The 177 delegates attending the fifth Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) Technology and Innovation Conference were treated, amongst other things, to a mix of success stories, blue sky thinking and guidance on the current maze of technology initiatives. With such wide ranging topics there was certainly a buzz about the conference. Rail innovation is certainly a hot topic but do the current range of initiatives offer real improvement or is it just so much hype? The Rail Engineer was glad to accept RIA’s invitation to this conference to find out more.

Francis How, RIA’s technical director recalled that whereas a few years ago innovation was barely mentioned, it is now raised at every opportunity. RIA is certainly doing its bit to keep innovation on the rail agenda. As well as this conference, which followed publication of the industry’s Rail Technical Strategy in December last year, RIA is managing an “unlocking innovation” scheme which runs workshops to promote a dialogue between suppliers and clients.

Flying in close formation

With rail innovation now so topical, there are many agencies promoting it which include EIT, London Underground, Network Rail, RSSB, RRUKA, SPARK, TSB, Transport Systems Catapult, TSLG and T-KTN.

The most recently established agency is the Enabling Innovation Team (EIT), set up last year by TSLG, funded initially by the Department for Transport (DfT) and hosted by RSSB. It is the only cross-industry team that matches longer term business challenges to innovative solutions and provide initial funding if necessary. Speaking at the conference its director, David Clark, acknowledged there is a bewildering array of initiatives but explained how they were “flying in close formation”.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) was set up in 2007 to promote UK business innovation. TSB fielded two speakers to the conference: Richard Kemp-Harper who explained Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and Daniel Ruiz described how and why the Transport Catapult was being established. He emphasised that one of TSB’s key aims was to develop UK expertise in global markets so the UK transport industry wasn’t its sole concern.

The work of TSB and its Catapults is explained in The Rail Engineer issue 95 (September 2012).

During the conference, the terms TRL (Technology Readiness Levels) and “Valley of Death” were often used. TRLs range from establishing basic principles (TRL1) to widespread proven application (TRL9). As technologies are developed the curve on a cash flow graph / TRL graph shows increasingly negative cash flow until the technology is well proven. This curve is the “valley of death” and the reason why potentially successful technologies fail. EIT’s David Clark puts it another way. He feels there is a “show me” culture that holds back innovation. Investment is needed to prove something works but there is a reluctance to invest until it has been shown to work.RIAs Francis How introducing the Conference [online]

Blueprint for the future

TSLG’s 2012 Rail Technical Strategy (RTS 2012) was published in December. It provides a long-term vision of the future railway’s technology and has six themes (Control, command and communications; Energy; Infrastructure; Rolling Stock; Information and Customer experience) for which objectives, strategy and enablers are described with a timeline for developments. RTS 2012 also explains the seven common design concepts applicable to each theme: Whole-system reliability, Resilience, Security and Risk Mitigation, Automation, Simplicity, Flexibility and Sustainability.

At the conference, Network Rail’s Steve Yianni advised how RTS 2012 was the result of a two year consultation. He also explained its three common foundations to support a cultural shift towards technical development: taking a whole-system approach, supporting innovation and ensuring the industry has sufficient skilled people. He advised how NSARE (the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering) had identified that the industry required an additional 10,000 skilled people over the next 5 years with traction and rolling stock (T&RS) accounting for half this shortfall. As a result, in a collaboration between NSARE, Government and Siemens, a National Training Academy for T&RS is being set up which will open in 2014.

Andy Doherty of Network Rail believes that is a huge range of possibilities if one is prepared to think outside the box to embrace new ideas, materials and technologies. Explaining the implications of a whole system approach, he felt the big challenge is to achieve the RTS 2012 vision whilst running the railway, an example being conversion of the third rail network to 25kV OLE which could take around 20 years. His presentation included some radical ideas including novel ways of constructing slab track, predictive traffic management and convoying trains.

Assisted Innovation

Presentations on DMU flywheel storage and digital imaging for condition asset management (DIFCAM) showed how TSB’s stimulation of innovation works in practice. Both these projects were winners of the TSB / RSSB “Accelerating Innovation in Rail” competition. However, TSB’s support is more than just prize money as it helps form the consortia developing these projects. From discussion with the presenters, it was clear that their projects would not have happened without TSB support.

In a feasibility study, sensors attached to a class 158 DMU on Edinburgh suburban routes established that braking accounted for 52% of all energy losses. This established the case for the flywheel energy storage project now being developed by a consortium of Ricardo, Artemis Intelligent Power and Bombardier. Ricardo’s flywheel operates in a sealed vacuum chamber at 60,000 rev/min and transfers torque directly through the chamber wall by a magnetic gearing system. Artemis’s digital displacement hydraulic transmission has high efficiencies at low power. Bombardier’s contribution is system integration to fit this equipment to a DMU drive train. Initial work indicates a 3.5 year payback on stop-start routes and thereafter savings of £13,000 pa for each DMU fitted.

