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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Unlocking innovation online

Last year’s Leeds Digital Festival saw 25,000 attendees across 240 events with 750 speakers in 96 venues. The event was to be even bigger this year. With the COVID-19 lockdown this was not to be. However, the event was not cancelled. Instead, as befitting a digital event, it was transformed into a virtual festival with over 80 sessions.

This included the Railway Industry Association (RIA)’s Unlocking Innovation event “Digital journeys for rail passengers and freight”. Instead of a one-day event, this became five one-hour webinars during the week commencing 20 April. Each of these was hosted by Richard Jones, RIA’s senior technical and innovation manager, and had around 100 participants.

Richard Jones, third down, opens the webinars.

RIA’s Unlocking Innovation events have been run for ten years. They aim to inform suppliers about industry challenges and help them respond by encouraging collaboration with research centres such as the UK’s Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN). They also explain sources of funding available as well as offering SMEs the opportunity to pitch their ideas and capabilities.

This first on-line event generally did meet these objectives, although there was no exhibition or opportunity to network, as is normally the case. Since physical interaction is necessary for suppliers to build and maintain trust, it was felt that, in a post COVID world, there is unlikely to be a large-scale shift to video conferencing.

Richard pointed out that the aim is to refresh existing supply chains and attract new suppliers. For this reason, Monday’s seminar was for those new to the industry. The rest of the week’s programme was:

  • Tuesday – better journeys for passengers;
  • Wednesday – better freight services;
  • Thursday – Mobility as a service;
  • Friday – a better transport system for Leeds.

Each webinar started with keynote speakers presenting the challenges, followed by companies pitching their capabilities.

Monday – introducing the industry

Richard Jones made it clear that railways are not just a means of transport – they are a major industry, supporting 600,000 jobs and producing £36 billion gross value-added per year. He described the structure of the industry, explaining that relationships were primarily contractual with penalties for train delays. He felt that this could be a barrier to innovation and often resulted in a silo mentality.

However, over recent years, the railway is becoming ever-more digitised as assets, old and new, are being instrumented and monitored. There is also a huge conversion programme to digitise railway signalling and control it from a small number of operating centres. As a result, vast amounts of data are produced which must be managed effectively, though this can facilitate innovation as it can easily move between silos.

Karl Butler-Garnham, Network Rail’s research and development programme manager for future communications and train control, emphasised this point. He felt that the opportunities of the digital revolution had to be grasped to increase asset reliability and improve train performance. In this respect, Network Rail’s £357 million research and development programme offered unprecedented opportunities.

He advised that his team is working with hundreds of partners to deliver this programme and stressed that this is part of wider government industrial strategy. It also received European funding from the Shift2Rail programme, of which Network Rail is a member. He emphasised that Network Rail welcomed research pioneers and encouraged businesses to visit www.networkrail.co.uk/challenge-statements to understand what was required.

In the first ‘elevator pitch’, David Davey of Engineering Integration explained how his company could help those new to the railway navigate the industry’s processes and, if necessary, challenge them. Peter Hicks then described how his company had produced the Open Train Times website and could provide railway operational support for those new to the industry.

One such company is OneBigCircle, which specialises in intelligent video. Emily Kent described how her firm had developed Automated Intelligent Video Review (AIVR), which uses an in-cab Android device to capture video and machine learning to detect abnormalities. Following tests at the Quinton Rail Technology Centre test track, at Long Marston near Stratford-upon-Avon, and on Network Rail’s new measurement train, the company was awarded a vegetation-management contract by Transport for Wales.

Emily felt that Network Rail was looking for SMEs that have products with potential to meet its challenges and that Network Rail’s appointment of an SME champion had been extremely helpful.

Tuesday – passenger improvements

Understanding customers, so as to give them information they need, was the keynote address by Claire Cardosi, LNER’s head of digital decisioning. For her, providing personalised information is a priority. To achieve this, LNER Assistant was launched last year, which keeps passengers informed through either SMS texts, Facebook Messenger or the LNER Travel Buddy app.

However, as Claire explained, this is only available to the 23 per cent of LNER passengers who book tickets on the company’s website. She invited anyone with ideas of how to increase this engagement to contact her.

The Rail Research Data Platform (RRDP) was the subject of the presentation by Dr John Easton of the University of Birmingham. John is data lead for UKRRIN’s digital systems. Ten years ago, the McNulty rail value for money study had concluded that poor data systems inhibited rail’s ability to do business. Although much had been done since then, John felt that the vast amount of data generated by the industry could still be better exploited.

