In 2011, businessman Sir Robert McNulty was tasked by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Office of Road and Rail (ORR) with assessing how the taxpayer could get better value for money from Great Britain’s railways. In his findings, McNulty reported that the cost of running the country’s railways would need to be reduced by 40 per cent to reach the levels spent on systems in France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, recommending that savings of at least £190 million could be achieved through innovation alone.

So, when the RSSB’s innovation programme director, Neil Webster, revealed that one project in the organisation’s portfolio has the potential to save the industry up to £1.8 billion across 40 years during a recent rail industry address, you can understand why a roomful of professionals were left sitting on the edge of their seats.

Neil was speaking at the Rail Technology Summit, held at the offices of international law firm Bird & Bird in London exactly a year to the day since dozens of techies, innovators and digital disruptors packed into the event’s predecessor, the Digital Rail Summit.

A former aerospace engineer, Neil is one of 10 members of staff, supported by 300 technical experts from the RSSB, who are employed to drive innovation and technology transfer. These colleagues come from the rail sector and also a number of non-rail industries, such as the automotive, digital media and pharmaceutical sectors – a combination which helps them to identify and introduce proven technologies.

Neil Webster.

Neil Webster.

Serious savings

The money-saving project that Neil spoke of is one of the shining examples of this proven process that the innovation team has followed more than 250 times. Vortex Exhaust Technology’s systems had proved effective in saving fuel in automobiles, trucks, and marine vessels by improving the efficiency of their diesel engines. The technology was originally born out of F1 during the 1970s and is a simple piece of kit that sits in an exhaust system to improve its economy.

RSSB’s innovation team partnered with the manufacturer and Northern Rail (which has now been replaced by the train operating company (TOC) Northern) to test the product on a Class 156 diesel multiple unit over the course of six months. According to the results, fuel savings of between 10 and 20 per cent were achieved. By applying that figure to the amount of fuel burnt each year by the country’s diesel-powered rolling stock – believed to be 162 million gallons (736 million litres) – and based on a locomotive’s 40-year lifespan, Neil calculates that £1.8 billion could be saved.

“If we do nothing, that £1.8 billion saving cannot be realised,” he said. “I would argue that the challenge for this industry is not to go into the process of inventing technology from scratch. The technology is already out there, all we need to do is import it, use it, and make it fit for our purpose.

“For us, this is a well trodden path. Technical implementation is not something we do lightly, but it is something we are well practised in.”

Chris Thompson.

Chris Thompson.

Train carriage technology

Putting his money where his mouth is, Neil provided further case studies from his portfolio of 240 projects. 42 Technology, a name that may be familiar to some following its launch at last year’s Railtex exhibition, is one such product. It draws on lessons learnt from rapidly reconfiguring Boeing 747 cargo aircrafts from passenger to freight use and vice versa to offer the same flexibility on passenger trains.

He also spoke about Enable ID – the company’s chief strategy officer Chris Thompson was among the summit’s speakers. Enable ID has a portfolio of products and services that help to improve performance through better use of data. Previous clients have included the BBC, DHL and Mitsubishi Electric, as well as Chiltern Railways.

Working with the TOC, Enable ID retrofitted wireless sensors and Raspberry PI microcomputers to 24 WiFi-enabled train carriages to test the company’s ‘MyJrny’ mobile app, a personal travel companion for passengers which has been co-funded by the RSSB.

The sensors measure a carriage’s occupancy rate and relay that information to the app so passengers know where to find available seats. Working in real-time, this helped to streamline passenger flow, reduce dwell time, boost safety at the platform-train interface and improve the customer’s experience. A study of this information over a period of time could also help with capacity management and service planning, potentially highlighting opportunities where carriages could be reconfigured for freight during off-peak service times.

Dave Palmer.

Dave Palmer.

Digital Railway

Neil’s presentation laid out some solutions to challenges facing today’s railways, as detailed by keynote speaker Dave Palmer, the DfT’s digital rail sponsor, in his tongue-in-cheek presentation ‘Rail Technology: What’s the Point?’

Dave painted a familiar picture of Britain’s railways: that growth since privatisation has led to the number of journeys to more than double since the 1990s, with some predicting that this trend will continue, and that, as it gets more congested, delivering punctual, reliable services gets more and more difficult.

He stressed that, not only does the industry need to do things differently using new tools and technologies – referring to examples such as smart ticketing, new traction modes and franchise changes to encourage innovation – it needs to find a way to introduce these changes quicker because, as is commonly stated, the railway is slow to change.

Such step changes as the introduction of digital air traffic control and smart motorways in other sectors should be happening in rail, he added.

Network Rail’s Digital Railway programme promises to deliver such a step-change by providing significantly more capacity on the network, as has been proven with the rollout of modern signalling and train control technology on the London Underground.

