Driverless trains; a necessary transformation…

Train travellers in the UK are being inconvenienced by frequent industrial action by rail sector Trade Unions. Finger pointing, ideological differences, and slow progress in dispute negotiations are clear to see. Attempts by the employers to modernise working practices, improve efficiency, and move towards driverless trains, seem to be a red rag to a bull for the Unions, as the following two sentences from an RMT press release neatly illustrate:  

“Driverless trains are a Tory fantasy that should be consigned to the science fiction shelf. They are dangerous nonsense and just another dead cat lobbed on the table to distract from what’s going on in the real world.”

These words bring a wry smile to the Badger’s face, because they capture a holistic general truth, namely that technology is always available to enable change, but it’s the mindset of people and the motives of their leaders that determine whether and when – or not – the technology will be embraced.

The pandemic has seismically changed railway passenger numbers, people’s travel patterns, and reduced train revenues in the UK. It thus seems unrealistic to think that the way things were pre-pandemic is a good model for the rest of this decade, especially when technology like that here can contribute so much for the greater good.  This decade is transformational for society, whether we like it or not, as a result of global health, energy, and economic crises, geo-political redefinition, and rapidly advancing, technological capabilities. No person or organisation is immune to these changes, which need politicians, employers, and Trade Union leaders to cooperate with shared objectives if they are to be navigated effectively for the country’s benefit. Currently this doesn’t look to be the case when it comes to the railways.

Why is that? Well, successful transformations require stakeholder alignment with common, apolitical, objectives. The press release sentences above suggest this clearly isn’t the case with the UK railways. Deep rooted antagonism is obvious. The Badger feels that one reason for this lies with the fact that rail unions are themselves struggling to transform in today’s world. Government statistics show that unions have many membership, demographic, and societal change challenges, a fact fully recognised by the TUC itself.   Rail union belligerence towards driverless trains might thus be just an act of petulant resistance that does not benefit their members, the travelling public, or the country, in the years to come.

Progress towards introducing driverless trains should be more advanced than for driverless cars on the road network, but it isn’t, and it looks unlikely that they will be common on the UK rail network this decade. There are always pros and cons with automation, but the two press release sentences above help to illustrate why UK productivity is 15% below that in the US and France.  Things need to change…and driverless train technology needs to be embraced rather than demonised.

UK Smart Meter rollout; updated official statistics due shortly…

The next official update of UK Smart Meter rollout statistics is due on the 25th August. The last update, here, covering the first quarter of 2022, showed that 41% and 48% of domestic gas and electricity meters, respectively, are now Smart Meters operating in smart mode. This means that, overall, 45% of all domestic meters are Smart Meters functioning as intended, an increase of 2.8 percentage points in the first quarter of 2022. It’ll be interesting to see how things have changed in the forthcoming update.

Since the National Audit Office’s spotlight on the rollout  in 2018, new obligations on energy suppliers, and a new target for completing the entire rollout by mid-2025, were introduced in July 2021 . The devil’s always in the detail with official statistics, so there’ll probably be scope in the forthcoming figures for politicians and energy suppliers to assert that things are on track to hit the new mid-2025 target. The Badger’s nose, however, is twitching, which is normally an early warning signal to expect more delay and cost. Why the twitch? Well, extrapolating into the future may be a dangerous game, especially in volatile energy supply, political, and economic times, but if the rollout continues to put just 2.8 percentage points on the overall number every quarter, then ~20% of the target will still be outstanding in mid-2025. If the forthcoming statistics are better than expected, then the Badger might need to recalibrate his nose as an early warning sensor!

