RIA Innovation Conference

March 2019


RIA’s award winning Innovation Conference returned for its eleventh year, taking place over 19 - 20 March at the Telford International Centre. Nearly 300 delegates attended over the two days, which contained a busy schedule of presentations, exhibitions, table sessions and networking. 

The 19 March began with a welcome from RIA Chief Executive Darren Caplan, who outlined RIA’s recent work on innovation, including the Unlocking Innovation Programme (see page 12). He also announced that this would be the last time the Innovation Conference was held in Spring, with a new date next year in the Summer.



The event saw more than 300 attendees over the two days

HS2, Network Rail & TfL

The two days saw speeches from key client organisations including by Mark Thurston, Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd and Andrew Haines, Chief Executive of Network Rail and Claire Porter, Head of Transport Systems Engineering at TfL. 

Thurston set out the scope for innovation on HS2, suggesting that the project was an opportunity for the rail industry to bring new techniques and technologies into the sector. He highlighted that the construction industry’s productivity lagged behind a number of other sectors, as well as the economy as a whole. 

Thurston spoke about the ways in which HS2 Ltd was seeking to promote innovations, including a dedicated innovation hub on the HS2 website, and through activities like hackathons. Raising the point that innovation can come from anywhere, Thurston recounted how at one hackathon, the camera crew who were filming the event actually came up with a solution themselves and started getting involved in the session.

In terms of practical applications, Thurston gave a number of case studies, including the use of autonomous construction vehicles, the recycling of heat generated by the rail system (recently proposed as a way of heating homes from HS2 in the Old Oak Common area), smart asset management and the application of digital railway. 

Andrew Haines was similarly emphatic about the need for change in the industry. He highlighted that Network Rail had to shift from an engineering company to a customer-facing business, highlighting that some past projects were great feats of engineering, but had not yet delivered benefits to rail passengers. 

He set out the changes Network Rail was making to its structure, including the further devolution to five regions and thirteen routes, and how Network Rail was becoming more accessible to rail suppliers, and open to new ideas. He also spoke about the need to decarbonise the rail network, using both electrification and emerging technologies like hydrogen and battery. 

Haines’ presentation was followed by Professor Andrew Doherty, Network Rail’s Chief Rail Technology Officer and Toufic Machnouk, Route Programme Director, as well as a number of presentations from the Network Rail R&D team. Doherty said that the use of innovation to improve the rail network was not new, quoting the reduction in rail breaks due to a suite of changes in track monitoring. Similarly, Machnouk gave an inspiring presentation on the need for leaders in rail to challenge conventional thinking. 

On the second day, the Conference heard from Claire Porter of Transport for London. She set out the Mayor’s key aims from his Transport Strategy and set out the role of the new TfL Engineering division, which cut across all modes of transport to help support TfL’s technical work. Porter highlighted past innovations like in the use of CAD modelling to deliver the Neasden Heavy Maintenance Facility, as well as the delivery of track on Crossrail. Porter said that TfL was looking to work with suppliers to innovate, mentioning the TfL Standards Challenge, a new initative with RIA to enable suppliers to question overly rigorous standards.



Mark Thurston, Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd, speaks to the Conference

M.A.D.E in Britain

A key theme throughout the Conference was M.A.D.E in Britain. Building on RIA’s Unlocking Innovation events, M.A.D.E stands for Materials, Automation, Data & Energy. Throughout the two days there were a number of workshops on the four themes, covering areas like the Government’s challenge to decarbonise the network by 2040, the role of cyber security in rail and the use of automated technologies in delivering projects. 

On the need for decarbonisation, Andy Mellors, Managing Director of South Western Railway and Chair of the IMechE’s Railway Division and Andrew Kluth, RSSB’s Lead Carbon Specialist, spoke on the need for rail to reduce carbon emissions over the coming years. Mellors said that the Government had set ambitious targets to operators to decarbonise their fleets, but that this had to be delivered whilst also giving passengers reliable, comfortable and affordable rail journeys - as highlighted by the priorities of passengers in Transport Focus’ National Rail Passenger Survey. 

Kluth, who had helped develop the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce’s interim report, published in March, spoke about the findings of the Taskforce, which showed that electrification remained the top of a hierarchy of options to decarbonise the network, with emerging technologies being used fo less investively used routes. 

UKRRIN and routes to market 

On the first day, Professor Clive Roberts of the University of Birmingham presented on the UK Rail Research & Innovation Network (UKRRIN), a £92 million partnership between industry and academia that is designed to provide a step-change in innovation in the sector and accelerate new technologies and products from research into market applications globally. 

Roberts set out the four Centres of Excellence (in digital, rolling stock, infrastructure and testing) and some of the ongoing projects being delivered. These include the University of Southampton’s work into track stiffness, the University of Huddersfields work on pantograph technology and the University of Birmingham’s collaboration with Porterbrook to develop a UK hydrogen train. 

Roberts also set out the benefits to industry organisations of getting involved in UKRRIN and in a panel discussion following his presentation, representatives from Siemens, Balfour Beatty and Unipart Rail all described the value they had found from being involved. Roberts said that there was now a process by which industry organisations could apply to join UKRRIN, which was live on the UKRRIN website. 

A dedicated UKRRIN hub in the exhibition of the Conference also showcased the value of the organisation. A poll at the end of Roberts’ session showed that attendees had a better awareness of what UKRRIN does, although there was still room for increasing the organisation’s presence to industry.

Learning from other industries 

As with past RIA Innovation Conferences, a number of presentations were focused on what the rail industry could learn from innovation in other sectors. This Conference was no different. 

Phillippa Oldham, Head of National Network Programmes at the Advanced Propulsion Centre, spoke about the similar challenge to decarbonise that the automotive industry was facing. She highlighted that different technologies for haulage and passenger vehicles would be needed, and that improvements in existing technologies offered a lot of opportunity in reducing emissions.

 Andrew Hawthorn of Altran UK spoke about their work with Rolls Royce in the aviation sector. In particular, he spoke about SECT-AIR, a new initiative to reduce software engineering costs, which - similar to UKRRIN - brought industry and academia together. He said that as software was becoming more advanced (and there was greater use of it in aeroplanes) that there was a need to ensure greater reliability of use. He said the consortium had been successful in delivering solutions in this area, thereby reducing costs, and would be expanding over the coming four years to cover issues in cybersecurity. 

Peter Kirk, Managing Director - Specialist Services, at Balfour Beatty, spoke about the advances in the construction industry. In a thought-leadership video, Kirk showcased what the construction site of the future could look like, with reduced human onsite activity, thereby increasing the safety of the site. This could be achieved by the uptake of drones and automated construction vehicles, the greater use of sensors to monitor activity and through virtual and augmented reality technology. 
The presentations showed that other industries were facing similar challenges and solutions that could be applied to rail



Delegates mingle in the exhibition area

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