Network Rail’s R&D portfolio.

RRDP has been developed by UKRRIN as a cross industry platform for data-led research such as the prediction and mitigation of disruption. It contains data from UKRRIN partner organisations, such as train movements over five years, in a cloud-based platform. This can be used to trial machine learning and undertake whole-system analysis of large streaming datasets. As it is subject to governance requirements, to ensure that datasets are used as specified by providers, it can currently only be used by UKRRIN approved projects.

The day’s elevator pitches concerned practical applications of industry data. The first was from Liam Henderson of RailTimesApp, who had developed the WatchMyTrain app for Apple watches. Although this app is now available to the public free of charge, versions are being developed for front-line staff for whom handheld devices may not be suitable. The intention is to provide wearable technology that can provide information such as trains on which passengers require assistance.

Apple watch for platform staff.

Xingie Shen explained how his company, Transreport, was developing an app to assist rail passengers. Since 2018, it has been working with the Rail Delivery Group to develop an app supported by a new industry system to book passenger assistance, which is to be rolled out this year.

Replacing handwritten posters with lightweight, easily deployable technology displaying accurate consistent information was the subject of the pitch by Mark Bird of Blackboxco. To do this, the Blackbox company had considered how E-ink low-power displays had been used at London bus stops and developed a cloud-connected 32-inch E-Ink Totem for London Overground trains.

Wednesday – decomplexifying freight

So far, the webinars had been about digital innovation. However, Wednesday’s opening keynote showed how both hardware and digital innovation were needed to transform the freight business. The presentation by Gregory March, head of planning and resource for the Rail Operations Group, was a vision of future rail freight and described the high-speed logistics concept being developed by its sister company, Orion.

Although there is a clear need to shift freight from road to rail, this is not easy, as rail freight requires high volumes. It also works to tight financial margins and cannot justify capital investment without a guaranteed market. Nevertheless, Orion considers high-speed logistics to be a worthy investment.

The 20 per cent increase in road van use over the past ten years is an indication of the internet-driven increase in e-commerce. This could be a significant volume of rail traffic, even if rail captured only a small percentage. This is the rationale for the high-speed freight service that Orion is developing. To do so, it has ordered five Class 769 bi-mode trains from Porterbrook. These are redundant four-car class 319 units that have been fitted with diesel engines to augment their existing 25kV AC/750V DC electric capabilities.

Orion will also establish a network of passenger stations, terminals and ports for this high-speed service. This will be supported with digital logistics technologies that will provide state-of-the-art customer service, such as real-time tracking. Autonomous vehicles for first and last-mile services are also being considered.

Gregory also mentioned that the Rail Operations Group wishes to provide intermodal services at speeds comparable with passenger trains. So that they can be better accommodated on the network, a high-speed freight bogie is being developed. This is also one of the reasons for the procurement of Class 93 tri-mode locomotives.

Ten Stadler-built Class 93 electric/diesel/battery locomotive are expected to be delivered in 2022.

He also stressed the need for rail freight to be flexible to meet customer demands. Yet, in contrast to road operators who can instantly respond, it has to deal with time-consuming archaic paperwork-based systems for scheduling freight trains.

The answer to this problem was given by Professor Amar Ramudhin of the University of Hull’s Logistics Institute, which is part of UKRRIN. NR+ is the first digital platform which combines all the relevant information needed for freight train planning. The system was developed by the institute and was partly funded by the DfT and Innovate UK.

NR+ eliminates the need to find maximum tonnage and length for each segment by consulting load books, obtains route capability information from the sectional appendix, studies engineering access statements and completes forms to obtain dispensation for services exceeding published capability. Instead, interactive geospatial maps show possible freight train paths at a glance.

This significantly shortens the time required for freight train planning, reduces the training needed by new planners and minimises the likelihood of error. Professor Ramudhin acknowledged Network Rail’s excellent support in obtaining the required data and defining arrangements for updating NR+ as legacy systems are updated.

Yves Sterbak-Dicke of Protostellar, part of the Thales group, then described his company’s SmartRailPort system which offers a secure digital platform to manage the transfer and storage of containers at small rail terminals. This system provides terminal staff with a digital action list, enabling operators to provide a digital signature to record activities without leaving their cabs. It also calculates best loading and provides an estimated time of arrival.

Lucy Prior’s company 3Squared provides software solutions across the rail sector, such as RailSmart software tools that provide information to frontline staff and includes support for operational activities, training and competence management, operations and performance management. She considered that such tools were essential as they help reduce the weight of procedures and felt that developing such software was a massive opportunity for collaboration with industry partners.

