Building a bridge

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Jun/Jul 2012

Professor Simon Iwnicki and Anson Jack – co-chairs of the Rail Research United Kingdom Association (RRUKA) – spoke to RTM about bringing academia and industry together to provide solutions for the rail network.

RRUKA has grown from a small virtual group of universities aiming to link railrelated research and expertise to the industry into an organisation spanning around 40 universities, with secure funding for the future and a new approach that brings together those with problems to solve and those with innovative ideas and skills.

Simon Iwnicki and Anson Jack, co-chairs of the RRUKA, described how far the organisation has come and their focus for the future.

There are several ways in which the body works to link up rail and research, the co-chairs explained. A RRUKA representative sits on the industry’s Technical Strategy Leadership Group (TSLG), which meets regularly to consider and commission research, and there are multiple events organised to promote discussion of ideas and solutions to railway challenges.

Challenges and solutions

This is the “main plank” of RRUKA achievement: organising workshops to bring the two elements together via a bridge of facilitation.

Anson Jack, deputy chief executive of the RSSB and the founding industry co-chair of the RRUKA, explained: “We put universities and industry together in brainstorming mode, with the industry identifying a set of problems or challenges and the universities – with their brains, inspiration and innovation – thinking about what they’ve got or what they’re interested in, [which] could help to address the industry challenges.”

This covers all kinds of topics, from wheel/ rail technologies to developing a 24-7 railway. RRUKA will facilitate funding for a consortium of universities to undertake relevant research, which could lead to the development of new products or working practices.

He added: “The initial thing is about putting brains together with problems and coming out with solutions that both feed academic research capability whilst addressing industry challenges.”

Simon Iwnicki, co-chair for the academic side of the organisation, whose ‘day job’ is Professor of Railway Engineering at Huddersfield University, added: “There are some quite innovative and interesting projects that probably wouldn’t have gone ahead otherwise.”

These include the development of an active vibration sensor to protect sensitive elements of railway infrastructure by transforming an existing component into a sensor to monitor changing behaviour and potential failures, as well as examples that optimise maintenance processes and minimise the impact of maintenance.

The projects all have an industry mentor to steer researchers in the right direction and ensure they will be of practical use in solving real industry problems, Iwnicki said.

“We hope that the most promising of these will go forward and attract further major funding from within industry or government.”

Although this is the main format for developing solutions, RRUKA also sets up more general networking events, and events that are academic-led to demonstrate their current areas of research and the potential applications in the railway industry. In this scenario, the industry partners would then consider if there are any challenges which are waiting for this type of research.

The different approaches allow for a wide range of ideas and problems to be considered, providing a greater chance of finding solutions. The industry is facing a number of challenges at the moment, Iwnicki said: “There are high costs in bringing a new vehicle into the market – lots of barriers are putting costs in the way, and bringing some quite novel ideas from academia might work quite well in this case, so it’s moving towards the academic-led type of event, although it is focused on an industry problem.”

Unexpected sources

To get funding, RRUKA organises events to bring together as wide a range as possible of people working in different areas. RSSB puts up research funding for feasibility studies and applicants have to work together in consortia of at least two academic partners.

Membership of the association is open to any university, Jack continued, even those that do not have specific rail courses or research.

“The principle is, we just don’t know where the good ideas are, where the innovation might come from,” he said. “It may be that the solutions to some of the industry’s challenges will come from unexpected sources. That’s what we’re trying to enable here.”

Iwnicki agreed, saying: “The criterion for joining RRUKA now is not that universities have to have current activity in the railway area, but they have to be doing research which could be applied to railway problems. It opens us up to new people, new groups.”

The aims of this reach for new research even crosses overseas, with one of the RRUKA’s main targets being to identify relationships with overseas academic and industry research – perhaps promoting the RRUKA model abroad.

Jack said: “The spirit of this is finding out where there are solutions and I think the industry isn’t really proud about where it gets the answers from: it’s interested in the answers.

“Remarkably, we find that there are no examples of anything like RRUKA in other countries. We think it’s a model which other countries will be interested in, and by sharing with them we can get linkages and share knowledge.”

Future funding

Following the McNulty Review and subsequent DfT Command Paper emphasising the need to cut costs and focus on efficiency, is there still a place for the growth and development of research?

Iwnicki commented: “I think it’s a little bit early for us to tell: I’m sure that the results of the review will affect the type of research we carry out.”

But he added that research is not just about inventing new and expensive projects, and can often involve optimising current technologies and practice and helping to reduce cost.

Jack highlighted that money for university research is generally being constrained, but both Government and industry were taking more responsibility for research to benefit infrastructure like transport systems and that the Department for Transport has been able to protect the funding that RSSB uses to support RRUKA, and has indeed proposed to increase funding for innovation in the future.

He said: “The railway finds itself in, not a comfortable position, but infrastructure investment is something we’re hearing about every day on the news. It’s something which is recognised as a promoter of growth and something that involves investment in the future of the British economy. As a result, we are seeing that the Government is supportive of work that supports future investment in the railways.”

At the moment, RSSB funds around £10m of research each year: a level of investment which has been maintained for the past two or three years.

Jack continued: “However people are looking for cost savings – there are always things it is worthwhile investing in because you get a good return on them, and rail research is one of those areas.

“We can demonstrate that the money we spend will generate benefits in the future to the railways, to its customers and ultimately to the taxpayer, which far exceeds the money that the Government puts in.”

This has affected the way funding is distributed to researchers, with a much greater emphasis on strong business cases and demonstration that the research will lead to a tangible result.

“The industry has shown itself to be prepared to spend money on innovative research and in a way that’s partially replacing the previous research council funding. Of course railway companies want to see improvements in their business but they have realised that investing money in directions where you’re not sure you’re going to get a successful product can yield good results,” Jack said.

Research to railway

Regarding the future of RRUKA, Iwnicki described the plans to develop the events they run and continue to bring academia and industry partners together.

He said: “We’re probably at the early stages of acting more as a body that brings the academic partners together in terms of maximising the research that they can get involved in.”

“A concrete way we’re thinking of doing that is for RRUKA to coordinate large bids for key research projects and we’ll bring in the relevant academic partners whose expertise is required for those projects. Instead of acting as individual universities, RRUKA could put together a consortium of the right people and put in a successful bid for research funding.”

RSSB is also planning to directly fund capabilities in universities, to complement the significant investment made in this area by Network Rail, and to broaden out investment in research with more strategic partnerships.

The association will continue to be funded until at least 2019, the end of CP5, following a unanimous decision by the RSSB board. Jack concluded: “Everyone can see that this is an area that is only going to grow and it is going to be for the mutual benefit of the country’s universities, railways and its transport system.”

Anson Jack is the deputy chief executive of the RSSB. Simon Iwnicki is Professor of Railway Engineering at the University of Huddersfield.

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