When George Stephenson founded the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1847, he declared that its purpose was to “give an impulse to invention likely to be useful to the world”. Today, the Institution continues to promote this aim by, for example, the establishment of a £2 million Stephenson fund to help companies overcome the investment hurdle between Research and Development and bringing a product to market.

This April’s Stephenson Conference is another example. This biennial event was first held in 2015 (issue 128, June 2015) and is organised by the Institution’s Railway Division with the support of RSSB and the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE). Its aim is to share research and development work undertaken by leading worldwide experts.

The 121 delegates heard six keynote presentations. In the four parallel sessions, 67 research papers were presented from eleven different countries. Outside the European Union, these were Australia, Belarus, China, Japan, and Kazakhstan. The main topics covered were safety, efficiency improvements, maintenance, condition monitoring, and the infrastructure/ vehicle interface. Of necessity, what follows is a small sample of these presentations.

Relatively few presentations concerned innovative products. These included one on progress with Repoint, a novel switch mechanism described at the previous conference which is soon to be subjected to a full-scale test. Another concerned the development of a steel laminated flywheel for self-powered rail vehicles which offers significant potential energy savings.

New for this conference was a session on customers. There was also an increased emphasis on the opportunities and threats from new technologies being developed by other industries.

Rail lags behind

In his keynote address, Network Rail’s Graham Hopkins highlighted UK rail’s successes but stressed there was much to do. In a reference to last year’s accident at Watford, he felt it was wrong for landslips to be detected by trains. Also, he was concerned that signallers don’t know where trains are. He felt these examples highlighted the need for intelligent infrastructure and claimed that an A350 wing has more sensors than the UK rail network.

Whilst some might contest this claim, it is true that rail has much to learn from aerospace in applying modern technologies. Graham was concerned that the rail industry must embrace new technologies as other sectors have done if it is to compete.

This was further highlighted by the following speaker, Howard Parkinson of Lancaster University, who started his presentation on the virtuous circle of digitisation by quoting Francis Howe, chief executive of the IRSE, who considers that “today’s railway is not short of digital technology, nor of data, but we are, compared with many industries, poor at integrating and making best use of that data”.

Threat from new technologies

Cambridge University’s Professor John Miles then showed how new technologies could threaten light rail vehicles. In Cambridge, 40,000 people commute by car. Although a tram network could provide better journeys to work, typical construction costs would be around £30 million a mile. He proposed a novel approach for an alternative mass transit system costing around £10 to £15 million a mile with significantly lower operating costs.

This would be made up of links and nodes in which:

  • Links would be less-costly than dedicated paved roads used by autonomous vehicles that would not require drivers;
  • Battery power would eliminate the need for a trackside power supply. The required battery capacity of 200kW/h is comparable with current electric buses;
  • To minimise signalling costs, only one vehicle would operate on each link at up to 120km/h to provide the required frequency of service;
  • The nodes would be up to four-way interchanges with a footprint designed for optimum footfall;
  • The cross-section of the vehicles would be minimised with 2-1 seating and big sliding doors to reduce dwell time – vehicles would be 2.4 metres high and 2.3 metres wide;
  • In this way, tunnel diameters would be a relatively low 3.7 metres, allowing for a vehicle of 43 per cent of the tunnel cross section area to enable the required running speed.

Opportunities from new technologies

In one of the parallel sessions, Dr James Winnett gave a presentation on “Automotive to rail: can technologies cross the gap?” This was based on work done at WMG, formerly Warwick Manufacturing Group. He explained how automotive manufacturers had developed lightweighting techniques and made dramatic improvements in engine and powertrain efficiencies, including hybrid drives, in response to legislation and customer demands.

The various techniques described all had potential rail applications. These included simulations of hybrid powertrains to determine optimum battery characteristics and LoCoBeaSt, the investigation of lightweight and low- cost composite beams for rolling stock applications.

Despite the potential, James noted the lack of success in transferring developed products from automotive to rail sectors. He considered that this was due to standards, the longer life and smaller production volumes of rail vehicles and a complex structure that distances the manufacturer from the ultimate customer.

Meeting customer requirements

Whilst engineering research requires precise measurements, the feelings of customers is a subjective matter. Ian Pring’s presentation on how London Underground’s built environment affects customer satisfaction was based on research commissioned in 2013. Prior to then, survey forms had indicated that this was a low driver of customer satisfaction.

This research included customer diaries and accompanied journeys. It identified a hierarchy of needs from safety, a sense of order, comfort and life-enhancement and determined how the station environment affected these factors to prioritise work at stations and inform investment decisions.

Bob Hickish of the University of Sheffield explained how passenger satisfaction can be maximised by weighting the passenger’s value of time over different journey stages as follows:

  • Buying a ticket (2.5)
  • Moving around station (2.7)
  • Waiting on platform (3)
  • On train (1 if uncrowded, more if crowded).

He explained how the analysis of thousands of such different journeys could be used to inform the infrastructure development and how timetables could maximise passenger satisfaction.

Of course, not all customers are passengers. Two freight presentations considered issues associated with the increasing demand for variable-consist trains. In his talk on a freight identification and monitoring system, Colin Williams of SNC Lavalin described an automatic system to give the driver information on train weight, length and braking performance by the provision of load sensors and a control unit on each wagon.

Raphael Pfaff from Aachen’s Fachhochschule (a university of applied sciences) presented a paper “Towards inclusion of the freight system in the industrial internet of things”. This considered how freight trains could automatically re-marshal themselves with self-propelled wagons and explained how this could make the industry more competitive for the increasing demand for small wagon-load traffic.

She had negative feedback in the first week from those who wanted to walk up the escalator and did not appreciate that the trial was intended to benefit all passengers. Thereafter, following the publicity about the reasons for the trial, there was a greater acceptance. She explained that the trial had demonstrated that standing on both sides had increased escalator capacity by 28 percent.

Paul Clifford of Mott MacDonald described the ALIGHT software his company has developed to simulate behaviours of boarding and alighting passengers for which there had previously been no standard approach. He explained how this software takes account of platform layout, obstacles and features such as yellow lines and waiting areas; stepping height and distance; train interior layout; behaviour of various types of passengers including those with restricted mobility and service changes such as short- formed and cancelled trains.

He advised that the software could use BIM-related CAD data and allowed users to easily change any parameters. It has been validated by research done by University College London and actual behaviours observed at Vauxhall station. Paul advised that ALIGHT had been used to good effect on Crossrail and the Melbourne metro.

Researching the interface

Many of the papers presented concerned the vehicle/ infrastructure interface, be it gauging, the wheel/rail interface, impact on bridges or subsoil or the OLE/ pantograph interaction. These included some with fearsome mathematics well beyond the understanding of this writer, although they gave an appreciation of the academic rigour on which the design of today’s railway depends.

These included papers on “Modelling of Heavy Haul Train-Bridge Dynamic Interactions and Parametric Studies Using Multi-Body Dynamics Approaches” from Australia’s Queensland University and “A Three-Dimensional Vehicle- Track Coupled Dynamic Model Based on the Green’s Function Method” from China’s Southwest Jiaotong University.

One of the wheel/rail interface papers was a “Study on Long-Term Development of Vehicle Dynamic Parameters of Wheel/Rail Contact Geometry” which was presented by Rainer Kratochwille of Deutsche Bahn AG. This analysed the enormous amount of data from track measuring trains on German high-speed lines since 2002 to assess long-term changes to contact geometry and rail wear. It concluded that the change in parameters was very slow and validated the standards for testing running behaviour of rail vehicles specified in EN14363.

In his presentation, Newcastle University’s John Morris was concerned with OLE/ pantograph interaction at short neutral sections. He obtained information from Network Rail by a freedom of information request which showed neutral section incidents account for around 16,000 delay minutes a year and make up ten percent of all OLE incidents.

It has not been possible to examine failed neutral sections. When they fail, the priority is to restore the service so, as John describes, “there is no appetite for forensic investigation”.Instead, his team is working closely with Bryansk State Technical University in Russia to develop a dynamic pantograph/OLE simulation.

To mitigate rail corrugation and squeal on curves, Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic presented its paper on the “Development Of An Adaptive Top-Of-Rail Friction Modification System”. Applying lubricants to the rail head in such a system is not without its own risks, so the amount and type of lubricant required has been carefully considered. It is only applied when required by GPS, and application ceases if sensors detect wheel slide.

Innovative asset management

Another popular topic was the maintenance of vehicles and infrastructure, with an equal number of papers on each. Condition monitoring was featured in over half these.

Constrained maintenance budgets were addressed by a paper from the University of Nottingham presented by Claudia Fecarotti on “Optimising Strategy Selection for the Management of Railway Assets”. A mathematical model has been developed based on the problem of maximising the value of items that can be put in a Knapsack. This model showed the relationship between cost, line availability and the number of speed restrictions for different ballast maintenance strategies.

Reliability-centred maintenance (RCM) was the subject of a paper presented by Dr Babakalli Alkali on the work done in a knowledge transfer partnership between Glasgow’s Caledonian University and ScotRail to improve the reliability of class 158 doors. These have over a hundred inter-dependant components and 345 failure modes. He explained that the analysis undertaken had reduced door failures by over forty percent.

