This month, patent attorney ROSIE HARDY discusses some of the complexities of patenting and protecting GEC’s new multi-level rail management system –

The rail industry adheres to the mantra to ‘innovate’. Innovate to increase capacity. Innovate to improve customer experience. Innovate to reduce carbon emissions and costs.

There are many organisations helping to drive forward this innovation. For example, in the October edition of Railway Strategies magazine we heard how the Future Railway Programme is working to find innovative solutions to certain challenges which exist in the industry and deliver a railway of the future.

Due to the complexity and variety of problems in a railway network travel, there has been a recent focus on developing more efficient rail management systems. One particular system has been designed by General Electric Company (GEC) to optimise railway operations using a multi-level, system-wide approach. This technology is able to consider the interrelationships and impacts of multiple levels to optimise the overall railway system.

The GEC multi-level rail management system
As might be expected, GEC has strategically protected the multi-level system using patents. The family of patents around the world includes granted European Patent 1697196. From this patent document, we find the multi-level optimisation system includes processors to share data between different levels. This data may relate to the unique operating characteristics, constraints and parameters of a railroad infrastructure level, railway track network level, individual train level, consist level and individual locomotive level. The levels cooperate by interchanging data so that the performance of each level is optimised whilst taking account of the others. As a result, the overall operation of the railway system is improved. The patent document also highlights numerous benefits, including how the multi-level system can optimise fuel consumption and the subsequent cost and carbon savings.

Given its commercial importance, GEC has also filed other patent applications to seek patent protection for other aspects of the multi-level optimisation system.

The importance of securing innovation
The innovation process involves three key steps; invent, protect and commercialise. Patent protection is essential to the innovation process because it interconnects the inventing and commercialising steps. It allows businesses to ring-fence an invention for up to 20 years. With its patent protection, GEC is able to control the multi-level optimisation system to build a market and restrict its competitors.

Failing to obtain patent protection by jumping directly from the inventing step to the commercialising step will mean an invention is unsecured. GEC understands that without safeguarding its intellectual property, a competitor will have the freedom to copy its multi-level optimisation system. This would ultimately compromise the commercialising step for GEC and allow competitors to unfairly profit from its innovation.

Innovation need not be revolutionary or reserved for certain sized innovators. Routine problem solving with step-change improvements is also valid innovation that can be harnessed by the industry. The three-step innovation process of inventing, protecting and commercialising is applicable to all innovation and has a business enhancing effect. More rail companies could benefit by using savvy patent protection to make their problem solving more commercially viable.
Rosie Hardy










Rosie Hardy is a patent attorney at leading intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers