Creating a launch-pad for long-lasting rail innovation - part 2

David Clarke, Technical Director, Railway Industry Association | 2 July 2021

The past year has presented undeniable challenges to the rail industry: transporting essential workers and freight across the country, protecting passengers and staff from a novel virus, weathering a fall in traveller numbers, and planning for a short to mid-term future rooted in uncertainties. 

Yet through it all, we’ve seen a huge response to the crisis, with new innovations coming to the fore that will help lay the foundations for the future of UK rail. 

In this second blog on how the industry has stepped-up during this tumultuous period (read the first one here), I’ll be discussing the support its offered to certain members of society under threat, and its rapid pivoting of existing solutions to safely manage and optimise passenger travel. 

Partnerships to make a positive impact

As lockdown and quarantine measures came into force, reports of domestic abuse and family violence increased. What’s more, the charity Women’s Aid, which provides refuge spaces across the country, highlighted how women may be unable to reach them due to perpetrators often taking control of finances, leaving limited access to cash. Southeastern – championing an idea from Darren O'Brien, one of its station managers – had already set up a scheme partnering with Women’s Aid to ensure women fleeing domestic abuse have access to free train travel, and are able to travel at short notice without any unnecessary form filling or queuing up. The scheme was also being trialled on Great Western, but as the pandemic progressed in March 2020, it was clear that a national 'Rail to Refuge' scheme was required.

The scheme’s success was strengthened by additional promotion from the Rail Delivery Group. It developed a cross-channel strategy – incorporating social media, broadcast appearances and newspaper articles – to raise awareness of the initiative amongst domestic abuse survivors and encourage them to take up the offer of free rail travel as possible. At the last count, the scheme has helped 1,380 survivors and 450 children as of June 2021.

‘Rail to Refuge’ involved the coordination of over 70 member organisations and several charitable organisations working at speed. It demonstrates the power of rail to create effective, credible and timely impact; an example to inspire further action as the industry looks to truly support the communities it serves.

Finding new value in existing solutions

At the same time, the rail industry was responding to unprecedented changes; capacity was restricted to 15% passenger loads to ensure social distancing within trains. Yet again, the industry responded at pace – with just one example being the work of Siemens Mobility and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) on repurposing a solution already in development. 

Siemens Mobility’s digital team introduced and deployed its innovative Advanced Passenger Loading application. This uses data analytics and machine learning to build a clearer picture of how many people are on a train at any given time, using train loading data based on weight. The information is then immediately presented to train control teams, flagging early indicators of busier trains and the point at which safe social distancing becomes challenging. GTR could monitor passenger numbers boarding and disembarking trains at individual stations, and even predict passenger numbers on specific routes. 

Whilst social distancing will hopefully be a thing of the past soon, the long-term benefit of this technology is significant. The operator can review future timetables, schedule more effectively, add further carriages to trains and introduce additional services (where possible) based on accurate and detailed data: better coordinated and better resourced trains, for a better passenger experience.

Driving forward from the pandemic

The past year put a pause on how the public traditionally interacts with the railway. During this time, the industry has shown its innovation credentials; it’s demonstrated its commitment to digitisation and enhancing customer service, and proven the speed and agility with which it can react to seismic problems.

This wouldn’t be possible without collaboration across the industry and beyond. And with a long-term strategy from the Government now in place for UK rail, following the Williams Review, the industry can now focus on building a modern, digital railway; one that offers a consistent customer experience, enhanced performance and a positive impact to society.

We’re pleased to have individuals from the companies mentioned above in our Ambassadors of Change series, which spotlights those in the rail community who are driving innovation. 

To learn more about how you and your organisation could play a part in driving rail innovation post-pandemic, you are invited to attend the next Unlocking Innovation: Data Driven Maintenance webinar taking place on 6th and 7th July.


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