Metal wheels on metal rails have, for almost 200 years, provided energy-efficient transport due to their low rolling resistance and effective load bearing.
That apart, today’s railways bear little resemblance to early examples such as the Stockton and Darlington railway, opened in 1825. They have evolved by numerous incremental innovations, interspersed with occasional radical changes such as replacing steam with diesel and electric traction.
One reason for this is that the railway is a system with increasingly complex interfaces. Parts of it are also at capacity. These issues increase the risk from any changes, as was sadly shown by last May’s timetable changes. However, Britain’s railways must innovate to meet the 21st-century challenges of service reliability, reducing lifecycle costs, increasing capacity and decarbonisation. Generally, this is best achieved through continuous improvement rather than by radical innovation.
Yet disruptive technologies from outside the industry, such as wind power, drones, smartphones and tablets, are making a big difference. The huge expansion of wind power has reduced electric traction’s carbon footprint by a fifth over the past ten years and is predicted to give annual savings of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon.
Numerous instances of smartphones and tablets, with appropriate apps, are supporting maintenance staff, drivers and many others on the railway. This includes passengers, whose apps use open railway operations data. In a news feature, we report on the RSSB data sandbox competition which aims to use this data to reduce delays.
In his feature on a trial of various new surveying methods, Graeme Bickerdike explains how drones are one of several innovative techniques that give high accuracy with minimal, if any, track access. The problem is, what to do with all the data they produce? One answer is the recently-completed ORBIS programme. We describe how, when it started in 2011, asset information was kept in diverse, ‘flat’ databases with limited information. Now ORBIS provides an overarching, geospatial view of the railway which has fundamentally changed the way Network Rail’s teams work.
Interconnected complex data like ORBIS is a feature of the fourth industrial revolution. Our article on the Railway Industry Association (RIA)’s innovation conference shows the exponential growth of internet data, which is now 1.1 zettabytes (one with 24 zeros). As our feature describes, RIA’s event featured innovations both within and outside the rail industry, as well as the support for innovation available from UKRRIN and Network Rail’s R&D programme.
Capturing and communicating the ever-increasing amounts of data on the railway will require a trackside ‘Internet of Things’, for which Network Rail Telecom is developing a strategy, as Paul Darlington describes. This will provide universal rail-corridor connectivity for an ecosystem of numerous things, including low cost, battery-powered intelligent data sensors.
One such thing is a 21st -century version of the single-line line token machine, originally devised by Edward Tyler in 1874. Clive Kessell describes how, instead of a landline to connect machines at each end of the single-line section, this uses secure IP (Internet Protocol) communication, either over the internet or a non-dedicated telecommunications link. It is a good example of Victorian engineering evolving into the 21st century.
The RIA conference also highlighted the lack of productivity in the construction industry which should be set to change. One company aims to reduce its workforce time on site by 25 per cent by 2025 by using 4D planning, artificial intelligence (AI) and industrialised construction.
Another example of construction innovation is the robots used to spray shotcrete, described by Colin Carr in his feature on the challenges of repairing Whiteball tunnel. In another civil engineering feature, Bob Wright describes the innovative techniques used to jack pre-cast boxes through an embankment to form new underpasses at White Hart Lane station.
Dr Francis Paonessa was managing director of Network Rail’s Infrastructure Projects for five years and has now left the company as projects devolve to the new regions. In a wide-ranging interview with Nigel Wordsworth, Francis describes how many did not foresee how Network Rail’s reclassification to a government body would reduce project funding. He also explains that many projects were over-spent as they were costed in too early in the project.
Yet this does not explain the threefold cost overun of the GW electrification scheme which was due to the basic design and delivery errors described in a recent RIA report. Francis considers that “there is nothing in electrification that is difficult in itself”, yet surely the lesson is that successful electrification requires skilled designers and project teams who understand its complexity. Maintenance of these skills requires a rolling electrification programme.
Effective rail project delivery requires the modern, specialist plant that will be exhibited at Railworx on 11-13 June. As we describe, this includes an InnovationWorx zone to show off the latest developments. For another exhibition report, Rail Engineer went to SIFER, the French equivalent of Railtex, where various UK companies had their latest developments on show.
This month’s magazine features just some of the many rail industry innovations. Whilst most of these will not be apparent to rail users, they form part of the continuous improvement needed if the railway is to meet the challenges of its third century.