Network Rail chairman talks cars at National Railway Museum dinner

Richard Parry-Jones talked cars at last week’s National Railway Museum 40th anniversary dinner, warning the assembled railwaymen that cars were closing the gap on rail’s environmental advantage.

Parry-Jones has had a distinguished career in the motor industry so he knows his stuff when it comes to cars. He talked of the latest technology from Volvo in autonomous cars. He talked of the improvements in computing power that sit behind the switch to autonomy and said it could benefit rail operators. There should be fewer level crossing collisions, he reckoned, because the car would know that a train was approaching and refuse to obey any driver’s command to move onto the crossing.

He reminded his audience that cars intervening in their drivers’ actions is nothing new – it started with ABS braking.

NR’s chairman predicted a change in the way we own and use cars. He reckoned we would shift to car hire by the hour, noting the very poor utilisation of cars at the moment. Today’s rail commuter might drive to their local station where their car would sit for the next nine hours. It might spend even longer idle every night. For an expensive object, he’s right to say that represents poor use. Trains certainly work much harder even if not every seat is occupied on every journey.

Autonomous car hire by the hour could see commuters catching a car to their station before a train to work, he suggested. This is fine but the companies owning these fleets of cars would have the same problem that rail companies have today. That’s very high asset use during peak times and then idleness for the rest of the day. How much of the costs of that idleness do they factor into the peak journey price?

For rail, Parry-Jones suggested that increasing computing power would lead to ‘atomisation’. Best described as a modern version of ‘slip coaches’ this would see trains split into constituent vehicles before being sent to their final destinations. Each self-powered vehicle could be controlled to its destination while the rest of the train carried on. I can see how this might work, even with points switching the vehicle into a bay platform to allow the next train to pass unhindered.

The opposite is slightly more challenging. ‘Re-atomisation’ would be a series of controlled collisions between vehicles moving at speed. It happens on space stations I suppose but it’s a very new concept for railways to consider!