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Innovation conference gets bigger and better

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Getting the right title for an article can be difficult. The one above was used for Rail Engineer’s report on the Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) annual technology and innovation conference in 2014, attended by more than 200 delegates. With a record 300 delegates at this year’s conference, held recently in Hinckley, Leicestershire, it seemed right to recycle this title.

Less than ten years ago, innovation was barely mentioned. Now, it is recognised that the rail industry must innovate to reduce costs and satisfy its customers. For individual companies, this means ‘innovate or die’. Hence it is not surprising that RIA’s annual innovation event gets bigger and better each year.

The minister’s message

In a video message, Rail Minister Paul Maynard acknowledged both the importance of the conference and the many positive things about the rail industry which, together with the biggest investment programme since Victorian era, were all good news. However, he stressed that the industry had to listen to its customers and felt that winning back customer confidence is the industry’s biggest challenge.

He felt innovation has a big role in reducing costs and disruption and was concerned that the pace of rail innovation was slow compared with other sectors. To address this, he announced that the Department for Transport was funding a £9 million competition to accelerate innovation in rail by high-value, low-cost innovations or those that improved customer experience through stations. The competition opened on 20 March and closes on 17 May.

The government deal

In his opening presentation, industry chair of the Rail Supply Group, Gordon Wakeford, set the scene. The industry has 4,000 suppliers employing 124,000 and with a turnover of around £7 billion. In 2016, it became the twelfth sector to have a Government-supported strategy. This is, essentially, a deal offering long- term continuity of investment and output-based contracts in return for increased productivity, lower whole-life costs and increased exports.

To achieve this, the industry needs 50,000 new employees over the next ten years, of whom half must be graduates or apprentices.

“We have the world’s safest, busiest and oldest railway, which runs better today than it has ever done before,” Gordon noted, adding that he felt the industry should sing its praises as reputation is a key factor in obtaining government support. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the industry had to grow its exports and highlighted the slow pace of innovation in rail compared with the automotive and aerospace sectors.

The need to collaborate

After previously working in the aerospace industry, Graham Hopkins became Network Rail’s group director, safety, technical and engineering, in 2015. His first impression was the “glacial pace of innovation” with rail investing one to two per cent of turnover on innovation, compared with five to six per cent for the aerospace and automotive sectors.

Over the past year, he felt that there had

been an increased focus on the customer and innovation. The technology leadership group (TLG) had replaced the less-focused technical strategy leadership group that had around sixty members. TLG can now effectively deliver the industry’s capability delivery plan which sets out twelve requirements needed to offer better transport opportunities for passengers and freight.

Graham felt that much had been achieved and was pleased to find Government totally supportive. Nevertheless, there had been problems such as arguments about ownership of the data from the train-mounted Perpetuum energy harvesting sensors, which illustrated the need for better collaboration.

Procuring innovation

From HS2, commercial director Beth West explained how innovation has to be built into the project if it is to deliver a customer experience that “removed all the frustrations of rail travel” and built a future-proofed infrastructure.

This requires innovation to be a key part of procurement contracts, which is being done by defining outputs that challenge industry to develop new solutions by working together. HS2 contracts will also reward reductions in whole life costs, and consider the time to realise such cost savings.

Beth recognised that having the right people is an essential requirement. HS2 has to attract and train a diverse workforce, and this will also produce a diversity of ideas which will assist the project as a whole.

Not sexy, but fundamental

Maggie Simpson offered the perspective of the Rail Freight Group. She explained how the reduction in power-station coal traffic from eight to two million tonne-km over the past two years showed how the rail freight industry had to be flexible to survive. However, she stressed that rail freight was not all bad news. Its intermodal and construction traffic is steadily increasing, the country’s largest rail-connected warehouse had just opened and ten bi-mode class 88 freight locomotives had just been delivered.

Nevertheless, she was concerned about the greater level of freight innovation outside the rail industry. She acknowledged that there were good examples of rail innovation but felt these were happening “at a pace behind our competition”.

To improve rail freight’s asset utilisation, Maggie felt that Network Rail had to modernise its older-generation core systems. As an example, she felt it would probably take Network Rail six months to advise what it would take to increase freight train weight from 2,000 to 2,600 tonnes, as this would have to be worked out manually. Although such systems were not sexy, a rapid response to such questions was fundamental to the rail freight industry.

Making it happen – UKRRIN

Since the creation of Railway Research UK in 2003, Britain’s universities have delivered and supported many rail innovations. Currently the Rail Research UK Association (RRUKA) involves over 50 universities and offers a large, internationally recognised rail research capability. However, as Professor Clive Roberts of the University of Birmingham explained, more needs to be done, particularly the development of a UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) to provide centres of excellence to make the UK a global leader in rail innovation.