John Drake, the summit’s host and chief commercial counsel with Bird & Bird, introduced Stuart Calvert, head of the early contractor involvement programme at the Digital Railway, who reinforced Dave’s points. He said that, while there are now fewer incidents that cause delays, the delay per incident is higher than it has been historically because of capacity constraints.

Echoing Dave Palmer’s comments, Stuart said that the rate of implementing change needs to be improved. In 28 years of ERTMS development, the Cambrian line in Wales is currently the only part of Britain’s railways to have the system fitted, although it will be rolled out as part of Thameslink and Crossrail. This slow rate of change represents an “existential threat to the railway”, he added.

Outlining the programme’s schedule, Stuart said that, based on some estimates, more than 60 per cent of the UK’s signalling assets could be renewed over the next three control periods. Work in CP5 revolved about early deployment and securing government funding; CP6 will involve some targeted schemes, which will start to see the introduction of digital technologies to a much greater extent; during CP7 this will be expanded through the routes; and, in CP8, Stuart said that the programme will be close to a national initiative and deployment.

Clive Kessell and Paul Darlington.

Clive Kessell and Paul Darlington.

Digital glue

Crucially, telecommunications will be the glue that binds the Digital Railway together and investment in this field will be needed to ensure capacity is available.

Rail Engineer writers Clive Kessell and Paul Darlington, more accustomed to reporting than being reported on, looked at the current 2G system, GSM-R, which has been around since 1992, its problems and whether it will be replaced by 4G or 5G.

“Anyone in the room still have a 2G phone?” questioned Clive, who wasn’t expecting one delegate to have a pre-smart phone device. Although GSM-R has been a success, and has been deployed all over the world, support has only nominally been agreed until 2030, although Clive doubts whether the manufacturing community will still make the parts until then.

He said that GSM-R was primarily developed for operational voice services, and has just about enough capacity to support ETCS, but that it is no good when it comes to wider uses of track-to-train radio.

Meanwhile, Paul looked back on the different generations of telecommunications and shed some light on what could come next. He said: “What appears to be happening, and what we advocate, is that the rail industry would look to use the next generation of mobile radio, which is 4G/5G.”

Companies such as Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia are currently trialling 4G technology on railways around the world and, as Bird & Bird senior associate Kimberly Wells – who presented alongside colleagues Cathal Flynn and Toby Bond – explained, studies are also ongoing in China, South Korea, Japan and the US. She said that, following tests and non-commercial implementation, 5G’s full rollout is expected in 2020.

In addition, there is an option for a telecommunications system purely based on WiFi, which is being trialled by ScotRail between Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of the SWIFT project (Super-Fast Wi-Fi on Trains).

This Innovate UK and RSSB-funded proof-of-concept project is being undertaken in conjunction with Cisco, CGI, Network Rail Telecoms and Wittos, but the option of another bespoke system for rail looks unlikely because of the required investment in research and development that would be needed.

Clive concluded: “What is absolutely certain is that doing nothing is not an option, we’ve got to get this international consensus – and I believe it has to be international – as to what is going to replace GSM-R. It may be 4G but, by the time GSM-R is switched off, that’s probably going to be the late 2020s, 5G will be commonplace.”

Gauging, smarter stations and cyber security

The breadth and depth of topics covered at the conference showcased the great work that is taking place in the sector. Colin Johnson, managing director of DGauge, talked about how the available data for vehicles and infrastructure has grown “exponentially” since the 1990s, and how this data is improving the speed and accuracy of gauging to meet tomorrow’s project timescales.

Gauging takes into account how big a train may be – which can be changed by such factors as speed, how containers are loaded or whether it is a tilting train – against how small a structure may be to ensure there is clearance to accommodate train movement to a safe margin. The growing trend of stepping and mobility, he added, is becoming as critical as clearance.

Meanwhile Mike Hewitt, chief technology officer at Panasonic, looked at the technology of today, tomorrow and next year and what passenger journeys, transformed by technology, could look like. Delegates who wanted to know more were able to visit Panasonic’s stand in the summit’s breakout area, where they could also find exhibits from event sponsors Frauscher Sensor Technology and Track Access.

Pauley innovation consultant Stephen Collicott spoke about the value from skills training and education in the new transferable digital market place, and Nokia’s business development director Emanuele Di Liberto tackled cyber security, the threat it poses to the industry and what can be done to diminish it.

WSP technical director Steve Denniss brought the summit to a close with a discussion on the recently produced joint WSP/IRSE paper entitled ‘Making a Success of the Digital Railway’ and emphasised the scale of the respective skills gap for the Digital Railway programme.

Overall, the Rail Technology Summit provided a great platform to concentrate minds and debate how industry stakeholders can work together – as the many discussions between buyers and suppliers and observers proved.


The next Rail Summits event is the Rail Safety Summit, which will be held on 1 November 2018 in London. 


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