Creating a launch-pad for long-lasting rail innovation: Part 1

Sam Bemment, Technical Manager, Railway Industry Association | 25 June 2021

For many organisations in the UK, the pandemic put the brakes on operations. Yet, rail was tasked with keeping Britain moving; ensuring essential workers could travel to their jobs and transporting freight across the country. It also fuelled the economy when other sectors were not able to, accounting for some 25% of all construction activity in the UK during the Spring 2020 lockdown, as Network Rail’s CEO Andrew Haines told a recent RIA event. 

The speed at which the pandemic developed caught many industries across the world off guard. For rail, Covid-19 forced the acceleration of new techniques to protect the wellbeing and safety of both staff and travellers. Critically, the industry’s successful response to the pandemic also demonstrates its innovation and agility credentials, debunking myths around rail being slow to change. 

In this blog post, I’ll be casting your minds back to early 2020 and exploring how the industry can build on the positive developments we’ve seen since then, as we set our sights on its future. 


The express route to new ideas

Taking charge when the pandemic hit, Network Rail’s Accelerated Innovation Programme (AI) - part of their Research and Development Portfolio - came to the fore to deliver new products into the hands of the network’s frontline staff as quickly as possible. 

This programme is about driving a seismic shift –a behavioural change in the delivery process of new products; cutting through red tape and getting products to the front line. In this new world, products are developed directly with end-users – such as frontline maintenance, engineering and operation teams – to understand what would and wouldn’t work, to get solutions developed and onboarded quicker and with more success. 

Kary Ho, Electrical Engineering Graduate at Network Rail, comments that “COVID 19 meant that resource availability was a major concern for us. With the agile approach, we could work around and refocus what we are able to deliver every two weeks during sprint planning to mitigate any blockers.” 

Indeed, protecting the safety of its essential worker staff was of course critical for Network Rail. And through the AI Programme, it could draw on its network of partners to fast-track the roll out of thermal cameras across its offices. 

Under immense time pressure, it partnered with Thales to trial a new thermal detection solution, which combined highly sensitive thermal imaging cameras with calibration and monitoring equipment to detect whether staff had high temperatures. The technology gives an accurate indication of an individual’s body temperature to within +/- 0.3 °C, so that staff at critical sites can identify anyone potentially carrying the Covid-19 virus. This, in turn, minimised the risk of the virus being spread, at over 100 of Network Rail’s locations. 

When previously such an endeavour would take months to launch, the roll out of the cameras took a matter of weeks. This was testament to the collaborative approach from Thales, Network Rail and both staff and trade union representatives to ensure there was buy-in across all stakeholders involved and bottlenecks could be avoided.

What it means for the industry

Within a 12-month period over 80 individual ideas were received from the frontline maintenance, engineering and operation teams and 30+ projects were rapidly prioritised to accelerate value. This is a framework that encourages an agile mindset and new, collaborative ways of working, ensuring the industry can continue to react to changes in circumstances quickly and effectively. Network Rail's Accelerated Innovation Programme is focused on 'realising benefits quicker', with this work being a key example.

The pandemic has shown us that the industry – and its supplier community – is innovative in even the toughest of environments. That’s not just regarding technology, but people and processes as well. It’s ability to drive real change, quickly, during the pandemic has reinforced that, as passengers return, the network – which touches almost every part of the country – can continue its innovation streak and be a driving force behind the UK’s recovery.

To learn more about the role you and your organisation can play in driving innovation in rail, attend the next Unlocking Innovation: Data driven Maintenance event on 6-7 July 2021. 

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