Technical innovation should propel a ‘giant leap’ forward

The operator's perspective on innovation

Opening the day, West Coast Partnership Development's Caroline Donaldson presented on the work they are doing to encourage innovation in high speed rail in the UK.  

Caroline was very clear about what the opportunities to put passenger experience truly at the heart of what the industry does, focusing on comfort, hygiene and 'at seat' services.  

On HS2, the rolling stock, currently being procured, offers huge opportunities to transform the passenger experience. Caroline highlighted the benefit they are getting from the lessons from other projects illustrating this with the example of Thameslink successfully pioneering 'ATO over ETCS' for train control.

She explained the railway needs a "continuous improvement" mindset - HS2 will be with us for decades and passenger needs will change over time, so their aim is to work with suppliers “who are proactive, flexible and grow with us”.Caroline issued a clear call to arms to the supply chain, telling businesses to get in touch if there are any of these areas where they can contribute. To close, our host LJ Rich asked what Caroline was most excited about in innovation. She responded: technology to inform passengers and to help them feel confident and calm in their experience, using technologies such as predicative AI and seat positioning. 

The Three 'C's...

Following swiftly on, we welcomed Network Rail's Chief Technology Officer Robert Ampomah. Setting the scene, Robert addressed the various challenges that rail will face in the coming years, including around overcrowding, climate change, the need for adaptation and resilience. 

On the climate he stressed the increasing threat from extreme weather and the ambitious Government target to cut carbon by 78% by 2035.

Robert was clear that, as an industry, we are still doing some archaic things – manual train coupling, manual inspections and maintenance. There is a real need to shift to automatic train coupling and “get ourselves out of the dark ages through mechanisation." "And that opportunity is now” he claimed.

Network Rail estimate that through their R&D investment, they have reaped c.£300million in benefits for the railway network, citing examples of projects going on ahead of CP7, such as T190+, data sandbox and fibre sensing, automated repair, cost-efficient electrification and earthworks stabilisation. 

And to wrap up, we heard Robert's 'Three Cs' for what rail innovation should be:  

  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Cost reduction

We love Robert's 'Three Cs' for innovation... almost as much as we like... 

...Andrew Haines' 'Three Ss'

Rounding out the morning's keynote sessions was Network Rail Chief Executive Andrew Haines OBE, who gave a very open and honest live interview with RIA Technical Director David Clarke.  

Andrew began by thanking the industry for its "outstanding achievements" and collaboration over the last year. He also added that Network Rail is ahead on renewals for CP6 despite the pandemic.  

David then asked Andrew what he imagines the railway of the future will look like. Andrew gave the next mnemonic of the day - his three S's: Safe, Simple, and Sustainable.

On safety, he said passengers often take it for granted which is good. But as an industry we had to remain vigilant - the tragic single passenger casualty at Carmont could have been more if not for Covid. On simplicity, he is very positive about what the Williams Rail Review is doing and awaits the report.

On the need for simplicity, Haines observed that the lack of R&D funding and over fragmentation of the industry has acted as barriers to innovation. And on sustainability, he stressed that climate change is today’s problem, not something happening tomorrow. As Carmont showed: "We have water management systems that are not ready for the level of rainfall today."

We also need to demonstrate to the Treasury why they should invest in rail. To do so, the Government needs to be able to rely on us to deliver at a price you can commit to, he added.

On net zero, he said the argument needs to be that even though rail is low carbon already we shouldn't wait for deadlines – decarbonisation is cheaper, more affordable and effective if you start now.  

From RIA's perspective, it was great to hear Haines recognise the importance of visibility of upcoming work for suppliers, as well as the work to decarbonise - mentioning that the first contract for TransPennine Route Upgrade electrification came in just under budget.  

Procurement and diversity are innovation challenges 

Procurement challenges and workforce diversity were among a broad range of topics addressed during the ‘Innovation for Economic Growth’ session. A six-strong panel tackled the opportunities and obstacles for innovation in the sector as it looks to help the country to ‘build back better’.   
Elspeth Finch MBE, Chief Executive and Founder of IAND, kicked things off, citing numerous ways that the UK government is seeking to encourage innovation. But government procurement remains complex, she said, and innovation is not easy, nor is ‘scaling up’. Specific issues include the tendency of venture capital to be invested disproportionately in ‘white, middle-class’ entrepreneurs, she said.

The establishment of a rail ‘cluster builder’ to appeal to businesses looking to diversify into or grow their presence in Scotland’s rail sector was described by Paul Sheerin, Chief Executive of Scottish Engineering. The Executive Chair of Industry Wales, James Davies, also emphasised the importance of supply-chains being ‘deep’ and cross-sectoral.

Thales' Rhianne Evans summarised recommendations made in a Northern Rail Industry Leaders (NRIL) publication, ‘Transforming Rail in the North through Innovation’ (which she co-authored and was published in February). These included embedding procurement and contracting approaches that support and drive innovation in Transport for the North.  

Deputy Chair of RIA’s SME Group, Lucy Prior MBE, who is Business Engagement Director for Sheffield-based 3Squared, raised the point that SMEs are very diverse in respect of the activity they undertake. She later said that challenges include ensuring “trickle down” of the Rail Technical Strategy.  

Mark Chapman, Head of Trade Team and Europe North Lead for Infrastructure at the Department for International Trade (DIT), also joined the session. Chapman, who is based in Denmark, outlined government initiatives and campaigns that seek to help and showcase UK businesses and expertise overseas, emphasising areas such as ‘clean growth’ and tech fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber-security.

In the Q+A both Sheerin, Prior and Evans picked up on the importance of diversity, while the former emphasised the importance of “collaborating from the start” of new initiatives, whether that be with academia or other companies – a point also made by Finch. 

Prior urged people to “network and let people know” about what they do and their product, as well as to “keep listening” in order to “keep innovating”. 

Technical innovation should propel a ‘giant leap’ forward

The challenge of getting passengers back onto trains – and how to make rail people’s preferred mode of transport after the pandemic – was the focus of a keynote address given by Martin Ertl, Vice-President Innovation and Portfolio Management at Knorr-Bremse. 

“Going forward in rail we must use our technical know-how to develop solutions that are passenger-focused and which drive recovery and growth,” he told the audience.

Describing ‘digital’ as a buzzword, he said that ‘smart’ products and services, for example with ticketing, offered great opportunities for innovators but passenger benefits need to be clearly and reliably delivered. 

He emphasised that safety - as always in rail - is of paramount importance but that ‘intelligence-driven maintenance’ must become ‘the standard’ for delivering a target of ‘zero’ disruption to services.

There is also, he said, room for improvement in respect of environmental impact. “Rail may have a head-start here as it’s already recognised as a ‘green’ way to travel,” he said. But he added that more could be done to improve the sustainability of often under-used off-peak trains. 

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