Early December is the traditional time for the Rail Exec Club, the railway industry’s leading networking organisation for executives and professionals, to hold its Gala Dinner. Which is why representatives from 102 organisations from around the industry gathered at Derby’s iconic Roundhouse a few weeks before Christmas.

Everyone was there, directors and managers from four train manufacturers, three government departments, four institutions, several train operators, numerous infrastructure contractors, many component manufacturers and the rail regulator. All that were missing were the partridge and the pear tree, although they might have been seen near the bar at the drinks reception.

The entertainment started as soon as guests entered the building. Dancers dressed as fairies, or maybe elves, but anyway in keeping with the ‘Winter Wonderland’ theme for the evening, performed while diners gathered, met up with their parties and networked with industry colleagues. Reception hosts Ford & Stanley put on a great show that got the evening off to an excellent start.

After a glass or two of ‘orange juice’, the sell- out crowd slowly filtered past the seating plan to find their tables in the semi-darkened main hall. Many were members of the Rail Exec Club, regular attendees at luncheon events in London and the Midlands, while others were hopeful of taking home one of the Most Interesting Awards that would be presented later.

It wasn’t long before Jon Shaw, the evening’s host, welcomed everyone to the “fabulous building” that is George Stephenson’s roundhouse, first built in 1836 and the oldest surviving structure of its type in the world.

It’s a building that Jon knows well. Before he became chief engineer at Network Rail, he was vice president and head of engineering at Bombardier Transportation, a short walk away and another of the event’s sponsors.

But now the old engine shed was transformed into a truly spectacular setting for the evening. Beautifully decorated tables surrounded a central dance floor with a small stage behind. However, it was impossible to forget the heritage of the wonderful old building. Overhead cranes hung off brackets above diners’ heads and, in places, even the original rails were visible, still embedded in the floor.

After Jon had welcomed everyone and set the scene, dinner was brought on. A good meal in its own right, it was somewhat overshadowed by the spectacular aerial show that entertained diners. Acrobats and dancers dressed as birds and butterflies performed breath-taking manoeuvres using ropes and sashes, keeping diners spellbound. What a contrast to the slightly blue comedians more often rolled out for other industry events.

What is Most Interesting?

Seemingly all too soon, the last session of aerobatics was over, the coffee was drunk, and it was time for the awards.

The Most Interesting Awards, or MIs for short, are industry awards with a difference. While companies normally have to enter to be considered, taking up marketing department time and limiting entries to those companies with promotional budgets, no one can enter the MI Awards. Or, to put it another way, everyone has already entered!

For the editors of Rail Engineer, RailStaff and Global Rail News, the three Rail Media publications, draw up a long list of everything they find interesting as the year progresses. So anyone who has talked with one of them about any new product, project, service or news story has automatically entered.

The result is a list that includes the innovative, novel, clever, tricky and just plain bizarre. Everything that one of the three editors felt was, potentially, interesting.

In late September, as the annual qualifying period is October to September, the three get together to come up with a short list of six nominations in each of twelve categories. After a session of argument, abuse, pleading and horse- trading, the final list is published. Just to be featured on it is recognition that someone, or some team, or some organisation, has done something special.

This year, one category had seven nominations. Were the entries just too close to call? Or are the editors unable to count? Who knows…

The list of nominations then goes off to the independent judging panel. All are renowned and independent people who are fair in the extreme. Presidents of institutions, directors of trade associations, chairmen of panels, any one of them would be an asset to the Awards. But the MIs have twelve such people, the most high-powered judging panel in the industry. And they even volunteered!

Safety and Sustainability

The result of all that selection and judging was about to be revealed to the expectant audience. The first award, justifiably so considering the subject’s importance, was for the Most Interesting initiative in safety and sustainability.

Introducing Ian Prosser, chief inspector of railways at the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and one of the judges, who would present the award, Jon Shaw commented: “The Rail Industry’s common purpose is to move people and freight safely and efficiently by rail, whilst being careful with the resources used to do it. This cannot be achieved without companies designing products that are sustainable and having policies and procedures in place to ensure that team members come home safe each and every day.”

The Award went to the Hesop reversible substation by Alstom. This new converter system, recently trialled by London Underground, can supply the train, providing voltage stability and regenerating the energy produced by braking trains and sending it back to the TFL electrical network to be used by other consumers or, potentially, sold back to the energy distributors. London Underground calculated that the energy saved over a week could power Holborn station for more than two days and save five per cent of its energy bill.

Highly commended by the judges was a bespoke fall protection system for workers at Reading station, which had been developed by Eurosafe and Latchways.

Original Design

The second award was for the most interesting design, be it architectural, graphical, industrial, product, rolling stock or urban design. “These are cutting edge designs,” said Jon, “and make a real difference to the way in which the industry works and perceived by the general public.”

