HomeBusinessThe Railway Industry Association's Innovation Conference

The Railway Industry Association’s Innovation Conference

Listen to this article

The Railway Industry Association (RIA) recently held its tenth innovation conference. As ever, this was an informative event with much useful guidance for those wishing to introduce rail innovations. This year’s theme – “technology alone is not enough” – reflected the view of those present that barriers to innovation need to be effectively addressed if rail is to compete with the increasing pace of change in other industries.

Over the years Rail Engineer has reported on several promising innovations that are being progressed at a glacial pace, if at all. These include the novel REPOINT switch (September 2015), DMU flywheel energy storage (July 2014) and active pantographs (June 2015). An instant electronic poll showed only one percent considered lack of ideas to be a problem. The main issues were considered procurement not supporting innovation (56 per cent) and client risk aversion (43 per cent).

Setting the scene

The conference was a mix of presentations, panel discussions, interactive workshop sessions and elevator pitches. In addition, over twenty companies had their innovative products on display in the exhibition areas. This year, more than 250 delegates from over a hundred organisations attended over two days, and as in previous conferences, several speakers from outside the rail industry gave particularly thought-provoking presentations.

RIA’s chief executive Darren Caplan set the scene when he opened the conference. He advised that, as part of it lobbying on behalf of the industry, RIA had commissioned a report by Oxford Economics on rail’s contribution to the UK economy. This shows that the sector supports 600,000 jobs and that every pound spent on the network generates £2.20 in associated industries.

Darren felt that Government understood this and that there was a satisfactory level of current funding, although its boom and bust nature had to be addressed. He also noted that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), defined by the EU as those with under 250 staff and a turnover under €50 million, which make up 60 per cent of RIA’s membership, were particularly vulnerable to swings in government policy.

One such swing was the recent electrification cutbacks, to which RIA’s response is its electrification cost challenge, the results of which are soon to be published.

David Clarke, RIA’s technical director, made the point that technology alone is not enough. Any development has to start with a customer requirement and consider the people who will have to operate the technology. He observed that innovation can also be about survival, as Kodak and Nokia found out to their cost. For this reason, the rail industry had to be aware of the potential impact of disruptive technologies.

Whilst rail has many strengths, David noted that it is an inflexible, high-cost industry that is slow to adopt new technology. Compared to other industries, it takes longer to develop a product from conception and, once developed, it might take years before the product is adopted.

As the conference poll had shown, one way of addressing this is intelligent procurement. David suggested that more use could be made of the innovation partnership procedure in the 2014 EU public contracts directive, which uses a negotiated and staged approach to invite suppliers to submit ideas to develop innovative products. Altran’s Ken Greenwood, in his presentation on the development and demonstration with Network Rail of the Compass Degraded Mode Signalling System, provided a worked example of this process.

In her presentation, Emma Head, HS2’s corporate health, safety, security and environment director, echoed the point about technology not being enough and stressed that people were at the heart of the innovation challenge. Her presentation described how innovation is embedded in HS2’s procurement strategy.

HS2 also has an innovation hub and holds its own hackathons. She reported that a recent hack had 150 participants. Its winners had innovations for smart infrastructure that used augmented virtual reality and enabled HS2 to be a good neighbour.

Making it happen

Professor Clive Roberts had a clear message – UKRRIN is open for business. Clive is the director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education. The UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) was established last July, when the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) agreed to its bid for £28 million to match the committed £64 million investment from 16 private companies. It is to prioritise rail innovation across the UK by developing new centres of excellence in collaboration with government, universities and organisations promoting economic development.

UKRRIN consists of innovation centres for digital systems, rolling stock and infrastructure as well as Network Rail’s testing facilities. There is also a coordination hub led by RSSB and involving RIA.

The digital system centre is at the University of Birmingham, where £16.4 million is being invested in a new 3,000 square metre building with state-of-the-art facilities for the development of solutions for operations and control, cybersecurity, data integration, smart monitoring and autonomous systems.