Regardless of the marketing campaigns, Smart Meters provide little real benefit to the consumer who continues to pay for their rollout in their bills. They primarily benefit energy suppliers and the government, through various overhead and wholesale energy trading cost reductions and spin regarding commitments to 2050 net zero emissions. UK Subnational Electricity and Gas consumption statistics show that in 2020 domestic electricity consumption had reduced by 18.6% compared to its level in 2005. Similarly, domestic gas consumption had reduced by 28% over the same period. It’s notable that the national Smart Meter rollout began in earnest in 2016 and so hasn’t played any significant role in these reductions. The devil’s again in the detail, but you really have to be rather blinkered to believe otherwise.

The Badger feels that mainstream media’s focus on energy prices and their impact on the cost of living in recent months – a focus driven by post-pandemic, geo-political, and bust supplier issues – has changed the use of energy by consumers faster and more permanently than Smart Meters have or will do in the future. Well done the media, for a change! So, if the Badger’s twitchy nose still has some credibility, what’s next for the Smart Meter programme if the forthcoming rollout statistics are poor? Perhaps this expensive programme will achieve formal white elephant status and consumers will get a rebate? Dream on…

Returning to balance in supply chains…

Every commercial enterprise and every public sector organisation has a supply chain. When the supply chain works well no one really notices, but when it’s disrupted, for whatever reason, all hell can break loose unleashing all kinds of reactions, realisations, and changed behaviours to deal with the situation. The Covid-19 pandemic and conflict in Ukraine illustrate this rather neatly. They have shown to governments, businesses, and the general public alike, that global supply chains cannot be taken for granted, are  fraught with risk, and can have dramatic economic and inflationary impact when seriously disrupted.

Global supply chains are at the heart of the functioning of the developed world, and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply highlights some of their advantages and disadvantages.  Globalisation has meant greater exposure to the risk of economic, political, and financial instabilities, health and natural disasters, and to the logistics,  communication, security, and lack of direct control risks that come with far off places. This truth is plain to see as governments and businesses, and we as individuals, deal with the ramifications of the pandemic and geo-political events. It’s unsurprising,  therefore, that much is going on in governmental and business circles to return supply chains to some better balance in order to reduce risk and improve economic resilience. As pointed out here, supply chain reshoring, where this is possible, and the establishment of multiple supply paths with overtly ‘friendly’ countries are being actively progressed to improve future business and economic continuity.  

The Badger’s harboured a feeling for some time that our reliance on complex global supply chains was a problem waiting to happen, and that some kind of ‘event’ would force some retrenchment. It seems that the pandemic and Ukraine have been the trigger  ‘event’, but if this hadn’t been so then it was probably just a matter of time before climate-change weather disasters or military belligerence between superpowers had the same effect.  There have, of course, been global supply chains for centuries – think back, for example, to the Silk Road and the Spice Route. What’s happening in the world today is not their death, but a ‘returning to balance’ that should provide a more balanced, baseline template for the future.

Decades ago, the Badger ran a project that included building hundreds of bespoke computing devices whose LCD screens were produced by just one company in Japan. All went smoothly until the Japanese company unexpectedly stopped manufacturing the screens. The ramifications took months to sort out. The subsequent review and lessons-learned report not only highlighted flaws in the Badger’s company’s approach to managing suppliers the other side of the world, but also recommended that the company’s approach to international supply chains was overhauled to ‘return to balance’ . The phrase is worth remembering and seems very pertinent to what’s happening on the world stage with global supply chains today.

The Metaverse; What matters most will be trust…

There’s always a technological development lauded as the ‘next big thing’ that will change our lives forever, after huge financial expenditure, of course. One such is the metaverse which, according to Gartner, will not reach the ‘mature’ phase of its evolution  before 2030. The Badger admits to having an objective scepticism about the metaverse, ostensibly because ‘next big things’ often fail to meet their hype in anything like the forecast timescales. Development of the software, systems, and platforms for the metaverse is, of course, progressing apace, but that’s rather different to it ultimately being embraced by the masses because it provides tangible benefits to their lives.

