There is often comment in both the national and technical press that the rail industry does not give enough incentive to the adoption of new ideas or methods of working. Broadly, this comes under the banner of Innovation, but is this criticism fair or even justified?

The Railway Industry Association (RIA) has done much to encourage new thinking from its own membership of supply chain companies and has staged a series of workshops over the last few years. Organisations within the rail sector and from the wider engineering and transport industries are invited to put forward innovative ideas and make pleas for help. The latest of these events (the 15th in the series) was held in London recently and was attended by 200 people from 140 organisations.

Many see innovation as the invention of new technical gismos but, in reality, it covers much more than this and includes new management structures, operational methods, maintenance routines and indeed almost anything that challenges the status quo.

Neil Ridley from RIA, who chaired the day, thought that rail had only a mediocre record on innovation, the main problems being a disinclination to look outside the rail industry, a lack of openness and transparency amongst its players, a tendency to be adversarial and weak partnership capability.

The recent announcement that the Network Rail £38 billion investment programme is to be ‘paused’ in some areas should give impetus for the seeking of new methods of management and working, so said the IMechE CEO Stephen Tetley. A pressing need exists to get the next generation of engineers into training and apprenticeships since, on current trends, the industry will only grow 25% of the skills needed for the next 5 years.

Rail Technical Strategy

Much innovation may well link with the Rail Technical Strategy, conceived in 2010 and heralding the biggest investment in rail since the 1955 Modernisation Plan. It is focussed around six initiatives, the 4Cs – Capacity, Customer, Carbon and Cost – with Performance and Safety added on.

Clive Burrows, from FirstGroup, explained how these have been migrated into nine study areas – control and communications, people, innovation, whole systems, rolling stock, infrastructure, information, energy and customer experience. Each group leader is charged with looking at the current status and predicting how this might change in the future. From that will come a technical strategy to develop a realistic solution or product. Many areas will overlap so there is a need for close co-operation and not ‘invent the wheel’ twice.

Clive heads up the control and communications area, probably the most challenging in terms of technical complexity and range of options. Much is made of ERTMS but, in reality, its Level 2 variant is over 20 years in concept and only now is the mass deployment of systems happening. The situation is complex but, unless the removal of lineside signals can be achieved, the cost savings are not there and the capacity gains are restricted. The ambitious ERTMS Level 3, with its dependence on radio for train positioning information and the opportunity for moving block, has barely got off the starting blocks for a variety of reasons. So perhaps these systems should be bypassed with something a bit more imaginative in the hope of making better progress and yielding much-needed capacity benefits.


Taking an initiative from the road lobby, how about ERTMS Level 4 with the vision of a train convoy system where the lead train determines the safe distance for a following train? This would allow much closer separation but the critics will say the distance should be such that the second train must be able to brake safely if the first train stops suddenly by hitting an obstruction. Advocates say we don’t take account of collision risk for trains derailing on adjacent tracks.

A further logical step might be to let trains generate their own movement authority – ERTMS Level 5 perhaps? This could be a problem at junctions but, even then, with all the timetable and routing data available plus DAS and TMS (driver assistance and traffic management), a train should know where it is meant to be going. Blue-sky thinking is fine but it is a tortuous path to turn such ideas into reality. The remark that ‘Innovation turns Technology into Value’ may be something we should all remember.

Ideas a’plenty

To facilitate innovative ideas from the audience, two sessions of ‘Elevator Pitches’ allocated those brave enough a two-minute slot to present ideas and also voice areas of need. Seventeen such pitches were made covering a huge range of subjects:

  • Barry Ross from e2E Services on the use of small airborne platforms for better and affordable asset surveillance;
  • Brian Tillson from Creactive Design on the poor design and robustness of driver’s seats and how these can be improved by using lorry seat technology;
  • Mathew Conway from OSL Rail on how the experience of BIM in the utilities industry can improve efficiency of design, build and ownership in rail;
  • Phil Jackson from May & Schofield on the design of bespoke electronic systems for harsh environments plus the re-engineering of components to extend the life of legacy systems;
  • Bernadette Culkin from Humaware on predictive maintenance and diagnostic tools, also advanced decision support tools for the early detection of failures;
  • Eduardo Lazzarotto from Legion Ltd on software modelling to improve pedestrian flows when passengers have to encounter unfamiliar stations;
  • Paul Turner from Evolve Technologies on the possibilities for electric, hybrid and hydrogen-powered rolling stock based on automotive experience;
  • Neil Ovenden from ATOC spoke on the challenge of renewing obsolete LED lighting panels with like-for-like replacements, an obsolete air pressure passenger load weighing system, the need for an improved means of obtaining wheelset condition data and for better extraction of information for spares ordering;
  • Chris Kinchin Smith, the current IMechE Rail Division Chairman, on the long-term passenger rolling stock strategy and how this might be refined for both practicality and finance;
  • Brian Love from Connected Cities on the possibility of ‘Rail Taxis’, which could run autonomously on rail to provide a personalised demand with the possibility of coupling them in peak times to form a train – a branch line could be used to prove the concept;
  • Simon Neve from Transmission Innovations on adapting mobile applications used by field service companies to give a real-time visibility of rail assets – gaining intelligence of the state of the electrified railway to allow quicker electrical isolations and re-energisations could be one application;
  • Jonathan Wright from Network Rail’s civils design group on the challenge of ‘managing big data’ to create a railway with 100% more capacity at 20% less cost by 2030 using BIM and remote monitoring as part of the solution;
  • Mike Butler from Icomera on the provision of a robust mobile communications platform with GPS to give a long life train borne WAN that would support all on board services, in recognition of the problem of train installations;
  • Alex Froom from Zipabout on intelligent mobility platforms aimed at all transport networks in Oxfordshire with an R&D pilot proposed to test out door-to-door personalisation;
  • Matthew Lyons from TBA Textiles on new technologies to improve the quality and resilience of protective clothing;
  • Julian Maynard from Maynard Design on the means of designing information that can be used for end-to-end journeys, which includes behaviour analysis and new App offerings;
  • Russell Edson from Withers & Rogers on simplifying the engineering aspects of patent application and the protection of intellectual property rights.

Focussing on the immediate need

Clearly, these ideas and requests cover a huge area. Some could be quick wins whilst others are very much ‘blue sky’ that could take years to reach any form of fruition.

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To bring some element of priority to the thinking, additional contributions helped focus the mindsets of the audience. The Rail Technical Strategy for control systems has been mentioned but overall it is much more than this. James Hardy from RSSB indicated that lightweight tram-trains for rural lines, freight train automation and assets that monitor themselves all demand early attention. Above all, capacity shortage is the most urgent need but can it be increased without expensive infrastructure work?

The Woking to Waterloo part of the South West main line is part of a case study to see what can be done. The current timetable of 23 trains per hour (tph) might theoretically be doubled if 60 second headways, doubling of train power, a fourfold increase in reliability, station dwell times down to 15 secs and a train mass reduction were achievable. Passenger comfort might also need to include ‘comfortable standing’ – but that could be difficult to sell!

The convergence of metro and mainline signalling is another avenue to explore – so says Ian Jones from Siemens. With CBTC, metros are routinely achieving around 35 tph, so why not the same for urban mainline services such as Crossrail and Thameslink? Studying the similarities and differences is part of the work but also being studied is how other countries are obtaining improved efficiency on urban transport routes.

Having both insight and hindsight on how a transport system is operating must be of value and ITO World has worked for the Highways Agency to capture the day-to- day traffic on the M25. The associated development of a Transport Data Management Platform could well be applicable to rail, or so says Richard Kemp-Harper in that schedules, real time running and service alerts would all be possible. Isn’t this what Traffic Management Systems were supposed to do, a project that seems to be stalled for the present?

Breakout sessions gave the opportunity for people to assemble in smaller groups and debate some nine different topics. Only a snapshot could be seen as to how these went but. taking the control & communications and energy reduction sessions as examples, generating ideas was not a problem. Especially interesting was hearing about the challenges that people not in the rail sector were facing. Electric propulsion for road vehicles could well lead to solutions for remote rail lines where electrification will never be an economic proposition.

The corporate view

No innovation is worth pursuing unless an end customer sees the value of the idea. In the UK this predominantly means Network Rail and Jane Simpson, chief engineer – safety, technical and engineering, indicated where the priorities lie. She summed them up in two terms – automated maintenance and the renewal challenge. An urgent need exists for intelligent infrastructure, particularly in the monitoring of earthworks. Some catastrophic failures have occurred in recent times and the frustration is that it is difficult to predict when they might happen.

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Tunnel inspections are another activity where automation would help. The wheel rail interface needs some new thinking, notably on monitoring rolling contact fatigue and dealing with squats rail defects. Grind and weld is fine but can it be automated? The DIFCAM project will hopefully produce a low cost, user-friendly intelligent infrastructure but it will be a long time before this is realised.

A long road ahead

As David Clarke from RSSB said, having a vision of the Future Railway is fine but how to choose the ideas that would work can be difficult. Some things are obvious but others will be a challenge to assess practicality and value.

This 15th workshop is indicative that ideas exist aplenty. However, asking the question as to how much innovative thinking from the previous 14 workshops has been adopted or is even being worked on, yielded non-committal responses.

In truth, coming up with new ideas is relatively easy. While sifting these into the realms of real potential as against the totally impractical may not be too difficult, turning the best into an implemented solution or product is an uphill task.

Remember that innovation and standardisation are strange bedfellows and the goals can be diagonally opposed. It will take strong leadership to steer the way forward and to manage an acceptable balance between the various differing interests.