NR+ includes interactive geospatial map.

The question and answer session noted the difficulties freight operators face, including exploiting actual capacity for freight operations. Yves Sterbak noted that freight forwarders see rail as a complex beast that they don’t want to touch as it is easier to use lorries, so he felt that the challenge is to “decomplexify rail freight”.

Thursday – Mobility as a Service

The subject of Thursday’s presentations was the use of cloud computing and mobile devices to facilitate seamless travel across differing public transport modes to provide Mobility as a Service (MaaS). The first was by Felicity Osborn, Network Rail’s programme manager for the €920 million European Shift2Rail initiative, which includes an innovation programme (IP4) for IT solutions for such multimodal travel.

The various IP4 projects are intended to improve customer experience and support Network Rail’s requirement to put passengers first by including mobility packages offering passengers smarter information and best-price travel. These projects require companies with expertise that includes demonstration planning, business analytics and systems integration.

Alex Weedon of Connected Places Catapult (CPC) explained how the Catapults accelerate the UK’s capability for innovation by helping companies commercialise innovation and stimulating engagement between businesses and research centres. CPC, formerly the Transport Systems Catapult, is keen to support SMEs. It does so by helping identify the need for innovation, assessing the best route for it and forming partnerships within its network of over 350 academics and 1,500 SMEs.

The Intelligent Mobility Accelerator is a partnership between CPC and Wayra (Telefonica’s open innovation hub) that, to date, has created 24 commercial pilots for participating start-ups, which have raised over £200 million in investment. He announced that CPC was about to launch a programme that will be focused on rail and advised delegates to look out for this announcement.

In his pitch, Sam Bussey of Instrumentel, part of Unipart group, advised that his company specialised in precision measurements in extreme environments and the analysis of data from such sensors, providing a condition-based maintenance regime. When integrated with the Unipart supply chain, this ensures parts are supplied when required without excessive inventory costs.

Rene Perkins of City MaaS described the mobility app that her company is creating for passengers with disabilities. This matches specific disability requirements to appropriate transportation, using artificial intelligence to evaluate the best options.

Alex Shapland Howes was concerned with the needs of those outside big cities where bus services can be poor and there are no Uber taxis. He felt that most MaaS initiatives were concerned with big cities and that there was a requirement for digital transport technologies in areas with poor public transport.

His company, Tandem, has a ridesharing app that turns local taxis into micro buses by finding people travelling in roughly the same direction at about the same time. Such individuals often require a guaranteed arrival time, for example to get a train. Hence the service is booked by specifying the required drop off time, whereas city models book by pick up time.

Tandem is currently operating in Wellingborough, where it has formed partnerships with recruitment agencies that struggled to place people in out of town industrial estates.

Friday – mass transit for Leeds

The last day’s webinar considered a future transport system for the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which comprises Bradford, Calderdale Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield local authorities and is part of the wider Leeds city region. Tom Gifford, head of West Yorkshire Mass Transit, noted that, although the region has the largest regional economy in the UK outside Greater London, it has no mass transit system. Hence, an efficient transport infrastructure is a key priority for the region. He felt this will require vehicles that carried between 200 and 300 passengers.

The lack of an urban transit system does, however, give the region the opportunity to learn from others. To do this, in August, the Authority issued a call for market testing to understand how the industry sees mass transit developing so that it can use the best available technologies. About 120 organisations responded to this call.

Proposed VLR vehicle for Coventry.

Tom advised that broad conclusions from this exercise were:

  • Autonomous operation – Feasible in a fully segregated environment and for depot operation but unlikely to be possible in a mixed traffic environment in the next decade. Segregation gives reliable journeys, unaffected by traffic congestion.
  • Propulsion – Strong differences of opinion on whether hydrogen was appropriate. Feasible to plan end-to-end system battery operation with rapid charging points instead of overhead wires.
  • Connectivity – Single digital platform with standardised interface required to share data with all transport modes and technologies. 5G provides an opportunity for the control centre to control all vehicles remotely.
  • Climate emergency and air quality – Many cities are investing in light rail to meet climate change commitments which may also require car traffic demand management.
  • Future-proofing – Build in data-driven asset maintenance, giving flexibility for future passenger demands. Design-in redundancy for changing operating conditions.

Tom advised that the next step was to develop a strategic outline business case for the development and delivery of a mass transit system for which there is government commitment through the West Yorkshire devolution deal.

