UKRRIN and South Wales testing facility among highlights on Day Three 

The UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) ‘Innovation Hub’ in Doncaster and Global Centre of Rail Excellence in South Wales were among the exciting major projects discussed during the opening session of Day Three (Friday 30 April) of the RIA Innovation Conference 2021.

Entitled ‘UK Innovation Capability’, the session kicked off with perspectives from Amanda Mackie, Head of Rail Test & Development at Network Rail, and academic members of UKRRIN, which launched three years ago to drive academia-industry collaboration and accelerate new technologies from research into market applications globally.

Professor Simon Iwnicki, Director of the Institute of Railway Research at the University of Huddersfield, described the universities involved in UKRRIN as now working significantly more closely with industry. In doing so, research is more “tailored and focused”, he said.

William Powrie, Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Southampton, said it was proving “really exiting” for academics and students to work more closely with the corporate world, “especially the younger generation”. His team have been involved with real-world projects such as the Great Western electrification, with theoretical analysis and field-tests having led to new Network Rail codes and standards for pile foundations for electrification. 

Clive Roberts, Professor of Railway Systems and Director of Railway Research at the University of Birmingham, said his team was developing a “virtual version” of HS2 so that everything could be tested in laboratory settings. He also highlighted work with Porterbrook on hydrogen-powered trains that, he said, that had influenced policy. There is also an international footprint to some UKRRIN’s activity, Roberts later added, citing projects in India, China and Singapore. 

Network Rail’s Mackie spoke of her excitement at the potential for the Doncaster hub, which is set to open in September, and also the South Wales project – a pioneering rail-testing facility. 

The South Yorkshire location is “already taking calls” from organisations keen to get involved, said Professor Stephen Ingleton, Engineering Director of Unipart Rail. “It’s about bringing industry towards academia and academia towards industry,” he explained. “We want to attract all the technology in rail that’s going on to one location – reflecting its name as a hub.”

An update on the Welsh project was provided by Arthur Emyr, the Welsh Government’s Major Project Lead for Economy and Infrastructure. A new GCRE (Global Centre of Rail Excellence) company is being established and by mid-June should have a ‘fully consented’ site, with major earthworks due to get underway in the summer. Emyr reported strong interest in the project, “UK-wide, Europe-wide and globally”.

Also on an international note, Ingleton described the UK as being in a strong position to “lead other parts of the world in rail research and innovation and technology again”, saying that the UKRRIN brand had already gained resonance overseas, for example in Australia.

Richard Jones, Business & Partnerships Manager at the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO), discussed the development of the Very Light Rail (VLR) national innovation centre in Dudley. The broader project, initially focused on delivering a light-rail system in Coventry, aims to support the manufacture and uptake of lower-cost VLR solutions across the UK. 

“We are working on building the market and the supply chain,” Jones said, adding that potentially 40 UK cities “would really love a system” like Coventry’s. BCIMO is, he said, “talking to many of them already”, as well as receiving international interest.

A presentation on ‘The Human Elements of Innovation’ from Irina Parsina from Microsoft Teams’ Engineering, Customer & Partner Team brought the morning session to a close. 

Parsina examined ‘softer’ elements of innovation, pointing out that change does not always come easily and looking at humans’ natural tendency towards risk-aversion, as well as issues such as sunk-cost bias. 

“We really need to get better at asking questions,” she said. “Let good questions guide your quest for innovation.”

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