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RIA’s Innovation Showcase

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The Railway Industry Association (RIA)’s annual two-day innovation conference provided its usual comprehensive display of successful innovations with guidance for potential innovators.

This conference was first held in 2009 at a time when rail innovation was hardly mentioned. Including an innovative virtual conference in 2021, this year’s conference was the fourteenth such event. Over these years there has been increasing recognition of the importance of innovation and the need to embrace digital technologies. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘realising the benefits of innovation’ as it showed how some innovations are now beginning to make an impact.

The event also had a different feel to it with fewer ‘standard’ presentations. New were Techtalks about the benefits of particular innovations and two spotlight tours around the displays, with each spending 10 minutes at eight exhibitors.

Political keynotes

RIA’s chief executive, Darren Caplan welcomed delegates as he introduced the conference. He said that despite industrial action and inflation, the future of the rail industry looks positive with passenger numbers returning to pre-Covid levels. He noted how RIA is supporting the innovation needed to deliver more rail capacity. Yet to do this, the supply chain needs certainty which is not helped by the Rail Network Enhancements Programme not being published for three-and-a-half years.

Rail & HS2 Minister Huw Merriman MP then joined the conference by video link. He stressed the importance of rail reform and how this would give the private sector a big role. He also focused on the importance of innovation for capacity and decarbonisation, and noted how new passenger service contracts will make it easier to innovate.

A later video presentation from Shadow Minister for Science, Research & Innovation, Chi Onwurah MP emphasised the difference between the two political parties. Though she also stressed the need for innovation, it was clear that Labour recognises that this alone won’t deliver rail capacity or decarbonisation as the party is committed to deliver HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail in full, as well as delivering a rolling programme of electrification.

Digital delivery

RIA’s innovation director, Milda Manomaityte, advised that the DfT had recently released its Transport Data Strategy which aims to support innovation by enabling data users to better share, find, and access transport data. She also mentioned RIA’s own report ‘Data and Digital Technologies in Rail’, which includes six key ‘asks’ of Government, policy makers and clients to enable, expedite, and ensure the success of the UK railway’s digital transition. This report and its supporting initiatives are described in detail in our ‘Mining Data’ feature published in the Jan-Feb edition of Rail Engineer.

Maximilian Eichhorn, vice president of Digital Products and Services at Knorr-Bremse, considered the ‘Internet of Trains.’ He described how he had used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to ask the AI chatbot ChatGPT what is the future of train maintenance and operations. Its answers were: digitisation, increased automation, predictive maintenance, and customer experience. Yet the effective implementation of such innovations requires operators to have consistent data. This can be a challenge with mixed fleets from different builders that themselves have different sub systems.

He described how Knorr-Bremse has developed its Digital Rail Suite which uses AI to analyse train data in this situation. It then provides relevant data and feedback to passengers/freight forwarders, operators, train, and sub system builders.

Other digital technologies developed by the company include driver advisory systems offering 6-8% energy savings and freight wagon monitoring which does not require a power supply. This includes wheel slide detection, parking brake position, as well as location and brake system monitoring.

DB Cargo’s head of Transformation and Digitalisation, Marie Banks, explained how being data driven is part of her company’s DNA. This required paper-free processes designed for people that provides clear information on targets so that staff can see how they play their part. She also described DB Cargo’s digital customer services which include live train and consist monitoring, online ordering and carbon statements. She said that improved customer service and performance does not necessarily need new technology but always requires the right data.

From Arcadis, Senior Director Paul Watson and Design & Engineering Service Lead Emma Dickson considered how projects can benefit from digital technologies. They noted that there are overspends in up to 90% of major projects and that such projects collect large amounts of data which goes unused. The requirement is to unlock this data to provide deeper insights and improved assurance.

To do this, Arcadis has assured data-led delivery processes which include Building Information Modelling (BIM), design automation, model-based systems engineering, immersive reality, as well as assurance and data analytics. They described how this approach provides early design clash detection, automation of repetitive design, early assessment of quantities and reporting that is consistent with reality.

