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Inspired by innovation – RIA’s 2024 Innovation Conference

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It is not surprising that the Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) annual innovation event won the 2023 Association Excellence Awards for ‘Best longstanding association event’. With over 400 delegates, this was RIA’s biggest ever such conference. It featured around 20 key speakers and 70 stands, of which 11 were in the Future Focus Zone which showcased the latest technologies. This year’s event was held on March 26-27 in Wales at Newport’s International Conference Centre. Its theme was ‘inspired by innovation’.

RIA’s Innovation Conference was first held in 2009 at a time when rail innovation was hardly mentioned. This year’s conference was the fifteenth such event. Over the years there has been increasing recognition of the importance of innovation and the need to embrace digital technologies. At this year’s event, a frequent theme was Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics, with various robots on display.

Passenger focus

RIA Chief Executive Darren Caplan welcomed delegates as he opened the conference. He recognised that previous years had been difficult, with Covid and the cancellation of HS2 phase 2. Furthermore, the industry still needed more certainty, especially in respect of rolling stock orders. Yet the CP7 settlement provided confidence in respect of maintenance and renewals work and there were many opportunities for industry to effectively address the challenges it faces for which innovation is essential.

The action being taken to address Network Rail’s four key priorities of boots off ballast, weather resilience, better asset knowledge, and driving efficiencies through innovation was described by Robert Ampomah, Network Rail’s chief technology officer. He explained how this was being supported by the rail industry’s research, development and innovation (RD&I) programme which has eight themes:

Credit: RIA
  • Passenger experience and accessibility.
  • Freight capability.
  • Traction decarbonisation.
  • Environment and social sustainability.
  • Optimised and resilient operations.
  • Automation.
  • Optimised and resilient assets.
  • Digitisation and data.

The South Wales Metro will be the first large scale use of battery powered EMUs on a discontinuous electrified network. This illustrates Transport for Wales’ (TfW) vision that innovation is key to achieving the vision of “a high-quality, safe, integrated, affordable and accessible transport network”. TfW’s chair, Scott Waddington explained how this vision is being delivered with initiatives such as TfW’s innovation lab. He was proud of the success of the pay-as-you-go fares on key routes across South East Wales which is the first place in the UK outside London to offer such fares.

Transport ticketing was also addressed by Uber’s new mobility lead, Rebecca Jeffrey. Uber was launched in 2012 and is now active in 71 countries. It recently booked its one billionth trip in the UK. Rebecca explained how Uber had recently expanded into various modes of transport including bikes, boats, and trains. She stressed that a sufficient reduction in carbon emissions will only be possible with electrification and modal shift to public transport. Uber promotes its train ride offering by encouraging its customers to “split their ride with 200 people”. It offers 10% cashback on all train tickets booked on Uber.

Data analytics

Dave Looney, head of product strategy at Telent explained how the company’s Management Integration & Control of Assets (MICA) had been enhanced by teaming up with data analytics specialists Purple Transform whose data analytics insights platform, SiYtE, provides improved threat detection from trespassers and suicide prevention from the detection of abnormal behaviours of individuals in crowds. He also explained how SiYtE can analyse sensors that detect vibrations and cliff face movements to issue real-time alerts when there is a real risk of a line blockage.

The weather forecasts produced by the Met Office require 215 billion observations per day which, when analysed to produce simulations and predictions, produces 1,818 terabytes of data. The Met Office is clearly a big data organisation. Its co-director for Joint Centre for Excellence in Environmental Intelligence (JCEEI), Rachel McInnes, explained how artificial intelligence is improving weather forecasting and how it can help the railway industry manage climate resilience.

She advised that the Met Office’s specific rail industry expertise contributed to the Carmont weather task force. She also explained how the JCEEI was pioneering how AI can be used to process environmental data and knowledge to pioneer the development of environmental intelligence research.

The 3,035km railway network in Holland is a fifth of that in the UK, yet this dense intertwined network carries 1.45 million passengers per day which is half that of the UK. Dutch rail infrastructure is managed by ProRail whose senior program manager for research, Arjen Zoeteman, outlined the challenges it faced with the growth of mobility, new technology, sustainability, and scarcity of resources which were the same faced by Network Rail.

Arjen’s presentation emphasised the importance of collaboration between railway administrations to accelerate the implementation of innovation. As an example, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in August between ProRail and Network Rail to jointly develop acoustic monitoring using fibre optic cables and other technological improvements.


In a change of pace, there followed a series of short presentations on specific products and initiatives. Chris Clements, ABB’s sales & marketing manager, highlighted the benefits of his company’s electrification installation products and the technical support and training that it offers.

Credit: ProRail

Scott Heath, innovation manager at Thales, considered the challenges of effectively using data and focused on the use of video analytics to understand behaviour of those in crowds to determine potential risks. Using data was also the theme of the presentation by Richard Homheinz, a senior consultant engineer from Capgemini who stressed the need to unify data silos and use AI to extract data to derive metrics and dashboards.

The importance of cybersecurity was stressed by Evan Jones, chief executive officer, Complete Cyber. His company offers a portable scanner, Vault IOT, that provides a comprehensive cyber security health check of all digital assets.

