A big week for ‘Digital Rail’ – let’s stop pretending the public is getting the full story

It was hard to get excited about the Rail Delivery Group and Department for Transport PR stunts this week – and the reason is simple: we have entirely lost faith that either group represents passengers’ interests. Rather than meet the messaging of the department on its own terms (which goes little further than trying and failing to evoke a sense of ‘Victorian’ grandeur), we intend to take forward our own investigations into these matters and will shortly crowdfund on a matter of crucial public interest.

More from us on the way next week so watch this space! We need all the help we can get and your support is invaluable.

In the meantime, here’s a comment from our co-founder Emily Yates, published yesterday as part of Steve Topple’s summary of the Digital Railway launch:

“Not for the first time, we note that Chris Grayling’s rhetoric about innovation and technology is something that better resembles a relic of the ‘Victorian age’ – or perhaps, going back further, a superstitious practice like praying for rain. We are in the fourth industrial revolution, not the third, and this kind of technocratic PR-speak just doesn’t cut it anymore.

But it’s not just rhetoric – the Minister’s actions speak louder than words. Take for example the cancellation of key electrification projects; or absurd DfT-driven decisions like not installing electric plugs on the new Thameslink trains. The extent to which the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ will come off well for all workers now urgently relies on the transparency of information about research and policy – points on which the department and rail industry fail repeatedly.

We will take our time to comment on the digital signalling project because we suspect that there are still missing parts of the full picture around the Digital Railway strategy. Thameslink was recently the first to use automatic train operation on mainline rail – the method that they hope will allow them to attain 24 tph through the core. Though this was from an industry perspective quite an achievement I don’t think it was adequately analysed or discussed by the technology press. The irony then becomes that, in the tech industry itself, nobody can understand quite what is going on – a problem I have encountered as both a tech writer and a passenger campaigner.

The next part of the picture we require is the research on dwell times which we believe to be an unexplored part of the driver only operation project. Peter Wilkinson has mentioned this more than once in front of the Public Accounts Committee, and we also know that the Rail Delivery Group is holding back the Steer Davies Gleave report (which we have reason to believe could be the business and/or engineering case for the entire DOO project). Since taxpayers are funding the two-year long industrial dispute – which, incidentally, threatens equality of access for the disabled – it is clearly in the public interest to now release the #SDGreport and we call on the Rail Delivery Group again to do so.

The development of technology requires public oversight, consultation and scrutiny like no industrial phenomenon we have ever encountered before. Because many of us in ABC are tech workers ourselves, we do not yet feel fully informed enough to comment on the government’s plans. And we believe that this is the real scandal – plans around innovation in this area seem to have been smokescreened since the 2011 McNulty report, and this is no doubt influenced by the (completely predictable) controversy with the trade unions. Our message to the Department for Transport today is: there can be no transition to the fourth industrial revolution without putting transparency and democracy front and centre.”

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