‘We’ll go bankrupt as an industry without more R&D’

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Apr/May 2014

The ‘distinguished lecture’ at iRail always attracts top-notch speakers.
This year saw Network Rail chairman Richard Parry-Jones give a fascinating talk on technological innovation across road and rail, and what it means for the future of mobility.

Richard Parry-Jones has chaired Network Rail for nearly two years, but his background is in the automotive sector, having had very senior roles with Ford Motor Company globally over 38 years with the company.

This obviously gives him a different perspective on cars than is typical in the rail industry.

He has also brought with him a passionate belief in the power and necessity of research, and frequently argues that UK rail needs to radically raise its R&D spend.

In his distinguished lecture at iRail 2014, Parry-Jones began by acknowledging cars’ dominance worldwide, with roughly 90% of passenger kilometres, with rail’s share around 4-5%. He noted that the cost per passenger km for cars is lower than for trains or buses (more so on rural routes), though the overall price is similar due to subsidies and taxes. He called that “perfectly fair and correct” because of the costs automobiles impose on society and the environment (known as externalities).

He said historical predictions that digital communications would cut journeys have not come true, as they have been “more than offset” by a rise in journeys also prompted by digital communications. Once people connect with others digitally, they’re stimulated to meet and connect ‘offline’, he suggested.

Autonomous cars

He continued: “We’re on a journey to bandwidth and processing power being infinite and free. How would we design transport if that was the case?”

This led him to a discussion of autonomous cars. It was once assumed this would require massive infrastructure investment, but in fact modern cars are already fitted with extensive sensor systems, because of the safety agenda. “Humans are at the limit of what we can do to reduce accidents; it’s time for computers to take over,” he suggested. “This is not sci-fi, it’s happening. This is not a sudden revolution…it’s a 20-year journey, which started with anti-lock brakes 20 years ago.”

At level crossings, communication between cars and trains could make accidents impossible.

The car could “change its role in society”, he said, collecting shopping on its owner’s behalf, setting its own route, taking itself to be washed, refuelled, recharged or serviced. Parry-Jones foresees a world where cars are sold as services, not products, with a business model similar to mobile phones.

Autonomy could mean more efficient use of road capacity, with less ‘wasted space’. These lessons can surely be learnt on the railway, he said, allocating constrained capacity more efficiently through technology (as the Rail Technical Strategy and video promoting it make clear, this vision is alive and well).

Energy storage and distribution

Parry-Jones described the inherent difficulties in storing electricity. He said: “I don’t expect a revolution in battery technology any time soon.”

But other energy transmission and storage methods include synthesis, flywheel technology, and compressed gas, he said. More experimental technologies include induction pads for charging road or even light rail vehicles.

He discussed the belated but welcome drive for mass electrification, the “revolution” of in-cab signalling, and the rise in collaborative working.

He added: “As an industry we have one customer: the rail user. Everything we do has to be about them. We have a huge opportunity to use the power of technology to improve that service.”


But, he added, rail has “under-invested in R&D” and has “unsustainably low” spending on it. “We’ve made our pitch, and there’s been some acquiescence from the regulator and DfT. But we’ll go bankrupt as an industry without it.”

He said we need “a few big game-changers; not spreading money too thin across the whole spectrum”.

Matching technology development with demands is vital, he said – so the key things are passenger and workforce safety; performance; resilience; and cost-efficiency.

Remote monitoring of assets, network-wide CCTV, transponders embedded in PPE, mechatronics and new ballast technologies are all needed, he suggested.

He said rail is starting to understand the need to share R&D, a lesson already learnt in the hyper-competitive car market. “No one company can afford to speculate on potential solutions,” to some problems, Parry-Jones said, even if the rewards from being the first to develop it would be enormous.

He criticised the slow pace of the European standards process, saying that while the principle made sense, in practice “by the time agreement has been established, technology has moved on again”.

The zero subsidy railway

In response to a question on government involvement in rail research, Parry-Jones said: “The solution is in our own hands. Government has a large vote in what we do because of taxpayer subsidy.”

According to the ORR, “government subsidy towards the railway industry in 2012-13 was £5.1bn…£524m greater than the previous year”, but down from the £6.3bn peak in 2006-7.

Parry-Jones said that annual subsidy can be cut to £2bn by the end of CP5, and eliminated by the end of CP6 in 2024.

In 2012, however, Network Rail’s Paul Plummer said eliminating subsidies could mean a “substantial increase in fares”. In his answer, Parry-Jones suggested big fare rises are not an option, so cutting subsidy has to be done via radical cost efficiency, and new ways of raising revenue.

(Image: DB7 Photography & ByDesign Group)

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