The digital hub for rail projects used on the Welsh Core Valley lines and the Transpennine Route Upgrade was described by Helix director, Matthew Marsland. This uses design and real-time construction data to manage project workbanks and material supply to produce shift reports, quality check sheets, progress maps, and dashboards.

Benchmarking projects

Network Rail’s Rail Investment Centre of Excellence (RICoE) was founded to support the implementation of the Project SPEED initiative in 2021. One of its key roles is project cost benchmarking. A joint presentation by Charlie Fuller, RICoE’s head of benchmarking and Arcadis Business Advisory’s Susan McGuerty described the BenchSmart system which, as Charlie advised, is the result of a cost intelligence programme set up three years ago. It has been developed to capture costs in a consistent manner across all Network Rail’s five devolved regions and now has data on over 500 projects with 400 trained users. It now offers a better understanding of project cost drivers, including the split between direct and indirect costs.

The system has dashboards showing summary and detailed cost data. It also offers project element cost comparisons, for example different footbridge costs of the Access for All projects. In this way BenchSmart offers increased data accessibility and accuracy, greater insights and better information for industry stakeholders including the DfT.

Destination revenue growth

Opening the second day of the conference, RIA’s innovation director, Milda Manomaityte, advised that RIA’s mission is to ensure that the views of its membership are heard. To do so RIA must understand the issues and promote solutions. For this reason, it has become a tradition over the last three years for RIA to publish a report at its innovation conference.

2022 saw a report on the need for a railway innovation strategy whilst a report on data and digital technologies in rail was published last year. This year’s conference launched RIA’s report ‘Destination Revenue Growth’ which provides a blueprint to enhance the railway’s ticketing and retail offer.

This takes as its starting point a Williams Shapps report commitment that: “We will make the railways easier to use. We will simplify the confusing mass of tickets and introduce far more convenient ways to pay.” It details the issues with railway ticketing systems and has four asks:

  • A stable national vision of a future of rail retail policy.
  • Standardised and specified interfaces to facilitate the adoption of account-based ticketing and ensure interoperability between different regions and modes.
  • A level playing field and culture of data sharing.
  • Common contractual frameworks for secure, efficient exchanges of operational data between transport operators with uniform models of revenue distribution and compensation.

The report notes that almost every single RIA document in recent years has included a plea for visibility of the Government’s strategic vision and the plans to deliver that vision.

Learning from others

Day two of the conference offered insights from outside the rail sector. The Department for Business and Trade’s National Digital Twin Programme aims to develop the standards, frameworks, and guidelines for UK digital twin technology. Its head of programme, Alexandra Luck, explained how better sharing of digital information required the right information to be available at the right time to the right people.

The programme aims to have digital twins that are realistically deployable and useable by all organisations with low barriers to adoption. She described a digital twin demonstrator for asset resilience, emergency planning and response for the Isle of Wight for which key stakeholders were the Council, NHS trust, and the emergency services.

Production of this digital twin required the identification and cleansing of data sources, integration architecture, and an app with the required visualisation. Recent severe floods on the island proved the usefulness of this model though it also highlighted deficiencies as it took five hours to locate all the vulnerable people on the island.

Credit: RIA

National Highways (NH) is responsible for over 22,000km of roads in England which is comparable to that of Network Rail’s rail network. In her presentation, NH’s roads development director, Dr Joanna White, explained how NH faces the same issues as Network Rail and has an innovation strategy with similar key themes: net zero carbon by 2050; connected journeys by 2025; cheaper, faster construction by 2030; and zero harm by 2040.

NH aims to half the number of serious incidents for its roadworkers by 2025 and, by 2040, eliminate human involvement in asset monitoring and inspection with the use of drones and climbing robots.

Between 2020 and 2025, NH will have invested £200 million in innovation and £40 million in R&D. Joanna emphasised the need for collaboration between sectors and referred to NH’s partnership with Network Rail which includes the joint use of helicopters to monitor the country’s rail and road networks. Another transferable technology is NH’s use of cosmic rays, or muon imaging to detect redundant railway tunnel voids.

The DfT’s National Security Science and Research (NSSR) programme is the UK Government’s technical authority for transport security and resilience. Its deputy director, Tom Salter and PA Consulting’s transport innovation lead, Dr Steven Carden, gave an overview of this work. The programme aims to understand threats and their impacts, mitigate priority risks, and support incident response.
For rail, a key challenge is improving security without constraining high throughput. The solution is to encourage the general public to spot suspicious behaviour. This resulted in the DfT working with British Transport Police to implement the ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ campaign.

NSSR is currently developing a four-year flexible framework agreement for the delivery of R&D projects to support its work. Tom felt that this required the right culture as the best value comes from both parties approaching it intelligently and transparently and that “humility brings out the best of the supply chain”.


A panel from the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network Panel (UKRRIN), chaired by Joanna Binstead of Siemens Mobility, answered questions on their work. This panel consisted of Professor Paul Allen of the Centre of Excellence in Rolling Stock at the University of Huddersfield, Professor Paul Plummer of the Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Joel Smethurst of the Centre of Excellence in Infrastructure at the University of Southampton.