Richard East, Railway Division chairman of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, was to present this award, and it went to the New Rail Connection to Arcow Quarry by Tarmac, Network Rail, Story Contracting, Babcock Rail, GB Rail Freight and SPX Rail Systems. This £6 million scheme to reconnect Tarmac’s Yorkshire Dales quarry with the rail network for the first time in 50 years will take 16,000 lorries a year off the roads in the National Park.

The judges also chose to highly commend Balfour Beatty Rail Engineering Technology Solutions for ‘Using RED (Railway Electrification Designer) to develop OLE designs’.

Support Equipment

What qualifies as support equipment? “Everything from systems, widgets and cabling through to plant and road-rail vehicles,” Jon Shaw explained. “No project in the UK
can be delivered without the use of support equipment and, as projects become larger and more complex, the use of innovative support equipment is imperative for the jobs to be finished on time and within budget.”

On this occasion, David Clarke, technical director of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), was to present the award he had helped judge. It went to Network Rail for using system design exchange format (SDEF) to survey trackside assets. This allows a high-definition video to be taken from a train and then positional information overlaid, pixel-by-pixel and frame-by-frame, describing positional railway infrastructure in great detail and facilitating the surveying of assets without going trackside.

Choosing the winner had been a difficult choice. Robokatta, designed by Cembre to cut rails using a Bluetooth connection and so keeping the operator out of harm’s way, was highly commended.

Training and Development

Neil Andrew, director and general manager of engineering and technology solutions at Balfour Beatty, another of the evening’s four sponsors, joined Jon on the stage for the award for the Most Interesting training and development programme.

The winner was the Military2Rail initiative. This introduces service people into a much needed area where there is a skills shortage and has enabled candidates to transfer their skills from the services to the rail industry. Siemens has worked with Help for Heroes and Wiltshire College while ISS Labour has separately been taking on ex-servicemen and women for new roles in a new industry.

A similar initiative by NTRS and Linbrooke Services, training miners for railway work, was highly commended.

Rolling Stock Development

Keeping the variety going, Jon switched from training to trains as he introduced the award for the Most Interesting rolling stock development and asked Graham Coombs from the Railway Industry Association to award the trophy.

The judges chose the project to fit improved transmissions to Class 158 trains, undertaken by Voith, Angel Trains and Arriva Trains Wales, to receive this award.

Now that fuel economy and CO2 emissions are so important to operators of DMUs, attention is turning to the hydraulic drives often fitted to these trains as they generally suffer higher losses than mechanical transmissions. Working closely with the fleet’s owner, Angel Trains, Voith has fitted two new transmissions to an Arriva Trains Wales in-service unit, which has now racked-up over 50,000 miles since June 2015. The result has been a reduction of maximum fuel consumption by up to 16 per cent.

The judges also highly commended steps taken by Bombardier, Angel Trains and Abellio Greater Anglia to reduce the cost of fleet upgrades by using current production technology.

Infrastructure Development

“This award is for a small-scale railway infrastructure project or development in the UK,” commented Jon Shaw on announcing the sixth award of the evening. “In the news, we hear constantly about the huge projects that are under construction, but the smaller scale projects can also have a huge impact on the industry. Many of these projects save time, money and ensure our network keeps running.”

Huw Edwards, Network Rail’s project director, IP signalling – South, has personal experience of many of these types of project. Coincidentally, it was a signalling project that had been chosen by the judges to win this one, the introduction of zone controller technology by Siemens Rail Automation.

This new technology is now controlling signalling operations at London Bridge, providing an input/output module (IOM) interface between Siemens Rail Automation’s Trackguard Westlock interlocking and the trackside infrastructure. Developed and delivered entirely within the UK, the creation, testing, proving, installation and commissioning of zone controllers was a good example of partnership-working with Network Rail, with the technology meeting many of the requirements of the digital railway concept and the move to IP-based solutions.

Another technology project, the train-mounted collection of asset information by Fugro Rail Data, was highly commended in this category.

Train Operations

Jon Hemsley, chairman of the Railway Technology/Professional Network (TPN) at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), and incidentally another of the event’s judges, came up to present the award for the Most Interesting approach to train operations.

The winner was a project dear to the hearts of everyone in the audience – improving on-board internet access by RSSB. But it’s not just passengers who will benefit, train operator’s systems communicate using IP-protocols via the Internet. Companies such as Nomad and Icomera are working with train operators to make it happen.

The Digital Railway as a whole, or at least Network Rail’s take on it, was highly commended in this category.

Community Engagement

Sometimes thought of as “keeping the neighbours happy”, but actually a lot more than that, Jon invited Chris Fenton, chairman of the National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR), to present this award. In fact, it went to a safety campaign developed by Stobart Rail for use both internally and externally – Think Safety, Act Safely.

Stobart Rail launched the campaign during a visit to Lochardil Primary School in Inverness, where the contractor is currently working with Network Rail Scotland to deliver the Far North CP5 Plain Line Workbank contract. The visit was an opportunity to talk to the children about how dangerous the railway can be when safety rules aren’t followed, and they were supplied with their own orange PPE, provided by ARCO.