During a social meeting recently, a tech-savvy millennial asked the Badger to answer  the following three questions about the metaverse using the simplest possible terms:  What is it? Will it happen? What about it will matter most to the average member of the public? An academic treatise can be written for each answer, but the Badger kept his answers, below, as simple as possible.

What is it? To borrow from Deloitte, the metaverse is, in the simplest of terms, the internet but in 3D, with facilities that provide users an immersive, 3D, virtual experience when engaging with virtual environments or other users. It’s a 3D virtual world within which virtual incarnations of a user can interact with simulated environments and other people for social or work purposes without being physically present.

Will it happen? Eventually…perhaps. Aspects of metaverse technology have developed in online gaming over the last 25 years, and Microsoft, for example, has implemented avatars and meetings in virtual reality into Teams. However, that’s still a very long way from a coherent metaverse that changes everyone’s life, especially when the legal, regulatory, data security, and privacy issues  with it are much more profound than with the internet and online world that we currently know.   

What about it will matter most to the average member of the public? Trust. If the lessons from rampant online evolution over the last 25 years are not learned, then the same mistakes will be replicated and amplified in the metaverse. Today we are generally more careful with our personal data and privacy, and more conscious of online security, rampant mis/disinformation, abuse, commercialisation, and the weaponization of information. If trust is not the starting position for the metaverse from the outset, then it will be just another ‘next big thing’ that irritates rather than benefits our lives.

The Badger told the millennial that others have different answers to these questions. They just nodded and said ‘It will be dominated by those who want to manipulate or control us. If I don’t trust it, I’m not going to participate’. If this view is widespread amongst millennials, then the metaverse may stall. Time will tell.

From Ziggy Stardust to autonomous trains…

The Badger’s currently reading ‘How we lived then’ by Norman Longmate, a book about everyday life in Great Britain during the Second World War. It cost £1 from a charity shop and it’s a fascinating read. Written in 1971, it describes what life was really like for ordinary members of the public between 1939 and 1945. If you thought things were difficult during COVID, then think again! The Badger was attracted to the book because his parents rarely spoke about their young adult lives in the war years, and because it was written in 1971 at the start of decade of turmoil, transformation, and rich personal memories.

By the 1970s, life for young adults had changed dramatically to that in the 1940s when, for example, military or civilian war service, rationing, and music from the likes of Glen Miller or Bing Crosby provided its drumbeat. In the 1970s, life for young adults was unrestrained, independent, and full of transformations and diverse music like David Bowie’s 1972 album ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ and many other classics of the same year. You might be wondering, at this point, how you get from 1970s books and music to autonomous trains? Well, easily as it happens, because the 1970s was also a decade of transformation for our railways and today, some 50 years later, they are undergoing transformation again driven by government infrastructure investment, huge advances in digital technology, and changing passenger dynamics following the pandemic.

In the 1970s, diesel and electric locomotives had replaced steam, electronic signalling was in its infancy, electrification was limited, ticketing meant visiting a manned ticket office at a railway station and strikes and cancelled trains were commonplace. This short 1972 film provides a simple insight to the railways and its technology of the time. As it ends, it makes a crucial point, namely that railway people were in an industry that is ‘both old and new’.

Today the railways are providing a service to passengers with powerful smartphones in their pockets, with better quality rolling stock, with self-service ticketing using machines and online facilities, and with real-time passenger information at the same time as progressing a Digital Programme deploying high-tech signalling, train control, and safety systems to increase capacity, reduce delays, and drive down costs. As this signalling piece highlights, this is a complex, difficult and slow task because the railway industry is always going to be ‘both old and new’ making transformation a perpetual process akin to re-engineering a Jumbo Jet while in flight! Nevertheless, progress towards a digital future and autonomous trains is being made.

Transformations are often constrained by workforce factors rather than technology. With train strikes imminent, it’s depressing that workforce factors still get in the way of the railway industry speedily embracing the modern, digital, increasingly autonomous, world we all inhabit. Sadly, some things don’t seem to have changed much since the 1970s.