The University of Huddersfield is leading the rolling stock centre, supported by the Universities of Newcastle and Loughborough. Assisted by a £10 million investment, this will consider traction drivetrains, braking, structural integrity and crashworthiness, maintenance reliability and passenger interaction.

The infrastructure centre is based at the national infrastructure laboratory currently under construction at the University of Southampton and will use other facilities at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University and the Universities of Loughborough, Nottingham and Sheffield. £1.7 million is being invested to enhance these facilities.

Clive had no doubt that UKRRIN’s world-class centres of excellence would help new products and services get to market and could make the UK a global leader in rail innovation. He encouraged those with innovative ideas to engage with its centres.

The Rail Innovation and Testing Centres that form UKRRIN’s testing arm were described by Jon Shaw, Network Rail’s chief engineer. In his presentation on asset management innovation, which described the industry’s research and development programme, he described the challenge statements that Network Rail has produced to ensure potential innovators are aware of its priority areas. These include guidance on the research and development required.

In his very open presentation, Jon acknowledged the difficulties faced by suppliers that wished to introduce new ideas, one of which was product acceptance. In this respect, Jon advised that Network Rail was now processing seventy per cent of applications within forty days and that companies could now track their applications on its website. Jon also highlighted the soon-to-be-launched Network Rail standards challenge process, developed with help from RIA members.

Jon described how further guidance and support is provided by the Rail Technical Strategy (RTS) Capability Delivery Plan work package owners, many of whom gave elevator pitches at the conference and led table sessions to explain their work and seek ideas.

Outside the industry

The energy regulator Ofgem (the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets) rewards innovation in the energy sector by setting the revenues earned by the networks as a function of their outputs, performance against expectations and innovations. In addition, Ofgem has a £500 million Low Carbon Network fund to support distribution projects and awards up to £70 million per year from its Network Innovation Competition.

Peter Jones, ABB’s technology strategy manager explained why this means that, in effect, companies being rewarded for not spending money. He had no doubt that the regulatory system successfully encourages innovation in the electrical supply industry and noted that ABB globally believes that “the UK system is fantastic”.

He advised that the electricity distribution system is not designed for its current role, as large power stations are no longer being built, and instead has a number of small-scale inputs, many of which are from highly variable renewable energy supplies. Hence, the national electricity grid must be measured, monitored and controlled on a minute-by-minute basis.

Peter advised that, as a result, there is a need for smarter network development, energy storage, network management and control of the demand-side response. He described innovation projects such as digital substations, solid-state circuit breakers, power flow control and system inertia as examples of Ofgem-funded innovation projects to meet these requirements.

A ‘Winds of Change’ presentation concerning offshore wind power developments was given by Finbarr Dowling, Siemens customer service director for rolling stock. He explained the huge investments that Siemens had made to support its installation and maintenance of offshore wind turbines. This included a £160 million investment in Hull on a wind turbine facility, a new dock and part-funding a new university technical college, which together will create 1,100 jobs. Large sums have also been invested on specialist ships that enable 7MW 154-metre-diameter off-shore turbines to be erected within 24 hours.

Another development was the opening in 2014 of a remote diagnostic centre in Brande, Denmark, to monitor 7,500 Siemens turbines worldwide. This centre monitors 24 million turbine parameters to collect 200 Gigabytes of data each day and can fix 85 per cent of alarms remotely, significantly reducing the number of visits needed to offshore turbines and consequently the number of helicopters and ships required.

With these developments, Siemens has reduced its wind turbine generation cost from £200 MW/hr to £52 MW/hr over the past six years, making wind the cheapest form of utility-scale power generation.

Data and digital delivery

This reduction in the cost of offshore turbine generation highlights the benefits of acquiring useful information through smart data management or, as Finbarr put it, to move from big data to smart data.

