Unlocking Innovation: Light Weight and Low Cost Railway - Day 5

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18 December 2020


In the final session of its Unlocking Innovation series on Light Rail, they welcomed leaders from Network Rail, the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) and the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO) to discuss how the supply chain can engage key sector challenges. 

First, the event heard from Network Rail’s Ian Ambrose, Technical Lead for Light Rail, and Alexander Dodds from their Light Rail Knowledge team. 

Ian began by covering some of the difficulties faced on the Sheffield tram/train line which Network Rail tackled by working with key partners, including working with IRR at Huddersfield to solve a wheel profile challenge and on Low Height Platforms. They also installed 750DC overhead lines for the first time and made it compatible with 25kV to meet the necessary traction power demands.

Alex then looked at how they can achieve best practice on light rail signalling, citing the Aarhus Letbane scheme in Denmark, which has created an interregional metro network using a hybrid signalling system. He also went on to cover the challenges around public interfaces, in particular mentioning an innovative level crossing system in the Isle of Man which could be transferred to light rail systems elsewhere in the UK. 

Critically, the pair issued a clear challenge to the industry to help address several challenges, including low cost hybrid signalling, the market for which seems to be limited, as well as low cost modular stations or tram stops which are DDA compliant. Trespass management is also a key issue for Network Rail – and they are now looking for modular designs for track fences, ‘eggboxes’ and other trespass management systems. 

Alex and Ian were clear that Network Rail welcome input from across the supply chain on any of these issues – and are happy to be ‘proved wrong’ if suppliers come up with a solution they haven’t thought of.

The next talk came from Alex Burrows, Director of the BCRRE and, as RIA’s event chair described, “the face of UKRRIN”. Alex gave a quick summary of the main aims of UKRRIN – namely to bring academia and industry together to help get innovations on to the market, emphasising that the Network is not just about R&D, but is also about implementation.

Alex called for industry members to come forward to engage and work closely with UKRRIN, and highlighted the potential for industry partners to collaborate with leading academic centres. Alex also touched on the successes they have already had, such as agreeing an R&D framework for CP6 with Network Rail, working with Porterbrook on the HydroFLEX train, and the West Midlands Railway Digital Twin.

He ended by urging industry members to approach their Centres of Excellence (as on the UKRRIN website), or approach RIA or RSSB who are key partners in UKRRIN - “please do come and get in touch!”

The event also heard from the BCIMO’s Naomi Arblaster and Richard Jones. Richard began by reiterating that regional transport bodies need off-the-shelf solutions. He then identified the six key markets which they want to develop to help address this – with three around branch lines: including Reopening old Beeching lines; New Branch Lines; and autonomous inspection and repair opportunities, especially given the funding provided by Shift2Rail. And the other three focus on Urban Environments: other small cities and towns (up to 20) across the UK like Coventry; new housing developments such as Leighton Buzzard as discussed earlier in the week; and lightweight freight to provide local distribution of parcels.

According to Richard, the BCIMO estimate that the combined value of these markets could be worth up to £5 billion. Naomi then highlighted the facilities which will be available at the Innovation Centre in Dudley for SMEs and their work to support Westfield Technology Group to develop their autonomous pod system. She concluded by urging small businesses at any stage of the innovation process to get in touch to join their SME community.

Howard Parkinson from Digital Rail, was next up to give a short elevator pitch on their 5G capable security systems for tram and light rail lines. He mentioned their RailLive 2019 demonstration of the technology, which he described as proven and certified for the network.

Brian Beck from Innovarail was the final presenter of the week, and discussed their work looking into the future of the world’s transport system. As a holding company of a large number of patents for autonomous pods and light rail technologies, Innovarail are looking for partners to bring cars, light and heavy rail together to create a truly multi-modal transport system.

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