The Railway Industry Association (RIA) held its 13th innovation conference in Nottingham at the end of April. This was the first in-person event for three years although an innovation virtual innovation conference was held last year as reported in issue 190 (May-June 2021). As usual, the two-day event was a mix of thought-provoking speakers, exhibitions, and breakout sessions. This year the theme was getting ready for Great British Railways (GBR).
The conference was a good mix of keynote speakers, presentations on specific initiatives from clients and the supply chain, parallel workshops, and a large exhibition.
Opening the conference, RIA’s chief executive Darren Caplan stressed the need to be positive about the state of the industry and not base long-term decisions on the recent past, especially as passenger numbers were quickly returning. In the last few weeks, passenger numbers were back to around 80% of pre-pandemic levels. He made his now familiar plea for visibility of the enhancements pipeline as it is now over 900 days since the DfT’s Rail National Enhancements Pipeline was last updated.
RIA’s technical director David Clarke then described RIA’s newly published Railway Innovation Strategy. This considers best-practice from other sectors and how to remove innovation blockers to realise benefits sooner. It makes six key asks to create an innovation-friendly environment within the new GBR structure.
- Increase government investment in rail innovation.
- Strengthen support during innovation rollout.
- Identify and overcome barriers to successful innovation.
- Provide a pathway and funding for radical innovation.
- Adopt a whole-system, long-term view to enable the right innovation.
- Support skills development and the creation of an innovation culture.
David also drew attention to RIA’s recently launched ‘Innovation Navigator’ which is a free self-assessment tool for companies to assess and improve their rail innovation readiness. This can be accessed at www.riagb.org.uk/Unlocking_Innovation.
Given the conference’s theme of getting ready for GBR, the first keynote speaker, Keith Williams, was well placed to set the scene as the independent chair of the Rail Review which, a year ago, proposed the creation of GBR. Williams stressed the significant financial challenges faced by the industry which made the need for rail reform ever more pressing, not least to attract a future generation of passengers to use the railways.
He believes that that the formation of GBR will promote innovation. He feels that data is a key resource, and that open data is essential. Williams also feels that private sector support was needed more than ever, noting that it already had invested billions in trains and stations.
His review had found that, although decision making must be devolved, everyone wants the railway to work as a network. He also stressed that GBR has to be culturally different from Network Rail. He acknowledged that implementation of GBR is a slow process but feels momentum is there and advised that the legislation to create GBR is expected in 2024.
William’s keynote presentation was complemented by that of Sir Peter Hendy, Chair of Network Rail. He said that the industry is not very good at saying what the railway is for which is to provide the connectivity that create jobs and encourages growth. He feels Government gets this as evidenced by the huge amount of money put into the railway during the Covid emergency, yet Government also considers that railways are too expensive and that costs must be reduced. Hence there is an essential requirement to embrace innovation and more modern methods.
Hendy feels that if this is not done, it will become increasingly difficult to justify investment. Moreover, it is essential to avoid fiascos such as the introduction of the May 2018 timetable which was the industry’s fault.
He noted the importance of a long-term business plan such as that developed by Transport for London (TfL) which defines TfL’s priorities. Currently the main-line railway has no equivalent (Editor’s note – except in Scotland and Wales). The Whole Industry Strategic Plan (WISP) that is being produced by the GBR transition team (GBRTT) will address this omission. Hendy noted that whilst this will provide a focus, it cannot provide certainty as Government might change its mind or available funding.
He said he was sure that GBRTT will provide better opportunities for private sector funding in non-traditional areas and will ensure that GBR innovates quite differently. For example, open data is one of the founding principles of GBR as it must be accepted that people who run the railway are not necessarily the best people to use data. Hence, he said, “we should embrace the concept that other people can do a job better than you.”
He also stressed the need to embrace diversity as we all have a responsibility to make the industry more like the customers it serves and that we cannot afford not to attract the best from diverse cultures.
In her keynote address Professor Sarah Sharples also made it clear that diversity is essential for innovation. Sharples is chief scientific adviser to the DfT and Professor of Human Factors at the University of Nottingham. She has spent 25 years studying rail operations, having jointly established the Rail Human Factors group in 1998.
She noted that humans are both fallible and brilliant, and that the trick is to minimise the impact of the former and maximise the effect of the later.
She explained how her role as chief scientific advisor was to help the Government balance risk while ensuring good value for the taxpayer. She noted that the rail industry was not the easiest to access, highlighting an ‘acronym buster’ document she used at the start of her career. She said that to support her role industry should identify a handful of clear, succinct messages that can come to Government. “Find where the industry agrees and communicate that strongly.”
She was glad to see the recommendation in the Williams-Shapps report that “Research, development and innovation funding must be simplified to make it more outcome focused and to improve collaboration.” She feels that GBR offers a real opportunity to do this.
Collaboration was very much the message in Toufic Machnouk’s keynote address. As Network Rail’s Director, Industry Partnership for Digital Railway, he is also leading the East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP) which will fundamentally remove the legacy limitations of physical signals by the implementation of ETCS. Yet Rail Engineer’s readers will be aware ETCS has been promised for many years so it might be wondered what is different this time.