Techtalks

Using data to improve project management was also the subject of a Techtalk presentation by Andy Willetts, senior mobility account manager for Bentley and Shervin Yousefzadeh, digital construction manager for the Transpennine Route Upgrade (TRU).  They described how TRU is using a network of digital tools, systems, and platforms to improve communication, collaboration, and productivity. For this, the project has a collaboration hub in which digital information can easily be visualised. For example, a 4D construction simulation of the complex 26-day Stalybridge blockade proved to be particularly beneficial.

The Techtalk delivered by Mick Corner, Alstom’s Field Operations Director and James Connolly, eviFile’s Head of Client Partnerships was entitled ‘Single view of the truth – real time digital dashboard across all signalling projects.’ They explained how the Cambridge re-signalling project was using eviFile for paperless real-time progress reporting. This has a digital process library for every signalling asset type and provides instant visibility across multiple projects in real time. As a result, there has been a 30% reduction in time taken for administrative tasks. Other benefits are not having to guess percentage project completion and a detailed view of the testing progress.

Smart electrical infrastructure at Barking station was the theme of the Techtalk by Patrick Dobson, Rail Segment Lead for Schneider Electric and c2c’s Paul Meenan.  As part of the £9 million restoration of Barking station, a new main LV switchboard was installed. This has many ‘smart’ features including wireless communication sensors to monitor power in real-time and thermal sensors. The panel design also enables new supplies to be installed without shutting down operations. Its remote monitoring by Schneider’s Ecostruxure Asset Advisor provides 24/7 monitoring with long-term operational insights that reduce capital and maintenance costs by optimising performance, for example by using data to reduce the number of circuits required for future such installations.

CEO and founder of Transmission Dynamics, Jarek Rosinksi, described how his company’s PANDAS V wireless OLE impact detection with synchronous video capture provides “Trains with Brains.” This provides instant identification, video record, and notification of the location of any abnormal pantograph acceleration due to, for example, a loose dropper or bird strike. This is triggered by a wireless signal from an accelerometer fixed to the pantograph. This weighs only 30 grammes and has a three-year battery life.

A Techtalk by Craig Williams of the Aluminium Lighting Company considered how column life depends on the varying environments to which they are exposed. Hence, the degree of corrosion of sample columns in each area needs to be assessed to determine the most efficient column replacement strategy. To do this an algorithm was developed to determine a column’s strength from the nature of its vibration in the wind.

Figure 4 – Differing strengths of lighting columns in each region.

Two Techtalks covered the use of AI to analyse forward-facing video. Milda Gircyte of Crosstech described how Hubble identifies and prioritises asset faults in this way whilst Emily Kent of One Big Circle explained how Automated Intelligent Video Review (AiVR) can similarly assess infrastructure condition. Both these systems are well used, impressive products which offer user-friendly mapped interfaces which can save many hours of time on site.

Spotlights

The two spotlight tours around the exhibition area offered exhibitors the opportunity to make a 10-minute presentation to the roving group of delegates. Companies who gave such spotlight talks were:

Complete Cyber which offers cybersecurity solutions, such as its OT Railway Vault product that uses a risk-based engine to prioritise vulnerability threats to railway infrastructure, to ensure compliance with the Network and Information Systems Regulations.

Phoenix Contact described its wide range of electrical connection products including splice boxes, marking systems, power supplies, DC/DC converters, relays, circuits breakers, and surge protection.

Camlin Rail, which has infrastructure mounted train monitoring systems. This includes TrainVue wayside inspection system and PanVue, an intelligent 3D pantograph monitoring system.

Telent’s MICA Station Management System consolidates communications, fire, security, and building management systems in a single operator-friendly interface that enables operators to efficiently manage their stations during both normal operations and disruption.

Route Reports has a seasonal intelligence platform which is being used by Network Rail and Porterbrook to aggregate track condition data to prioritise seasonal treatment strategies. To do so it collects data from various sources including time in section and wheelslide protection activations.

