With so much written on the subject, rail industry innovation is a hot topic. In his 2011 report, Sir Roy McNulty raised the profile of rail innovation, estimating that it could generate between 18% and 26% of the total savings he identified. the rail engineer has featured many articles about both specific innovations and the innovation process itself, for example Network Rail’s new approach to innovation (issue 84, October 2011).

Promoting potential cross-industry innovation is one of the roles of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). It was established by the Government in 2007 to stimulate technology-enabled innovations in areas that offer the greatest scope to boost UK productivity. Sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the TSB brings together business, research and the public sector to accelerate the development of innovative products. In October 2010, the TSB’s mandate was strengthened by a Government announcement that £200 million was to be invested in a network of technology and innovation centres. This followed a report by James Dyson, the noted British innovator, on making the UK the leading high-technology exporter in Europe.

Catapult [verb] – to thrust or move quickly forward

As a noun, the word Catapult now has a new use, having been adopted by the TSB as the name for its innovation centres. TSB chief executive Iain Gray considers Catapult to be a dynamic word, hugely expressive of the momentum that will be created. The Catapult centres will bring together expertise in particular fields to develop products that meet market needs. The intention is to encourage innovation by giving businesses access to equipment and expertise that would otherwise be out of their reach, by helping with access to funding and by giving guidance on emerging technologies.

The first Catapult, High Value Manufacturing, is a consortium of seven technology centres and was created in October 2011. By 2013, a further six Catapults will be created for Cell Therapy, Offshore Renewable Energy, Connected Digital Economy, Satellite Applications, Future Cities and Transport Systems.

The Transport Systems Catapult will bring together the UK’s transport companies, leading IT companies, innovative small businesses and major universities to develop profitable new products and services. The intention is that it will enable UK organisations to gain a major stake in the global transport market of around £3 trillion per annum. This will provide a unique opportunity for innovative collaboration between different transport sectors and related industries.

The TSB is currently in discussion with stakeholders to determine Catapult membership and to establish its priorities. A survey has established interrelatedpriority themes and project areas as shown below bottom left.

Virtual community

Just as Facebook brings individuals and groups together to exchange information online, the TSB’s Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTN) bring together businesses, universities, and research and technology organisations to create an online community that can discuss ideas and access innovation-specific resources. The KTN currently comprises 48 interlinked networks with around 30,000 members in total. The Transport network has 2,916 members and 29 groups and is linked
with those on Intelligent Mobility, Energy Efficiency, Lightweighting and Funding.

As well as being able to post and respond to messages, each network gives access to information on forthcoming events, sources of funding and documentation. A quick browse of the Transport network reveals information about a low carbon vehicle technology exhibition, details of European Union funding for transport innovation, a group for accelerating innovation in rail, and all 124 slides from a European Railway Research seminar and live webinar on Composites for Rail Applications and New Concepts for Rail Infrastructure. The KTN is a worthwhile resource which anyone with an interest in transport innovation can join by registering online.

Rail competition

So far, this article has been concerned with innovation in transport, rather than rail, reflecting the TSB’s strategy of innovation across the transport sector. This does not stop the TSB promoting rail-specific initiatives such as the recent “Accelerating Innovation in Rail” collaborative R&D competition for funding – a joint initiative between TSB and RSSB which opened in November last year. Prior to its launch the TSB held a “Consortia Building and Information Day” attended by over 200 delegates from rail businesses, specialist technology companies, consultants and universities. The competition’s 19 winning projects were announced in April and have been awarded grants totalling £5 million. The successful project consortia involved a total of 46 organisations.

Richard Kemp-Harper, the TSB’s lead technologist for transport and energy, explained that awards were given to about a third of those which entered the competition. Entrants had to have an innovative product, define a good business case showing the market they aim to reach, demonstrate their capability, and explain why they were not able to fund the innovation themselves. He considered that this last question demonstrated how the TSB added value with a grant enabling something to happen that wouldn’t otherwise.

Richard also stressed that the awards are dependent on project progress. Each winner had to provide a project development plan against which the TSB monitors progress.
Dependent on progress, the grant is paid quarterly until project completion. He also emphasised that a key aim was not just to develop products, but also to commercialise them.

Clearly the TSB thinks competitions are a good idea. It has already announced plans for a second rail competition in spring 2013 as part of its delivery plan for the next 12 months, and has also just launched a competition on climate resilient infrastructure.

The winners

The winning projects cover a wide range and are led by a mixture of small, specialist and well known rail companies. All of the projects involve cross-industry innovation, either to or from the rail industry. Many involve consortiums with each company bringing their own expertise to develop the product.

One example is the flywheel energy storage project which draws on Artemis’s expertise in hydraulic systems, Ricardo’s high speed flywheel technology and Bombardier’s system integration expertise. Bombardier is also supporting the project to develop magnetically geared motors. Balfour Beatty Rail’s support for the Transport Research Laboratory’s project to improve rail adhesion provides a further example of a consortium with a large rail company supporting a smaller lead partner.

The Materials Engineering Research Laboratory’s (MERL) thermoplastic sleeper project provides another example. MERL’s expertise is contract research, consultancy, modelling and physical testing services in materials science. They are working with Testsure Technology, which has tested and quality-assured a large range of polymer structures, and Oxford Plastic Systems, the UK’s leading manufacturer of road cones with considerable experience in recycled thermoplastic materials and large polymer mouldings. This combined expertise will produce a hollow thermoplastic sleeper with the same dimensions and mechanical properties as current sleepers that is both noise absorbing and fully recyclable.

Heating the UK’s 17,000 points to keep them clear of snow and ice clearly consumes a huge amount of energy. Heat Trace’s innovative project expects to result in energy savings of up to 60% and product lifecycle cost reduction of around 40%. Whilst this is clearly of great benefit to the UK rail industry, this project should also contribute to TSB’s aim of increasing the UK’s global competitiveness as Heat Trace currently exports 90% of its production.

Expanding Interconnections

In his opening presentation to the consortium building day, Neil Ridley, TSB’s director of the Transport KTN, illustrated one of the difficulties of rail innovation by quoting R&D spend as a percentage of turnover. For UK Rail this is 0.8%, whereas the overall totals for the UK, Europe and USA are 1.8%, 3.0% and 4.4% respectively.

Neil also welcomed delegates with the quote “the key to intelligent mobility lies in the interconnections which can be made between a range of different industries and technologies”. This would seem to be at the heart of TSB’s activities with its Catapults, competitions and Knowledge Transfer Networks creating more interconnections and leading to greater innovation.

For Richard Kemp-Harper, this is an encouraging time to be involved in rail industry innovation. He feels that the industry has historically been very conservative but that “now there is a lot of momentum and the Accelerating Innovation in Rail competition has been part of that landscape so we are looking forward to this being part of an ongoing programme”. He recognises that the TSB is not the only driver of rail innovation and is pleased to support what the rail industry is already doing, including Network Rail’s innovation process.

McNulty and others expect great efficiencies from rail industry innovation. Richard is not alone in thinking that a good start has been made, for which the TSB can clearly take some credit. No-one knows what innovations will result, but it is clear that the TSB will help keep rail innovation topical for some time to come.

Click here for part two