With their many sensors and automated vehicle inspection, large amounts of data are now being collected from modern rail vehicles. In what he described as the industrialisation of data, the output from advanced data analytics using machine learning is analysed by experts who advise field-service experts of the action they need to take. This needs data scientists and technology experts in the data analytics teams, as well as experienced depot technicians using digital tools.

The result is the replacement of classical preventative maintenance and reactive repairs by data-driven predictive maintenance, offering guaranteed availability and 100 per cent reliability at lower cost.

However, Finbarr was clear that this could only happen through investment in people, by training and developing the existing workforce and attracting talent to the industry. To do this, Siemens has regular open days at its depots to make them open to everyone.

David Waboso, managing director of Network Rail’s digital railway programme, was also clear that people had to be at the heart of this programme if the workforce is to adopt new technologies and ways of working, especially as the digital railway does not respect the boundaries between track and train.

As Rail Engineer readers will know, the digital railway programme comprises of train separation (ETCS), train movement control (CDAS and ATO) and traffic management, all underpinned by a telecommunications network and smart infrastructure to improve performance.

This is needed to squeeze more from the existing infrastructure, which in many places is operating at capacity. David illustrated this problem with a graph that showed how, over the past nine years, the number of incidents has decreased from 27,000 to 19,000 whilst the delay per incident had increased from 27 to 37 minutes per incident, with secondary delays currently accounting for 70 per cent of the total.

The volume of signalling renewals required is currently around 1,500 signalling equivalent units (SEU) per year and will stay at this level until 2024, after which it will ramp up to 5,000 by 2028. As David explained, the cost of replacing this amount of signalling is unsustainable. Furthermore, there are not the signalling resources and engineering access to do it.

David’s presentation showed the programme’s 2018 milestones, which include Western traffic management going live in June and the Thameslink core carrying 20 trains per hour in October. Looking further into the future, he outlined the provisional integrated schedule up to 2029, when conventional signalling has to be replaced by digital.

He acknowledged that introducing such disruptive technology would be challenging and felt that delivering the digital railway needs innovative procurement and delivery. This will require early contractor involvement and outcome-based whole-of-life contracts that are aligned to the route and promoted cross-industry collaboration. Larger system contracts will also be required to facilitate risk taking and efficiency.

David’s message to take home was that successful digital delivery requires innovation in such soft issues as well as innovations in digital technology.

Getting interactive

It would be wrong to give the impression that attendance at RIA’s conference required delegates to just spend their time listening to presentations, fascinating though these were. There were also two 45-minute round-table discussions with RTS work package owners, as well as the opportunity to see what the conference exhibitors had on show.

There were also two one-hour interactive workshops with seven topics on offer: digital-ready signalling, identifying non-technical innovation enablers, digital engineer of the future, Shift2Rail supplier opportunities, unlocking innovation through procurement, the future of traction power and rail innovation – industry and academia.

This writer’s choice was digital-ready signalling and the future of traction power. The former was led by the digital railway programme’s head of technical policy and strategy Pat McFadden, who freely admitted that “we are all on a journey together”. In this spirit, he described how Network Rail’s specification NR/L2/SIG/11711 ‘Digital Railway-Ready Signalling’ had been developed as part of the programme’s early contractor involvement.

This specification ensures that future signalling works can be upgraded with minimum disruption and cost when digital railway signalling is introduced. It takes account of the likely timescale for digital railway implementation and addresses such issues as interlocking capacity, easy removal of signals (such as separating housings for signal modules and axle counters) and ease of alteration of train detection systems (making axle counters the preferred method).

Thus it delivers passive provision for the digital railway and is the signalling equivalent of specifying ETCS-ready cab equipment fitted to new trains.

Future power for trains was considered in a workshop led by David Clarke on Transport Minister Jo Johnson’s call to scrap diesel trains by 2040 to decarbonise the railway. This workshop looked at the technical, operational and environmental issues associated with fuel-saving and at traction improvements which included cost-effective electrification, hydrogen, batteries, lightweighting and improved diesels.