Park Signalling had its Digital Block Controller (DiBloC) on display. This is designed to communicate digitally through IP based systems to release tokens when a block is clear. Although designed for single line operations, it has potential for use elsewhere.

Comms Design was displaying its request-to-stop system to improve passenger and operator experience in the Far North Line in Scotland. Passengers wishing to board a train at a requested stop press a button which gives a notification of the requirement to stop on the driver’s Cab Display Radio.

Monirail’s speciality is an in-service train data analytics platform that uses an inertial measurement unit to provide continuous monitoring of track and train. Six of these units have been fitted to passenger trains in Scotland.

FUELACTIVE has a fuel pickup unit that uses a floating pickup pipe which draws clean fuel from the top 10% of the tank, offering 3-4% fuel savings.

Customer focused operations

The importance of innovation to improve the customer experience was considered by speakers from East West Rail (EWR), Transport for Wales (TfW), and Lumo trains.

From EWR, Company Head of Innovation Will Reddaway, Head of Inclusion Caroline Eglinton, Head of Customer Strategy Martin Phillips, and Head of Systems Andy Bagguley considered this subject. EWR will open between Oxford and Milton Keynes around 2025 and will probably be operated by diesel Class 196 units as the line is not being electrified as it is built.

It will be many years before it can offer a rail service between Oxford and Cambridge, but when it does, the line could become a strategic freight route. Yet this timescale provides a unique opportunity to innovate, particularly in respect of the customer experience and the needs of disabled passengers, and perhaps even electrify the line to give both its passenger and freight customers the performance offered by electric trains.

TfW’s Insight and Innovation Manager Michael Davies explained how TfW’s challenge statements concern customer experience, modal shift, and making best use of emerging technologies.

Innovations to meet these challenges are being supported by an Innovation Service Joint Venture which is a partnership between TfW, Keolis, and Amey. TfW is also working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, the Global Centre for Rail Excellence (GCRE), and the Train Operating Company Innovation Group. It also has a partnership with Alt Labs to support innovators in Wales developing their ideas to improve the customer experience.

Martijn Gilbert, managing director of open-access train operator Lumo explained how the company’s key innovation themes had enabled its trains to carry over a million passengers a year at an average ticket price of £37. These are: a new resourcing model; a one class ‘good standard’ offer; 100% digital business; embracing new technology; and a strong focus on its environmental impact. In respect of this last point, he feels that many customers decided to travel by train to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Martijn also considered that cheaper fares are possible on a high value, high volume basis. He also noted that Lumo’s offices are on the site of Robert Stevenson’s works which were founded 200 years ago. He feels his company is continuing Stevenson’s innovative ethos which offers lots of scope to improve rail’s offering.

Network Rail

Network Rail’s Research and Development portfolio is backed by a £357 million budget of which £113 million is invested by third parties. The company’s chief technology officer, Robert Ampormah noted that every £1 spent generates £2.50. He is keen to attract new experience into rail and accepted that, for Network Rail, the challenge is to be an efficient and dependable partner.

Robert stated that the company has four priority areas: i) make the railway cost-effective and financially sustainable; ii) to ensure safety and security; iii) to promote reliable performance; and iv) increased capacity and to improve sustainability. To support these areas, it has seven R&D priority themes for which innovations were on display in the Network Rail exhibition area:

  •                 Passenger Experience & Accessibility
  •                 Data and Digitalisation
  •                 Optimised & Resilient Assets
  •                 Automation
  •                 Traction Decarbonisation
  •                 Optimised & Resilient Operations
  •                 Environmental & Social sustainability
  •                 Freight Capability

Full details of Network Rail’s research, development, and innovation, including its current 120 projects, are available in the Project Explorer which is available at:

Figure 7 – Details of research projects available from Project Explorer.

Facilitating innovation

Much of the conference was concerned with helping SMEs get their innovative ideas to market. For example, Unipart consider themselves to be an improved performance partner and is working with 80 SMEs to promote their innovations. Thales also wishes to team up with third party suppliers and nurture talent in SMEs and start-ups. 