A low-cost mass transit option was presented by Dr Nick Mallinson, programme manager of the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG). He pointed out that medium-sized cities cannot justify the capital costs of conventional tram systems, which are typically £40 million per kilometre.

For some time, WMG has been developing Very Light Rail (VLR) technologies, which provide lighter vehicles designed for low-cost manufacturing, do not require overhead electrification, have autonomous control and a novel factory-manufactured track.

In 2016, Coventry City Council asked WMG if a VLR system could be provided at a cost of around £10 million per kilometre. To meet this requirement, WMG designed an 11-metre-long vehicle, capable of carrying around 50 passengers, powered by batteries with a range of around 20 kilometres using rapid charging at the end of each route. These will be ‘autonomous ready’, so will eventually not require drivers.

Working with Ingerop Rendell, WMG is also developing a novel track form of modular construction that will be no more than 300mm deep to provide faster installation by minimising excavations and utility diversions. This track will be tested at the VLR national innovation centre in Dudley, which is currently under construction.

The plan is to component test the prototype vehicle by the end of 2020, install the track form at the Dudley test centre at the end of 2021 and then trial vehicle running. Over the next three years, Coventry City Council will prepare the Transport and Works Order with the intention of construction starting in 2024 and the first phase opening in 2025.

The need for autonomous trains was highlighted in the pitch by Adam Stead of Apollo, who advised that drivers cost £450,000 per train per year. Such systems would enable autonomous on-street operation of vehicles such as those being developed by WMG. Apollo is also developing an autonomous moving block signalling system which Swiss Federal Railways is considering for degraded operations.

Novel track form under development.

The final pitch of the day was from Mike Lloyd of Jnction, which uses digital technology to improve the experience of rail passengers. Clients include Northern Rail, Crossrail and London Overground. Jnction’s products include an app that provides front-line Crossrail station staff with the train-running information they require as well as a hidden disability journey planner for autistic people that minimises their stress minutes for easier end-to-end journeys on public transport.

Virtual food for thought

RIA’s unlocking innovation events always do exactly what they say. This virtual event was no exception. However, with no networking opportunities, such events are unlikely to be the norm in a post-COVID world. Although these webinars lacked the atmosphere of a physical event, they are a good way of learning about developments. The host, Richard Jones, did a good job of engaging with his unseen audience.

The webinars raised some interesting issues. Various presentations concerned smartphone apps and it was good to see some of these supporting passengers with disabilities. One speaker suggested that apps which scanned QR codes could replace expensive signage with personalised information. Yet not everyone has a smartphone, and the railway must not exclude those who are not digitally connected.

The ever-smaller percentage of fares paid by cash raises a similar issue, as cash collection can cost more than the amount received. For this reason, TfL no longer accept cash on buses. However, West Yorkshire’s Tom Gifford felt that inclusivity is important, so public transport should not discriminate against those without smartphones or who pay only in cash.

It will be interesting to see which technologies will be chosen for the proposed West Yorkshire mass transit system, which will no doubt bring great benefits to the region. Yet, as conventional trams are too expensive for smaller cities, WMG’s development of a lower-cost VLR system is a worthwhile initiative. However, it remains to be seen how VLR’s capacity will compare with the 10,000 people per hour that conventional trams can carry.

In big cities, the real purpose of Mobility as a Service is to encourage drivers out of their cars and onto good public transport systems. In contrast, there is a real need for smart digital transport technologies outside cities, to make the best use of available transport. Alex Shapland-Howes is right to suggest that more needs to be done in this respect.

The Rail Operations Group is investing in innovative rolling stock and digital technologies to drive the growth of its business. Yet it was clear that rail freight is inhibited by processes that restrict its agility. As Yves Sterbak noted, the challenge is to “decomplexify rail freight”. Perhaps Network Rail could usefully produce a challenge statement to define what needs to be done in this respect. The NR+ system, as described by Professor Ramudhin, is certainly one answer, as it removes the planning constraints of historic British Rail systems that have been used for so long.

As described above, the webinars provided much food for thought with some inspiring presentations. One key message was that there is no shortage of funds to assist companies to develop worthwhile ideas, especially if they already have a working product.

Rail Engineer looks forward to seeing how the ideas presented at these unlocking innovation webinars will be developed.


RIA’s next set of unlocking innovation webinars will take place during the week commencing 29 June. Open to all, they can be booked on the RIA website and will explore how the Digital Railway programme is evolving into ‘business as usual’ as the first rollout projects commence.


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