The answer is that ECDP is focusing on organisation arrangements. Machnouk advised that the inherent challenge is organisational complexity. With over 30 organisations, the ECDP programme is both one of the industry’s most complex enterprises and also significantly changes the way that the railway is run. Its deep industry partnership is organised in a user centric change programme working to jointly defined principles, values, and critical success factors. He considered that this is the only way to ensure success. The programme has now developed a bottom-up plan with the required levels of clarity, resilience, and adaptability.
In January RIA published its report “Signalling change – learning from the East Coast Digital Programme (ECDP) digital programme” which details the approach ECDP has taken and considers that this is the best chance of implementing the incredibly complex task of delivering ETCS. The first step is commissioning ETCS signalling on the Northern City Line within two years.
Summarising Machnouk’s presentation, RIA’s David Clarke described the ECDP approach as a game changer, not just for digital signalling, but all complex projects.
Clients driven innovation
The role of client organisations promoting innovations was highlighted by presentations from Network Rail, Transport for London, HS2, Avanti West Coast and LNER.
David Rowe, Network Rail’s head of rail technology outlined Network Rail’s £245 million R&D programme which includes over 100 live projects which are mainly concerned with driving down costs and improving asset sustainability. He also said that collaboration was key and explained how, to deliver this portfolio, Network Rail was engaging with its regions, suppliers, the UK Rail Research, and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) and other stakeholders.
As examples, he explained the success of the NR60 Mk2 switch design which was installed at Thirsk in 2017 and had required minimal maintenance compared with the NR56 switch installed there at the same time. Both types of switches were installed by the same teams and subject to the same traffic. He also described the “flat-pack” footbridge that had been developed to reduce costs by 25% and installation time by 50%.
Transport for London’s innovation director Thomas Ableman stressed that TfL is “laser-focused” on the Mayor’s Transport Strategy target of 80% of journeys being made by public transport or active travel, ‘Vision Zero’ for no deaths on London’s Road network, and improving air quality. He explained how TfL had adopted an open innovation model that encouraged suppliers to develop solutions in a collaborative framework.
Part of this approach is the London freight lab to developed new ideas to move freight around the city in a safer, more efficient manner and the London Road lab to make the city’s roadworks safer and smarter.
Howard Mitchell, HS2’s Head of Innovation, saw his team’s role as reducing the friction of the innovation process rather than doing innovation. He felt client leadership was essential to create momentum, ensure that the potential of an idea is understood and that ideas coming up through the supply chain don’t get lost. He felt that “blockers” are an important part of the innovation process and that it was important to engage and convert them to remove their power of veto.
His examples of HS2 innovations included giving suppliers access to sentry camera data to enable them to improve productivity on site, factory level construction processes and the Euston living lab to aid construction works there by learning from pedestrian modelling and the TfL/bus interface.
He advised that HS2 had over 100 innovation projects which had already produced savings of £182 million and identified potential savings of £800 million and 1.6 million tonnes of CO2.
Train operator innovation
Anita Brown, head of innovation and engagement, Avanti West Coast, considered that innovation was not a department but a mindset. Her recipe for successful innovation is: feel it by creating the right culture; find it by looking outwards; and then do it.
She said innovation was needed to make things easier for the workforce and for passengers and advised that the key challenges for which innovation was required were: managing disruption, saving the planet, sustainability, customer experience, and better processes.
She advised that Avanti had made good use of virtual reality training during the pandemic. She also described how Carlisle station was being used as a testbed to initially try out ideas. Looking to the future, she advised Avanti was working with HS2 to model passengers flows during the reconstruction of Euston station using a digital twin of the station and that the company was learning from its Italian partner, Trenitalia, about high-speed train operation.
London North Eastern Railway’s (LNER) chief digital innovation officer, Danny Gonzalez advised how LNER had a digital innovation directorate that was focused on better use of data to personalise the customer experience throughout the whole journey. In this respect, LNER had been successful with its app that offered at seat ordering of refreshments which had generated revenue of £3.5 million and its virtual station assistant app.
He described LNER’s future labs initiative which encourages companies to offer ideas on family friendly journeys, seamless journey experiences, new revenue experiences, the use of future technology, smarter working, sustainability, managing disruption, security, and safety. The next future labs round will also involve Northern and South Eastern.
He acknowledged that the complex railway ecosystem, legacy technology, and problems of scaling up production made innovation hard. Part of the solution was effective challenge ownership.
He considered that gatelines were a big challenge and felt that core suppliers were not interested in providing an improved passenger experience.
To be continued
As always RIA’s innovation conference was a stimulating event with a good mix of formal conference activities, workshops, and informal networking. As it is not possible to do justice to this in a single feature, other aspects of this event will be covered in our next issue. These will include a description of specific innovations, performance-based maintenance, the use of software to leverage innovation, and recent UKRRIN developments.