the beginning of the decade, the statistics appear to back up the case for investment in technology. But is this investment mirrored by the train-operating companies (TOCs)?

Although his claims might elicit snorts of derision from regular commuters, Coucher believes that the TOCs do a decent job. He said: ‘Despite perceptions, we do have the youngest rail fleet of any other comparable European country — the average age is about 15.4 years.’ Ever-wary of nostalgia, Coucher added that he does not believe there is a good argument for renationalising the TOCs. ‘I would point out that we run more trains on a Sunday than British Rail ran on any weekday back in the 1980s. Today, we are seeing the benefits of rail privatisation — it took a bit of time to get stable and there were some initial difficulties but it is now starting to deliver.’

But, assuming the targets of the current five-year plan are met, and Network Rail continues to get the funding and political support it has enjoyed so far, what might our rail system look like in 15 years’ time?

Coucher envisages the electrification of 5,000km more of the railway as ‘it is a greener form of transport but it also performs better’, and is also keen to look at the development of innovative forms of urban transport, such as the tram-trains undergoing trials in Sheffield.

He also believes the time is now right to give serious consideration to a nationwide high-speed rail network. The government-backed High Speed 2 — which is heavily populated by Network Rail engineers — is currently drawing up plans of what a high-speed network might look like, and is due to report on 31 December. He said: ‘There was never any justification before but the time is now right because we are starting to see the rail network fill up, and we do need to build some new lines at some point. I can see a situation in the next 10-15 years where we are starting to see a high-speed network that will perhaps emulate Japan’s Shinkansen or the TGV in France. My general view is that we should replicate CTRL (Channel Tunnel Rail Link) in terms of its technology and push that to the rest of the country.’

Interestingly, although there are lessons to be learned from high-speed networks elsewhere in the world, Coucher believes our existing network is unfairly compared to iconic services such as the TGV and the Shinkansen.

‘Shinkansen is a fantastic railway, but it runs 350 trains a day. That is the same as our smallest train operator in the UK. When you’ve got a dedicated two-track bit of railway it’s not complicated and you can get very high levels of punctuality.’

Warming to his theme, Coucher turned to France and Switzerland, whose railways are frequently held up as paragons of punctuality and efficiency. He said: ‘The British experience of the French railways tends to be the TGV — which is fantastic — but that’s a tiny proportion of the overall French services and I would question whether the rural French railways are anywhere near as good as ours. People talk about the Swiss railway being very good — and it is great — but we run more trains in Kent on a daily basis than they do in Switzerland.

‘We do ourselves a disservice by comparing ourselves to overseas. Considering what we do here in the UK in keeping the railway going — running 24,000 trains a day on railway that’s been in situation for a couple of hundred years and was never designed as a high-speed commuter service — I think we do a pretty good job.’