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Innovation conference gets bigger and better

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With more than 200 delegates from over 90 organisations and 33 display stands, the Railway Industry Association’s sixth annual Technology and Innovation Conference on 18 and 19 March was a much bigger event than last year. Writes David Shirres

Introducing the conference RIA’s technical director Francis How reflected on the past twelve months being eventful for rail innovation with the formation of the Transport Systems Catapult. With some justification he felt that RIA had played a significant role in placing innovation at the forefront of the UK rail industry’s agenda.

Red, green, yellow or blue

Delegates soon found that this year’s conference was to be more people-focused. Jonne Ceserani of Power & Grace led a number of highly interactive sessions for everyone to find out whether they had Red, Green, Yellow or Blue personalities. The serious side to this was that successful innovation needs collaboration from all types of people who need to be open to each other’s ideas. For example your writer had always considered that rail capacity was constrained by signalling systems but was persuaded that train braking also needs to be addressed. Speaking to The Rail Engineer, Francis How advised that RIA felt this to be an important part of the programme as the way people act can be a significant barrier to innovation.

During this session those present were reminded that it was wrong to consider that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution concerned survival of the fittest. Illustrating the importance of innovation, he actually said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

Intelligent mobility

Towards Intelligent Mobility is the aim of the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) as was recently explained in The Rail Engineer (issue 111, January 2014). Its chief executive, Steve Yianni, explained how the TSC is encouraging a collaborative approach to developing integrated transport systems so as to meet the challenges of population growth, congestion and increased energy costs.

Most of the TSC’s current projects will use the improvements in digital connectivity that was the subject of a presentation by Mike Short of Telefonica. As an example of the exponential growth in data transmission, Mike advised that the data transmitted in one year’s operation of Telefonica’s 4G network was equivalent to the previous eight years of 3G operation.

The big increase in the use of smartphones will result in 80% of the UK population having one by the year end. Such phones are currently used for an average of 128 minutes per day.

Those who use such devices are also getting younger, as Mike illustrated by reference to a popular YouTube clip “A magazine is an iPad that does not work” showing a  one year old trying to get a magazine to do the things an iPad does. All these factors have huge implications and opportunities for the rail industry.

Innovation in Franchising

Peter Wilkinson, director of rail franchising for the Department for Transport (DfT), believes that rail franchising has been a success. Passenger numbers have doubled since privatisation and 60% more freight is carried. He also felt that few, if any, railways operated so well in such a dense mixed traffic network. Nevertheless, he recognised that rail franchising had to change. For example, a major shift in the DfT’s thinking was that it now recognised that passengers had to come first.

The DfT also now believes that franchising has to foster innovation. As a result, the DfT is making it clear to bidders that quality and innovation is required. This requires new rolling stock as extending the life of the existing stock is not a clever strategy. Peter also felt that the railway was considered to be operating at full capacity only because of self-imposed constraints for which innovation is also required.

He announced that the DfT has created a £50 million Innovation in Franchising fund. This will be available over the next three years for projects covering the East Coast, Trans Pennine and Northern franchises. It will fund innovative projects in these franchises that have a difficult business case or which may not deliver a commercial return during the franchise period.

Sharing experience

David Johnson of DGauge shared his experience of developing an innovative product: a dynamic pantograph gauging technique that allowed restricted clearance tunnels to be electrified without excessive cost. His presentation considered the seven tripcocks of innovation to be: the innovative source; the business case; where does it fit; how does it relate to standards; what approvals are needed; what risk does it import and quadruple the time.

Describing innovation from a rolling stock leasing company’s perspective, Mark Hicks of Angel Trains described the short and long-term tensions between franchise period and operational life of assets. In doing so, he made the distinction between incremental innovation (LED headlamps) and driverless trains and, like many speakers, stressed the need for collaboration.

The pods at Terminal 5

For those using Heathrow, the pods at Terminal 5 offer a glimpse of the future today. Since May 2011, they have carried 950,000 people over two million kilometres of driverless operation at reliability level of over 99%. These pods carry up to four people and are part of a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system that provides on-demand transport with an averageUltra PRT Pods [online] 10-15 second waiting time direct to the required destination.

Describing the system, David Marron of Ultra Global PRT explained how it could distribute people around busy congested environments at less cost with less disruption. The pods are battery powered and laser guided in a dedicated guideway. A central control manages the driverless system that can have four second headways, enabling it to carry around 2,500 people per hour.