This is the subject of a bid to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which provides funds on the basis of £2 of private investment leveraging £1 in government capital funding. Thus, Network Rail and Transport for London (TfL) cannot support this bid. Instead 17 rail companies have offered to contribute £68 million in total, which will generate the £92 million required to set up UKRRIN.

This will consist of innovation centres for digital systems, rolling stock and infrastructure. The digital system centre will be at the University of Birmingham. The rolling stock centre will be at the University of Huddersfield and supported by the Universities of Newcastle and Loughborough. The infrastructure centre will be based at the national infrastructure laboratory currently under construction at the University of Southampton, with other facilities at Heriot-Watt University and the Universities of Loughborough, Nottingham and Sheffield. UKRRIN will have a co-ordinating hub to facilitate collaborative working between industries and its innovation centres.

The University of Birmingham has been leading the UKRRIN bid since last April. It was submitted in December with HEFCE expected to announce its decision in May.

Making it happen – KTPs

In his presentation, Greg Howell of LPA connection systems explained how universities also promote innovation within Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP).

LPA is based in Essex and specialises in connection systems. With the growth of Wi-Fi and other train Ethernet systems, LPA had identified a market for high bandwidth digital connectors between rail vehicles. As their technical department had no electronic or telecommunication capability, they had to consider how best to acquire this expertise to develop these high bandwidth connectors.

When Greg attended the 2012 RIA innovation conference, he first became aware of KTPs, which are for projects of one to three years’ duration. Having established that the nearby University of Essex had the required expertise to support the development of LPA’s new connectors, he contacted a KTP adviser at the university who helped support his application to Innovate UK. This required a simple business case from LPA, after which the university completed the application with the adviser’s guidance.

With the application agreed, the university advertised for an associate whose role was to ensure that the company benefits from the university’s expertise. The associate is employed by the university, based at the business concerned and supported by an academic supervisor who, typically, visits the business on a weekly basis.

The process does not take long and, for LPA, proved to be a great success. Greg had his associate in place less than a year after attending the RIA conference. For an outlay of £70,000, plus £40,000 capital investment, LPA developed a product which generated sales of around £8 million and was used in the world’s first rolling stock with 10 Gbit/s connectivity over copper.

Rail innovations

Three speakers described their company’s specific innovations. Mike Hulme from Alstom advised that the company had an objective that, by 2020, thirty per cent of its orders would be from newly developed products. One such is the world’s first hydrogen-powered passenger train, the Coradia iLint, which is to enter service in Germany in 2018. This meets a policy objective of developing the company’s rolling stock to enhance market position by offering customers a zero-emission train.

Another Alstom innovation is the TrainScanners installed at Pendolino depots. A high-speed camera and laser facility that examines all aspects of the train, the TrainScanner offers significant savings as these trains are now maintained on a condition, rather than time, basis. It required a significant investment, which was only possible as Alstom has a long-term framework agreement with Virgin trains. Mike advised that Alstom has similar agreements with its suppliers to encourage them to innovate.

Pete Duggan of Siemens explained the benefits and issues of the introduction of mathematical verification techniques to railway interlockings that have already been used outside the UK. He considered this to be a game-changer which can produce error-free interlocking data in a matter of hours, rather than weeks. However, as it was a “radical change from the conventional tried, tested and loved process”, its introduction will require many hearts and minds to be changed, not to mention changes to standards.

Paul Priestman, chairman of the PriestmanGoode design consultancy, advised the conference that “sitting is the new smoking”. He did so whilst explaining his company’s perch seat design concept, which offers four seat rows instead of three to alleviate over-crowding, and is to be trialled at the end of the year in a RSSB project.

Delivering the digital railway

Much has been written in Rail Engineer about the digital railway and its benefits, including an interview with Network Rail’s managing director of the programme, David Waboso, in our January edition. Without wishing to repeat this, it is worth noting his key points for successful innovation across the railway’s complex system and commercial interfaces in his presentation “delivering major technical system change on an operational railway”.

He recalled the introduction of digital technology on the Jubilee line, which took a long time to implement. In contrast, the next digital programme, the more-complex Northern line, took less time as the same team delivered both programmes. For this reason, he was “absolutely passionate” about keeping teams together.

He also felt strongly that the supply chain needs confidence to invest in long-term and output- based contracts if it is to innovate. He felt successful contracts required good relationships and leadership. Leadership is also essential across the industry to successfully deliver the digital railway as a cross-industry programme.