In 2015, Network Rail’s London North Western route suffered a total of 81,000 minutes delay from broken, cracked, twisted and flawed level crossings for which engineering access for routine maintenance was often as little as an hour. To address the need for non-destructive testing in such circumstances, Network Rail and the University of Birmingham collaborated to develop an alternative.

This led to the development of novel acoustic emission techniques for monitoring the structural health of cast manganese crossings, on which a paper was presented by Network Rail’s Patrick Vallely. This was voted the best of the conference by those present.

Patrick described how this technique was trialled for a year on crossings at Hatton, Watford and Wembley, some with known defects. The results demonstrated that correlation analysis could identify the presence of a defect and discriminate acoustic emissions from other sources.

Safety and sustainability

Two presentations considered how machine intelligence could improve railway safety. Habib Hadj-Mabrouk, of the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport, presented a paper on the “Contribution of Artificial Intelligence in Risk Prevention of Railway Accidents” which concerned the complementary and simultaneous use of knowledge acquisition and machine learning to improve safety analysis in the certification of railway transport systems.

In his presentation on digitisation, Network Rail’s Howard Parkinson described how big data analysis could be used to predict potentially hazardous situations that are not obvious. As an example, he mentioned the 2010 accident at Platja de Castelldefels station that killed twelve people who were hit by an express train as they crossed the tracks. They were part of a large crowd who had alighted from a train who wanted to get to the beach for a concert. He gave a further example of video analytics that can identify behaviours of individuals in a crowd.

The limitations of human intelligence to understand new complex documentation was quantified in the equations that formed part of Roger Short’s paper on Complexity, Understanding and Safety Assurance.

Various presentations also considered vehicle and infrastructure integrity. There was a presentation from Southwest Jiaotong University in China on the “Anti- Seismic Effects of Fluid Viscous Dampers on Simply Supported Girder Bridge with High Pier in Sichuan-Tibet Railway” whilst “Computer Modelling the Dynamics and Strength of a Rail Tank Car with Liquid Cargo” was the subject of a paper from the Belarusian State University of Transport.

In her keynote address, Inga Dook, Siemens Rail Automation’s sustainability manager, explained the importance of the rail industry reducing its carbon emissions. These included the need for successful businesses to embrace change and that carbon reduction is invariably a catalyst for other improvements such as energy and cost savings. She also explained how the Rail Carbon Tool, developed by RSSB (issue 147, January 2017) can help reduced embodied carbon in rail projects.

Support for innovation

Although Graham Hopkins had stressed the need to accelerate the update of innovation in his presentation, he also recognised much was being done to promote rail innovation. One such initiative is the development of a UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) to provide centres of excellence and make the UK a global leader in rail innovation.

The more recent formation of a focused Technical Leadership Group (TLG) is another example. This is driving delivery of the twelve requirements set out in the industry’s capability delivery plan (issue 148, February 2017), with each having an accountable work package owner. In answer to a question, Graham suggested that anyone who felt that their innovation was being unreasonably delayed should contact the relevant work package owner.

Further UK support for rail innovation is funding support to use testing facilities, as described in a paper by Network Rail’s Amanda Mackie.

In his keynote presentation, Carlo Borghini, executive director of the Shift2Rail joint undertaking, described how this public-private partnership is delivering a one- billion-euro research and innovation platform to improve competitiveness of the European rail system and ensure its leadership in the global market.

In response to the obvious question, Carlo advised that Brexit will have no impact on ongoing work and that, although it was a difficult situation, he hoped all concerned would look at ways that Britain could still work with Shift2Rail.

An editor’s view

The editor concerned is Chris Jackson of Railway Gazette International, whose worldwide experience makes him well qualified to summarise the conference. Chris had found it fascinating to see such a broad range of innovations from around the world but stressed that, to be competitive, railways must be at the forefront of innovations to reduce lifecycle cost, improve reliability and increase capacity.

Competitiveness, he felt, is a fundamental imperative and should be the fifth C in addition to those of Cost, Carbon, Customer and Capacity specified in the Rail Technical Strategy. Chris proposed that Competitiveness should be the fifth.

He stressed that “no matter how much we believe in railways, the world doesn’t owe us a living” and noted how the proposed urban transit system for Cambridge challenged assumptions about urban rail. This was an illustration of a whole raft of disruptive technologies which pose threats and opportunities for the rail sector.

In the specialist rail press, Chris felt that there were countless examples of good initiatives around the world. It was thus important to bring together the knowledge that we already have so we can learn from each other and events such as the Stephenson Conference provide a valuable opportunity to share international learning.

Rail Engineer certainly shares the views of Railway Gazette International’s editor and would only add that all concerned should be commended for organising such a worthwhile event.


This article was written by the Rail Engineer editor David Shirres.


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