The wide ranging discussion covered the work being done to help Network Rail deliver its CP7 commitments within the available budget. It was felt that this needed better use of data as well as some quite fundamental work to understand earthworks deterioration.
There was also a plea for both human centric and system thinking for which collaboration was important.

L to R: Joel Smethurst, Paul Allen, Paul Plummer, and Joanna Binstead. Credit: David Shirres.

It was felt that one of UKKRIN’s strengths was collaboration between different universities. An example of this is how the Universities of Bristol and Huddersfield are collaborating in the development of inerters for railway suspensions. This is a type of damper in which force is proportional to acceleration.

When closing the discussion, Joanna asked panel members for a single takeaway. Paul Plumber felt that the technologies on display were truly inspiring and that more would be attracted to the rail industry if they knew about these innovations. Paul Allen was inspired by the expertise in the room and urged conference attendees to make use of the Rail Data Marketplace. Joel Smethurst considered that the key issue highlighted by the conference was making the best use of data and AI.

Artificial intelligence

With AI being a topic discussed throughout the conference, it was appropriate that the conference’s final presentation was by IBM Technology’s principal solution architect, Sven Strassburg, on the new paradigm of AI. His presentation considered the respective benefits of traditional AI models which undertake specific tasks and massive foundation multi-tasking AI models which generate sequences of related data.

Sven believed that AI should: use the best available open technologies; be trusted to offer security and data protection; be targeted for specific business needs; and provide a platform that can run anywhere designed for scale and widespread adoption. He felt that AI could support compliance with increasing regulatory demands in respect of governance, transparency, and ethics.

His presentation considered how AI can manipulate text to create a Q&A resource from a broad knowledge base, summarise text to capture key points, generate content for a specific task, or classify written input. AI-supported computer vision can also rank defects and track changes over time to automate maintenance tasks.

Stands and spotlights

Over 50 stands in the main exhibition hall and 11 in the Future Focus Zone showcased the available new technologies. To make the conference a more interactive event, much of the programme was devoted to 25 10-minute spotlight presentations by exhibitors at their stands. What follows is a brief overview of the impressive capabilities on display.

In the Future Focus Zone, it was not possible to avoid the robots and it was interesting to speculate whether robotic dogs might soon be in widespread use. The UK Atomic Energy Authority stand showed how they have eliminated the need for humans to enter hazardous environments. As such robots become less expensive, will it be long before they are used to inspect railway infrastructure that is difficult to access?

Yet as a reminder that railways are about moving heavy vehicles at high speeds, much on display in this zone concerned mechanical and civil engineering. The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre’s stand included components produced by a variety of advanced techniques including additive manufacturing which can produce complex shapes with minimal waste. The University of Southampton’s stand featured steel-free fibre reinforced polymer bridge beams which are 80% lighter than concrete. Its stand also featured research into the use of optical fibres in which there were laser-created reflectors every 10cm that enable the fibre to have thousands of highly sensitive strain gauges along its length.

The University of Huddersfield’s Institute of Railway Research had information about its test rigs which are used to study the dynamics of wheel/rail and pantograph/OLE interaction. A spotlight presentation also explained its collaboration with the University of Bristol, Bracknell Willis, and Network Rail to develop an inerter-based pantograph.

Advanced materials at the University of Sheffield’s stand. Credit: David Shirres.

In the main exhibition hall Network Rail’s stand had information about its international R&D collaborations and RSSB had much information about its research programmes including freight on which there is to be a greater focus in the 2024 update of the Rail Technical Strategy.

TfW’s stand featured those who had benefited from its innovation lab including Briteyellow which has developed a virtual reality wayfinding app to help passengers navigate complex stations and Dopee Doo’s reward scheme which encourages people to explore by train.

One of the most entertaining spotlight pitches was by ‘Wreck it Roy’ and ‘Potential Pete’ which illustrated the need for COMET incident root cause analysis software. Another safety product on display was Tended’s wearable geofencing technology which offers centimetre accuracy to prevent workforce strayed out of safe zones and can also ensure the accurate placement of marker boards.

Given the importance of sharing data, the Rail Data Marketplace (RDM) stand offered delegates an opportunity to learn how it brings data publishers and consumers together with data sharing agreements. The RDM portal went live in September and now has over 700 users, 103 data products, and has facilitated 1,700 data sharing agreements.

As is always the case at such events, there is always much to learn from chance conversations. For example, it was interesting to learn of a novel use of AI to keep deer off the tracks between Peterborough and Grantham, as LNER’s automated deer deterrent system uses sound and vision sensors to detect deer approaching the track and then activates audible and visual alarms until the deer has moved a safe distance away.

There is always much to learn at RIA’s innovation conference both from those outside and within the industry. Understanding the latest developments and finding out what is available through the conference programme, the exhibition stands, or chance conversations must help with the implementation of new ideas. Indeed, it is safe to say that those present were ‘inspired by innovation’. For this, RIA is to be commended for yet another successful innovation conference.

RIA’s 2025 innovation conference returns to the ICC Wales at Newport on 25-26 March 2025.

Lead image credit: David Shirres

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


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