DIFCAM assesses asset condition by comparing digital images taken at different times to detect changes invisible to the eye. It does so by comparing pixel blocks at very high resolution and is being developed by a consortium of Ominicom, National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and Atkins. Initially this will be used to inspect rail tunnels, of which there are 20,000 km worldwide. However, it has possible applications for asset inspection in many hazardous and confined areas. In this consortium, Ominicom provide imaging and measurement platforms, NPL offer measurement science facilities and Atkins offer asset management expertise.

DIY innovation

Whilst it is good to see how TSB promote innovation, many companies develop innovations on their own. This point was made clear in presentations by FirstGroup’s Kenny Scott and Pandrol’s David Rhodes.

As far as Kenny Scott is concerned, the recipe for innovation is people, process and culture. Kenny explained FirstGroup’s suggestion scheme and advised that he never failed to be impressed by ideas from front line staff. He stressed the need for directors to support an innovation culture and ensure staff ideas are progressed. This includes the need to formalise schemes to ensure ideas are not lost. Another message was that innovation was not just about technology.

In FirstGroup, the Kaizen technique is used to continuously improve processes. Kenny described Kaizen as improvement through hundreds of small things. In his presentation he gave the HST re-engine, Class 380 reliability and ScotRail’s winterisation as examples of successful innovations.

For a different business, David Rhodes had another recipe. He advised that Pandrol’s success was due to main board commitment to product development, seeing background R&D development as an overhead and involving R&D engineers in market and product support. Suppliers have to identify a need before the customer. As an example, he mentioned the FastClip that Pandrol had developed for use with track laying trains. Development of this clip started in 1990 when there were no such trains in the UK. This was five years before Railtrack’s West Coast project recognised the need for this clip, large scale use of which started in 1996.

Ricardo Flywheel Cutaway [online]Exhibitors at the conference also had their innovation tales to tell. SRS International’s display featured the road-rail plant used for the Paisley Canal electrification. This included a cable drum carrier that simultaneously dispenses catenary and contact wires at 75% tension. However, SRS advised that this required 18 months development in Sweden before it could be used on Network Rail, perfectly illustrating a barrier identified at one of the group sessions – that project managers are understandably reluctant to use unproven products.

Park Signalling won last year’s conference competition for their virtual lineside signalling, something the company had developed in-house. Another DIY initiative was Hima-Sella’s radio frequency identification systems for use on London Underground and South West Trains. One exhibitor that had taken advantage of TSB’s Knowledge Transfer Partnerships was the LPA Group which produces rail vehicle connectors and is working with the University of Essex to develop Ethernet connectors.

Blue Sky Thinking

Conventional ideas were challenged by presentations of RRUKA case studies. Chris Ward described Loughborough and Salford Universities work on the Half Cost Trains project with its “Design for Control Concept”. He described how control engineering has transformed automotive and aerospace design and compared the stable Hawker Hunter with Eurofighter Typhoon, an inherently unstable aircraft requiring computerised control. In contrast, the 1951 Mark 1 coach and the 2004 Class 350 share the same two-stage passive suspension system. His project was considering how control engineering could transform rail vehicle design. Using the Typhoon analogy, he explained how active suspension and steering systems could result in rail vehicles with flangeless non coned wheels by 2063. A challenging concept indeed for those who will be around to see it!

Peter Muller of University College London described how his project was considering the application of autonomous command and control systems developed for navigation on Mars for use in possessions. Part of this work involved the development of a sensor suite to avoid low speed (under 40km/hr) collisions and a positioning system to give PICOPs the location of all vehicles in the possession.

Innovation Competitions

Henry Ford’s comment that “Competition is the keen cutting edge of business” also applies to innovation. In April last year TSB / RSSB announced the 19 winners of their “Accelerating Innovation in Rail” competition, two of which were present at the conference.

TSB / RSSB have announced that a further competition – “Enabling the digital railway” – would open on 25 March with a £5 million prize fund. EIT has two competitions on its website. The Radical Train competition (see page 26 in this issue) was launched in March and is being run by Frazer-Nash. A Customer Experience competition will open in April with a £1 million prize fund.

Not to be outdone, the RIA conference held its own competition sponsored by RSSB, with shortlisted finalists giving presentations to the conference. These were Interfleet (Driver’s Companion using tablet technology to further develop their Timetable Advisory system), Bombardier and Frazer-Nash (an “Iron Bird” test rig for integration of train systems in a collaborative working environment), URS (Rail Trackbed stiffness testing by Rail Falling Weight Deflectometer) and Atkins / Unipart (use of US Electrolog IXS Vital Logic Controller to eliminate level crossing REBs). The joint winners were Interfleet and URS which will receive funding to develop their innovations.

Plenty to think about

RIA’s conference was successful in promoting innovation and certainly gave everyone plenty to think about. Practical engineers might find some of the more radical concepts a little academic, but there’s nothing wrong with challenging the status quo. However, some might think that asking whether rail wheels need flanges is a question too far!

The conference showed that there are many ways to innovate. Many companies have the commitment and ability to drive their own innovations whilst, for some, external help to bridge the valley of death is essential. When such assistance is needed is not always clear. However, what is clear is that the rail industry must make full use of increased funding from Government for technical improvements.

Perhaps the most important point was emphasised by Kenny Scott and Steve Yianni. The railway needs to recruit, develop and listen to its people to make innovation happen.