Ensuring ETCS equipment is fitted to the large number of new trains to be delivered in the next few years will test this approach. David commented that he was obsessed about the need for these new trains to be ETCS-fitted to avoid the high cost of retrofitting.

The digital railway offers capacity benefits, better reliability, more efficient kit and significant cost savings. It should also create export opportunities. These are huge gains, but will be a real test of the industry’s ability to innovate.

The bigger picture

Presentations on innovation outside the rail industry offered a fresh perspective, showed how the industry needs to keep up with the competition and encouraged new thinking.

From TfL’s transport innovation directorate, Iain Macbeth considered the impact of disruptive technologies, which are being developed at an ever-increasing rate. He advised the conference that, in February, a self- driving car had driven around London in the UK’s first test of an autonomous vehicle.

He felt such cars were an example of the rapid changes in road vehicle technology that the rail industry must consider. It is currently not clear whether rail will benefit or suffer from the introduction of such technologies.

Iain noted that it was only ten years since the iPhone was introduced. To illustrate the impact of smartphones, he asked the audience to open their favourite app and pass the phone to their neighbour. With everyone having their life on their phones, there was an obvious reluctance to do so as everyone’s life is now on their phones.

Although various useful rail apps have been developed for smartphones, more could be done. A good example is a mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) app used in Helsinki. Kaj Pyyhtia, co- founder of MaaS Global, described this subscription transport service, which has been described as the “Netflix of transportation”.

For any journey, MaaS determines the optimum transport mix, buys the tickets and books taxis and hire cars as required. The app provides information about the trip and shows it has been paid for. There is a monthly subscription of typically €300 a month, which varies according to the level of service

Although MaaS does not provide any transportation, it provides a seamless door-to-door service by using big data to achieve the required integration of different transport modes. Following its introduced in Helsinki last year, early indications are that it has resulted in a fifty per cent increase in the use of public transport.

MaaS will be introduced in the West Midlands later this year.

The iPhone also featured in the presentation by Ged Lancaster of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR). He used it as an example of a product whose functionality is defined by its software. He noted that Apple employs 11,000 software specialists to develop the iPhone’s iOS operating system, showing that the production of such software- driven products is good business.

For this reason, he advised that it was JLR’s aspiration to be “the best software company in the world to buy a car from”. His presentation described how JLR’s cars will soon no longer use electronic control units that only do particular things. Instead, its cars will have modern system architecture using more expensive devices such that it will be possible to change a car’s functionality in a matter of months, rather than years.


Innovation requires an open mind, so Dr Alan James’s presentation on his company’s hyperloop proposal was one that should not be immediately dismissed. Alan described this as the first new mode of transportation since the Wright Brothers. The concept is a pod, driven by a linear induction motor in a vacuum tube, that can travel between cities at 760 mph.

His presentation focused on Hyperloop’s benefits without addressing some of the obvious practical issues, such as expansion forces in a 300-mile long tube and switching between tubes. Alan advised that the air in the pod would be compressed from the surrounding atmosphere, as an aeroplane does at an altitude of 36,000 feet where the air pressure is 0.23 bar. However, as there isn’t any air around the pod, which operates in a vacuum of 0.001 bar, it’s not clear how passengers breathe.

Alan stated that Hyperloop has 250 engineers and that a full-scale proof-of-concept test will take place later this year. He added that there was significant worldwide interest and was confident that Hyperloop would have an operational freight service by 2020, and a passenger service by 2021.

Spoilt for choice

As well as the presentations, there were exhibition stands for universities, innovation bodies and RIA member companies, one-to-one surgeries, drop in table sessions, and interactive workshop sessions. Surgeries gave advice on funding, product acceptance and tax relief for research work.

The table sessions also offered advice in small group sessions and offered demonstrations of particular products whilst the workshops included a digital railway ‘Dragon’s Den’, Network Rail’s challenge statements and UKRRIN’s role to promote university and industry collaboration.

There was a buzz about the conference as everyone decided what to do in between the presentations. It is no exaggeration to say that delegates were all spoilt for choice.

By running this conference and its associated Unlocking Innovation workshops, RIA is to be congratulated for providing such an essential service to the industry. Moreover, the smooth running of such a complex conference was no mean feat.

The presentations inspired and informed, whilst the interactive sessions offered advice and support. In addition, with the networking opportunities to create innovation partnerships, it is quite likely that more than a few innovations were born at the conference.

No doubt, RIA’s conference will be even bigger and better in 2018. Before then, however, we should think of a new title!

Written by David Shirres

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