The UK’s railways are the most heavily congested in Europe. Having doubled in the past 20 years, another doubling in demand is forecast over the next 25. At present, there are areas of the network that are running on infrastructure dating back to the Victorian era. It seems the rail industry has a lot to do, in terms of digital acceleration, if it is ever going to meet the demands its facing.

Or does it?

The UK’s infrastructure may be the most heavily congested – and oldest – network in Europe, but statistics show that the UK’s railways are also the safest. Major infrastructure works, such as Crossrail and HS2, are actively supporting the increase in rail safety, while also helping alleviate the pressures on other areas of the rail infrastructure. Upon completion, these projects will make travel easier for passengers, while enabling the industry to be more productive and efficient in further infrastructure upgrades.

Technology plays an ever-increasing role in the industry’s plan to move towards a completely digital future. The UK railway’s transformation programme – Digital Railway – is utilising digital systems to ensure that the capacity challenge, infrastructure demands and rail safety are met sooner, rather than later. What’s more, the programme also aims to ensure more jobs, more trains and greater regional and national growth. Understandably, there is still work to be done before the industry’s goals for the UK railways are achieved, but the velocity at which change has become so visible in rail – this year alone – is exponential.

UK railways must focus on digital acceleration

Even Network Rail’s own standards are making the implementation of digital solutions more imperative than ever before. Our own work with the 019 Standard (NR/L2/OHS/019, v.9.) changes have enabled us to realise how fundamentally vital it is for the rail industry to have access to a powerful digital platform that supports the safe planning and delivery of work, if the standards are going to be adhered to as Network Rail intends.

To support Network Rail and the wider rail industry during this time, we have made significant changes to our RailHub suite. This work has encouraged us to evolve and adapt to the speed in which rail is changing.

Be more rail?

The rail industry is often told to look to other industries for inspiration, particularly with regards to innovation and taking greater leaps towards securing a digital future. However, having spent almost a decade working alongside our customers in rail and seeing first-hand the industry-wide action taking place across the industry, we politely disagree. Like we said, rail is well on its way and if the industry is going to continue this journey towards a completely digital future, then it needs to look no further than itself.

Our own recent change in digital profile has been inspired by our own decision to ‘be more rail’. We’re passionate about the industry we serve and the products we’ve created, adapted and grown over the past nine years. This has come about because of – not just our dedication to our customers – but also our deep understanding of rail, its pain points and how our software can be utilised to ensure our customers remain on the right track towards their digital future.

The announcement of the 019 Standard (NR/L2/OHS/019, v.9.) allowed us to put our newfound ethos into actualisation. We realised that both communication and collaboration were poignant pain points that Network Rail were looking to resolve post-update. As a result, we upgraded our popular RailHub platform to feature a new collaboration tool within SWP that enables entire teams to work together more seamlessly, regardless of where they are in the network. Inspired by the popular social messaging tool, WhatsApp, OnTrac’s bespoke SWP collaboration tool harnesses the power of social communication; enabling people within the rail to work more seamlessly and productively.

Rail industry-wide collaboration is something that we’ve long-championed here at OnTrac. Using data to drive better decisions is, after all, at the core of what we do. Our team, thus, have been creating a collaborative and comprehensive database alongside our existing customers that lists both site tasks and site risks (alongside an industry standard permit library) all in a single place. This data integration aligns with Network Rail’s long-term vision for the rail industry and allows our customers to better predict and prevent potential risks. This encourages industry-wide collaboration and paves the way for greater productivity and better maintenance of infrastructure throughout the UK.

What’s next for rail?

The rail industry’s digital acceleration has increased over the past year, and it would be easy to fall into the same trap as others, in predicting what’s next for the industry. As we’ve learned, the rail industry is as surprising as it is innovative. Therefore, OnTrac aim to continue to look to the industry – and our customers – in our aims to meet their demands with digital excellence.

We are passionate about the rail industry, and while we haven’t been able to exhibit at this year’s main events, many members of our team attended both Railtex and the National Rail Conference personally, and we also sent OnTrac delegates to the recent Rail Safety Summit. Other members of our team, including our marketing department, have watched events unfold eagerly online and have – and continue to – engage with the subsequent topics and Twitter hashtags as they arise. Discussing the events at large with our customers, as well as respected individuals in rail, both in person and online, we continue to learn a great deal about what the industry wants moving forward.

While virtual reality, augmented reality and certainly play a prominent role in the discourse surrounding the rail industry’s future, this is not as immediate as the demand for smartphone integration and mobile app platforms that maximise the industry’s potential. With the industry consistently focused on streamlining its processes to become more productive and efficient, it certainly makes sense that the demand for apps to facilitate the change to a digital railway is increasing.

Partners in apps

Our own products have long been available on both desktop and mobile. Our RailHub suite is available via smartphone and tablet, allowing the rail industry’s digitally engaged workforce to become more productive. Moving forward, we are going to be working even more closely with our ‘partner in apps’, Nutshell Apps, to continue helping the rail industry on their journey towards digital integration via the implementation of smartphone and tablets.

Nutshell Apps is an innovative drag and drop app building platform that puts the power of change directly into the hands of those who utilise the product. As the rail industry continues its progression towards an entirely digital future, enabling the rail workforce to create their own digital alternatives to paper-based or time-consuming manual processes becomes increasingly important for the industry to consider. Using Nutshell, companies in rail can build their own apps and connect them to their entire IT ecosystem without any technical knowledge or experience necessary. Nutshell Apps makes the decision to go paperless even easier, and being fully customisable within the RailHub platform means that we continue to be incredibly proud to work alongside Nutshell during a truly pivotal moment in the rail industry’s legacy.

The speed at which the rail industry has progressed recently makes what we’re doing here at OnTrac even more exciting. Moving forward, we want to work more closely with an industry deep-rooted in our country’s history – and indeed, it’s very foundation – as it continues its increasingly accelerated digitisation. We want to be the obvious solution to the rail industry’s problems, and as we move forward, we aim to continue supporting our customers – and the industry – on their digital journey.