Unlocking Innovation: Digital Journeys, Day 1

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20 April 2020

The Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) Unlocking Innovation series has gone virtual, with a series of five webinars being held over the week of 20 April. With the first webinar taking place on Monday, the discussion looked into what opportunities are being presented for new businesses looking to get into rail.

Britain’s rail network is at the moment benefitting from “unprecedented opportunities” for innovation with more than 100 beneficiary projects now underway from an overall investment pot of £357m.

That was the main message delivered by Network Rail’s Programme Manager for Research & Development, Karl Butler-Garnham, speaking in the opening session of RIA’s ‘Digital Journeys for Rail Passengers & Freight’ webinar series.

 Butler-Garnham said the £245m direct funding that is currently available from the Department for Transport and the regulator was “an incredible amount of money that we have really not had before in this space”. When this funding is combined with external funding of £112m, it adds up to £357m being available during the timespan known within the rail sector as Control Period 6 (CP6) – from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2024. 

He also said that 101 of 173 planned projects, which include the use of smart-sensor technologies and lasers to help rail maintenance, had kicked off in the just-completed first year of the current funding round.

He emphasised that the ‘portfolio horizon’ for projects was 20 years – “this isn’t about creating better, faster spanners or hammers, this is about material changes to the way we do things in the rail industry” – with overall goals including asset sustainability, safety and security. Network Rail has an R&D delivery team numbering 33 people “and growing”, he said, with partners including UKRRIN, Connected Places Catapult, InnovateUK and MTC.  

Butler-Garnham, who is also chair of the rail industry’s Data and Information System Interface Committee (DISIC), added that Network Rail is also a founding partner of the Shift2Rail European R&D initiative, which has an overall value of about €900m.

RIA’s Richard Jones, Senior Technical and Innovation Manager, chaired the event and emphasised the importance of Network Rail’s ‘Challenge Statements’, which are the foundation of NR’s investment strategy for Control Period 6. 

The online event, attended by more than 100 delegates, also saw three ‘elevator pitches’ delivered by SMEs with ongoing experience of facilitating or delivering innovation in the rail sector. 

David Davey described the project management and consultancy offering of his firm, Engineering Integration, and its experience in areas such as Very Light Rail.

Peter Hicks of Open Train Times described how his firm works with data on projects ranging from software development and APIs, to timetable verification and analysis.

Emily Kent outlined how her firm, OneBigCircle, which has a background in sports video, had made in-roads into rail. After trials including with NR’s New Measurement Train, OneBigCircle has recently secured a 12-month contract with Transport for Wales to fit smart cameras on trains to automatically record and analyse vegetation risks.

RIA’s Richard Jones closed the event by asking speakers whether and how they believe ridership will return after the Coronavirus lockdown. Peter Hicks suggested that commuting trends would likely change so season tickets would need to be more flexible but that leisure travel usage would likely prove robust. Emily Kent foresaw franchising models becoming “even more passenger-focused”. 

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