The We Listen campaign by Samaritans, supported by Network Rail, was highly commended for its novel approach.

Major Infrastructure Project

“Now for the big one, in terms of size of project that is,” announced Jon Shaw. “What a year it has been. New build projects such as Crossrail, together with major enhancements to the network, including the rebuilding of London Bridge station, have challenged engineers all year. Add to that some major repair work needed due to severe weather – landslips and weakened bridges – and it has been a taxing twelve months for our infrastructure engineers.

“The impact that these projects will have on the network will last a lifetime. As the population continues to grow and we see an increasing push on to public transport, we need to ensure that these projects continue and we build a network for the future.”

This was also the big one in terms of nominations – seven were read out. This aberration was hardly noticed on the evening, though it had caught out the designer of the awards’ booklet on everyone’s table as he had to shoehorn details of seven projects into the space designed for six!

Carl Garrud, managing director of one of the evening’s sponsors, Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group (UK), joined Jon to present the award which, unsurprising for a major project, went to a collaborative team. The new station at Rochester was delivered by Spencer Group working with Atkins, Freyssinet and Balfour Beatty. Several hundred yards from the original station, the new construction included a subway which had been ‘pushed’ under the live railway.

Work undertaken by Construction Marine, AECOM and Geotechnical Engineering to repair the railway following a major landslip at Farley Haugh, Corbridge, was highly commended.

New Product

The Most Interesting new product, defined as “anything from a widget that saves millions of pounds each year to a new train that drives heightened efficiency,” was the next award, to be presented by the national chair of the Young Rail Professionals, Sabrina Ihaddaden.

You may not think that steel rails suffer from corrosion, but they do. In particularly aggressive environments, such as level crossings, in wet tunnels and alongside sea walls, they can last only a few months. So the development of the Zinoco® corrosion-resistant rail by British Steel was a worthy winner of this category.

Hitachi Rail Europe’s new train for ScotRail, the Class 385 that has just started testing, was highly commended.

Innovation

Differing from the New Product above, the Most Interesting Innovation award is, to quote Jon Shaw, “for an idea or best use of an idea, device, method or process that the editors have seen in the UK Rail Industry in 2016. Innovation is all about thinking outside of the box. Designing something new, innovative and above all useful!”

Retiring Rail Engineer editor, Grahame Taylor, who stands down after this issue and a run of eight years in the job, was the presenter for this one. He announced that the winner was a tram that had run for 41.6km without any wires. Developed by Bombardier and tested on the Rhein-Neckar-Verkehr network in Mannheim, Germany, the tram used Primove technology, along with a Mitrac propulsion system, to move one stage closer to solving the problems of building tram networks where it is difficult, or unsightly, to use conventional overhead catenary.

The judges highly commended an infrastructure development, the use of reinforced soil in bridge replacements, developed by BAM Nuttall, Tony Gee and partners and Maccaferri.

The Most Interesting Thing

Suddenly, it was time for the last award. Intended to give a ‘home’ to anything that didn’t fall easily into one of the other eleven categories, nominations for the Most Interesting Thing That We Saw included two heritage railways, Underground trains running in the Midlands and using helicopters to deliver telecommunications equipment to mountain tops.

David Shirres, who will take over as editor of Rail Engineer from next month, was called upon to present this final award, which went to a tea trolley!

The British worker doesn’t get very far without a cup of tea. So a tea trolley for track workers stranded far from an access point is essential. No longer do workers have to trudge to an access point miles away to fetch their flasks from the car. Instead, freshly brewed hot tea is available on site. The brainchild of the Track Safety Alliance and Amey, and built by catering trailer specialist AJC, the tea trolley will no doubt shortly be appearing at a work site near you.

In complete contrast, the project to revive the Glasgow Subway, in which SPT, Graham Construction, Sir Robert McAlpine, Clancy Docwra, Austin Smith Lord, AHR, Freyssinet, Malcolm Hughes Land Surveyors and Stadler are all involved, was highly commended.

The only thing left…

After such a wide-ranging set of awards, host Jon Shaw still had a couple of tasks to perform.

He congratulated all the winners and those highly commended. “Your continued drive and determination is really what makes this industry,” he enthused.

All four of the evening’s sponsors were thanked personally – Balfour Beatty, Bombardier, Ford & Stanley and Rhomberg Sersa.

So too were the twelve judges, for their time and encouragement and impartiality.

Rail Exec Club members were reminded that the next event will be a luncheon on Friday 10 March at Ironmongers’ Hall in London (details on the website).

Everyone was informed that Rail Media will be running the next RailSport Games, using the world-class facilities at Loughborough University, on 8-9 July 2017. So all footballers, chess players and badminton stars were encouraged to put company teams together.

And that was it. The end of the Most Interesting Awards for 2016 and the end of a Most Interesting year.

How interesting will 2017 be?