David emphasised that, with this capacity, PRT systems are not intended to compete with light rail. Instead they offer ‘last mile connectivity’ at a cost of around 40% of the typical £20 million per mile for light rail infrastructure.

The chairman’s view

With his extensive experience at Ford Motors in product development and R&D, it is not surprising that Network Rail’s chairman, Richard Parry-Jones, had some fresh insights to offer the conference. His presentation also echoed previous speakers such as the importance of starting with the customer and that there is “no room for work that is not collaborative”.

He felt that Network Rail faced four technical key issues: electrification catch-up; digital asset management; automatic traffic control and the signalling revolution for which it needed to learn lessons from other industries. For example, there are “many factory concepts that belong on the railway.” The industry also needed to imagine a future with free and infinite digital processing and transmission.

He could understand why railway engineers were nervous about the impact of new technology but felt this risk could be controlled with a robust technology introduction process. On the subject of workforce safety, he considered that this had to be improved and that there were safety solutions in the oil, gas and mining industries that Network Rail should adopt.

Looking back, moving forward

David Clarke of the FutureRailway team announced that there would soon be one less acronym to contend with. EIT is to be dropped as his Engineering Innovation Team merges into FutureRail, a programme with a virtual team from Network Rail and RSSB which is working with industry to deliver the Rail Technical Strategy. It has direct funding of £125 million in CP5 which, with industrial match funding, gives £250 million.

The UK supply chain, which generates business worth £7 billion per annum, only exports 10% compared with 60% and 70% for the automotive and aeronautical sectors. FutureRailway aims to get the supply chain to meet the industry’s demand for innovation and as a result also increase opportunities for export into a global rail market worth £100 billion in 2010 and growing at 2.7% per annum.

To date, FutureRail had provided innovation funding of £30 million, matched by an equal sum from industry. This had been used for various competitions attracting a total of 300 entries, 75 days of testing at specialist facilities and demonstrators such as the independently powered EMU. In addition, support had been provided for DfT’s innovation in franchising.

Currently FutureRail has five live competitions, details of which can be found on its website. David also encouraged delegates to support the Young Railway Professionals’ event Next Generation Rail on 11-13 June.

The conference award

As at previous conferences, a key feature was the RIA/ RSSB Innovation Award for which there were four finalists. Brecknell Willis presented their active pantograph proposal which is intended to reduce service disruption, allow high speeds with existing overhead equipment and provide real time monitoring of OLE.

FLE structures described its idea for an OLE cantilever arm made from non-conductive material, thus eliminating the need for an insulator.

A previous winner, Park Signalling, introduced a proposal for remote condition monitoring (RCM) of signalling equipment not enabled for RCM – which is most of that installed on the network. This involved transmitting LED indications on printed circuit boards to a remote technician’s terminal, eliminating the need to visit the location concerned in order to diagnose faults.

Reliable Data Systems presented its proposal for a video train positioning system which analysed a video of track in front of the train to determine distance travelled. It can also determine the train’s location which can then be displayed on a track map.

Anson Jack of RSSB was glad to note that the delegate’s vote matched the view of the judges which was that this year’s RIA/RSSB Innovation Award, worth £300,000, should go to Brecknell Willis. As a result, the winner expects to produce a prototype of its active pantograph in 24 months’ time.

A further prize was the Mystery Shopper award for the best stand. This went to Thales for their display featuring advanced technologies yet to be used in the rail environment. These included precise positioning information which provides the exact location of individuals in hazardous environments. This works through walls and obstructions and its ‘Through-Wall’ radar technology can even detect the gentle breathing of someone sleeping in a room!

Innovate or die

As was made clear at this event, innovation is the only way that the railway can meet its 21st century challenges. So it is good to learn of worthwhile initiatives at the annual RIA conference which is now a ‘must attend’ event for anyone with an interest in this field. Through its conferences and unlocking innovation scheme, RIA is fulfilling a vital role to promote rail innovation.

Yet there remains much to be done. Informal discussions with suppliers revealed that commercial pressures remain a significant barrier to innovation. However, the oft-used word ‘collaboration’ indicates that this problem is recognised. A number of speakers challenged the premise that the railway was full and felt that those in the industry need to come up with radical solutions to the capacity problem.

The conference was certainly an education. Charles Darwin’s comment in his Origin of the Species can be paraphrased as ‘innovate or die’. With the competition now testing road trains of convoyed cars and driverless cars, this is a clear message for the rail industry.

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