The Connected Places Catapult has 4,300 SMEs in its support network which aims to help businesses catapult innovations from proof of concept to commercial reality by offering advice and support. It also manages the DfT’s transport research and innovation grants which have provided £10.3 million funding to 294 projects. 

As reported in our Nov-Dec 2022 issue, the GCRE will provide a test facility with two test loops, one for rolling stock and one for infrastructure. The latter will subject new types of infrastructure to continuous running of heavy trains. One possible application could be the installation of recycled HS1 track to assess its future degradation. Professor Andy Doherty, GCRE’s chief technology officer, explained that, unlike the main line network, the GCRE facility offers a risk tolerant approach to testing and the ability to accelerate infrastructure approvals from, for example, 10 years to two years. Innovation is also being embedded in the GCRE’s construction for which 24 companies have been awarded funding for their proposals.

Figure 8 – GCRE’s test loops.

The UK Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) aims to provide a step-change in innovation through collaboration between industry and academia for which it has centres of excellence in digital system, rolling stock, and infrastructure. A UKRRIN Engagement Fellow, Achila Mazini explained how UKRRIN operates and gave examples of its innovations, whilst her colleague Holly Foss explained the educational opportunities that UKRRIN offers.

Ensuring availability of data to support innovation is the role of the Rail Data Marketplace (RDM) which launches in Autumn. The ‘Mining Data’ feature published in Rail Engineer 200 (Jan-Feb) explains how RDM will match data suppliers to data customers.

Successful rail innovations often use technologies developed in other sectors including defence, which has much to offer as shown by the presentation given by Matthew Chuter who is Ploughshare’s vice president of cross sector innovation. Ploughshare was formed in 2005 to turn defence innovation into real-life products. To date it has taken 140 technologies to market, generating £120 million gross value added.

Matthew explained that Ploughshare’s approach is to discover the best inventions, liberate those inventions with agility, and enable an ecosystem to scale up successful innovations. He feels that there were many great technologies that apply to both rail and defence such as drone-supported surveying, cyber security, protective materials, and AI-assisted CCTV monitoring.

And finally

Anit Chandarana, lead director at the Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT), gave the final presentation of the conference. He acknowledged that the last 12 months have been challenging politically, but stressed that recent statements showed how government is pushing hard for rail reform to go ahead with major involvement from the private sector. He hopes that the required legislation would be passed by this parliament.

He feels that the rail industry is currently too siloed, too slow, and too prescriptive, and stressed that Great British Railways intends to be a guiding mind, but not a centralised, controlling one. There is a need to focus on values and outcomes rather than prescription which drives the private sector away from innovation. Anit considers that there is a need to move away from complex Network Rail systems and that the supply chain needed a long-term vision. He sees that the train operating companies will have a large role in train procurement.

However, there are areas where he feels stronger direction is needed. For example, no one is in overall charge of timetabling which is still largely carried out using traditional methods.

He feels that, although UK rail has a proud history of innovation, the industry is not currently nurturing innovation. He said that the railway is poor at whole-system thinking, and it was frustrating to try to put new technology into an industry that is so fragmented with no one being accountable for making things happen at a whole-industry level.

RIA’s Chairman David Tonkin summarised the conference’s proceedings which he said “had heard some brilliant ideas and new ways of working.” He considered that rail is a great industry with huge opportunities. However, he cautioned that it is also too expensive and must push for cost reductions and a lower cost base.

Innovation is one way of reducing costs, though like many aspects of the railway it presents a daunting landscape, especially for those new to the industry. RIA’s innovation conference certainly helped clarify how those with new ideas can get support to take them to market. It also offered examples of successful innovations and provided a good mix of presentations, exhibitions, and networking.

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.

Next year’s conference will be held in Wales at the International Convention Centre in Newport on 26 and 27 March which are definitely dates for the diary.

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

SPECIALIST AREAS
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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