It gave those present a flavour of the work that RIA is doing on its electrification cost challenge, which will show how electrification costs can be reduced. It also showed there is scope to improve the efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of diesel engines by the use of alternative fuels, recovering braking energy, having donkey engines on freight locomotives and developing more efficient transmissions. However, this last suggestion provided a case study of a worthwhile innovation not being adopted.

Innovation not wanted – a case study

In the 1980s, over 2,500 Voith T211 hydrodynamic gearboxes were fitted to second-generation British DMUs such as the 15X units. These were much more reliable than gearboxes on first-generation units but at low speeds their fluid flywheels are not efficient. With fuel economy and CO2  emissions now much more important, Voith was keen to show how its latest transmissions could save fuel and so, as a trial, had its DIWARail hydro-mechanical gearboxes fitted to a two-car class 158 unit operated by Arriva Trains Wales, as reported by Rail Engineer in August 2016 (issue 142).

The trial showed the DIWARail gearboxes gave fuel savings of between 10 and 16 per cent and reduced CO2  emissions by up to 30 tonnes per car per year, as well as reducing gearbox maintenance costs by up to forty per cent. As a result, Voith estimates the DIWARail gearboxes would pay for themselves in about four years.

However, three years later, after almost completing the 500,000-mile overhaul cycle without a failure, there, as yet appears to be no demand for any further units to be fitted with DIWARail gearboxes. The original trial was to be for 50,000 miles.

Voith’s Dave Taylor has been involved with this trial from the start. He advised that this was done with strong collaboration from all stakeholders and involved six of his company’s divisions. He considers the DIWARail transmission to be an innovative product, and one which is fully proven. Dave is clearly frustrated that the significant amount of work put into this trial has so far come to naught, despite the obvious benefits. He feels that the industry is not culturally and commercially aligned to embrace and deliver innovation but stresses that this is not due to any one company.

The lack of demand for DIWARail transmissions after this successful trial would be a worthwhile case study for anyone wishing to understand the barriers to rail innovation and the disincentives that this presents to the supply chain.

Incentivising innovation

Is enough being done to stimulate rail innovation? The answer would seem to be no, as Dave Taylor’s view was certainly shared by many at the conference. RIA certainly can’t be faulted in this respect. By running its conference and associated Unlocking Innovation Workshops, RIA is doing much to support rail innovation. Moreover, the smooth running of such a complex conference was no mean feat.

Much good work is also being done within Network Rail, RSSB, UKRRIN and other organisations to support innovation, and it would be wrong to give the impression that the industry can’t innovate. In his presentation, Jon Shaw gave examples of successful innovations including surveying by drones, taking isolations by secure text message instead of padlocks and DIFCAM, which assesses asset condition by comparing digital images taken at different times to detect changes invisible to the eye. This was presented to the RIA innovation conference in 2013.

Panel discussions revealed further examples. A train Ethernet-backbone that was developed within four months to provide hi-definition CCTV images after a guard was attacked was one, another was a low-cost customer information system at unstaffed stations on the Cumbrian coast.

As the conference poll showed, there is no shortage of ideas for rail innovation. On some occasions, this can be done well, especially on a small scale with few organisational interfaces. However, the implementation of other innovations often stalls, especially those which, to quote David Waboso, do not respect the boundaries between track and train.

Some suggest that the industry structure is the problem, with fragmentation being an issue. Also, as mentioned in a conference panel discussion with train operating company representatives, franchises will not get a return on innovation investment unless it is introduced early in the franchise.

The challenge is to effectively incentivise innovation within the current structure to encourage collaboration between different companies and give franchises a return on innovations implemented at any time in the franchise.

In this respect there must be lessons to be learnt from the electricity supply industry where Ofgem’s regime provides the incentive to innovate. Perhaps the ORR could present their thoughts on this subject to RIA’s 2019 innovation conference.

Read more: Hyperloop: Prospects and Challenges


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.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.