Network Rail has a target to achieve £1.6 billion of efficiency savings through Research, Development & Innovation (RD&I) – the question is, how can the industry help to deliver it? By David Clarke

The railway industry has always had a rich history of pioneers who have transformed local communities, revolutionised the way we travel, and ultimately changed people’s lives. Now, Network Rail’s (NR) R&D portfolio is seeking to build on this legacy by collaborating with pioneering organisations and practitioners across the sector in an industry-wide effort to bring in a new technologically enabled railway era.

NR has a total RD&I budget of around £350 million, compromising both public and private sector funding, for Control Period 6 (April 2019 to March 2024). The goal of this investment is to achieve £1.6 billion in efficiency savings, which will require a singular and determined focus on getting technology deployed and delivering benefits. There are a range of opportunities available from this funding – particularly for the rail supply chain – and we should be enthusiastic about the opportunity to recast the sector as one of innovation, new technology and new ideas.

This level of RD&I funding is the largest the industry has seen for some years and will create opportunities for new collaborations and rail supply chains to form from existing railway suppliers and new entrants to the sector. These new collaborations should lead to growth in the industry and allow opportunities to develop skills and gain experience – delivering new products, services and capabilities to the industry.

What is being done?
As NR has called for an industry-wide effort, the question is, how do achieve their aim of £1.6 billion in efficiency savings? At the Railway Industry Association (RIA), our contribution is the Unlocking Innovation events, which aim to create a platform for large and small companies, academics and innovators to develop products that will drive innovation in the industry. The series is currently focused on four key technology areas – Materials, Automation, Data and Energy. Some examples that illustrate developments in these areas are:

  • The use of composite materials for railway infrastructure and rolling stock. Composite materials provide lighter, stronger and more durable solutions compared to traditional materials. Currently, composites are already being used in track and station infrastructure, as well as rolling stock manufacture, interior furniture and platform systems and have already had positive impacts on the industry. New developments in this field include the first ever composite rail bogie showcased at RIA’s most recent Unlocking Innovation event. And, in the spring of 2018, NR adopted a collaborative and interactive approach in developing a Standards Challenge process in partnership with RIA, allowing several key suppliers to deploy composite materials into the network.
  • Automating the inspection, monitoring and maintenance tasks on the network has the potential to drive down maintenance costs and remove workers from the railway altogether, thereby improving safety. NEMO, one of NR’s projects, is a rail robot who can find faults and undertake repairs. NR estimate NEMO has the potential to reduce the cost of railhead repairs by £100m over five years.
  • The railway generates vast amounts of data across the network every day. New digital tools that collect understand and present data have opened an array of possibilities to improve our railways. Everything from passenger facing tools, to rolling stock and station design, scheduling, disruption management, and track maintenance can benefit from the intelligent use of data.
  • Finally, energy systems – the UK rail industry is aiming to phase out all diesel-only rolling stock by 2040, and the Government has set a policy for the UK economy to be net carbon zero by 2050. In August 2019 a climate change charity 10:10, Community Energy South and Network Rail launched the Riding Sunbeams pilot project in Aldershot, to create the world’s first railway line to be directly powered by solar energy.

RD&I has the potential to revolutionise every facet of the rail industry. To be successful the industry and supply chain will need to find new ways to collaborate to solve the significant challenges facing the railway.

On 20 February RIA have partnered with Network Rail, the University of Southampton and the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) for the next Unlocking Innovation event, which will look at innovative rail infrastructure solutions. The event will provide a platform for collaboration between businesses and academics. The free-to-attend event will look at M.A.D.E in Infrastructure and will include an opportunity to tour the National Infrastructure Laboratory and pitch ideas. If you want to know more about these opportunities including the NR R,D&I programme it will be well worth attending!

David Clarke is Technical Director at the Railway Industry Association. To find out more about the event, see here:

To find out more about Network Rail’s RD&I Portfolio, see here: