Supporting a network of centres of excellence

Source: RTM Aug/Sep 16

David Clarke, Railway Industry Association technical director, discusses the progress made to create a network of ‘Centres of Excellence’.

It is sometimes said that the UK rail industry is not sufficiently open to new ideas and technology. This is perhaps unfair given the way the industry has responded to the unprecedented growth in demand of recent years. However, suppliers can find it difficult to develop and demonstrate their new products on the railway and clients can be reluctant for their project to be the testbed for novel technology. 

So what can be done to help de-risk the development and introduction of new technology to improve the railway for the mutual benefit of customers, clients and suppliers? I believe at least part of the solution is the initiative being led by the Rail Supply Group (RSG) to create a UK Rail Research and Innovation Network.  

But first a reminder of what RSG is. The RSG was formed to bring together the UK’s rail supply chain with government and to develop a strategy for an industry which has both unprecedented opportunity, with a domestic work pipeline of £88bn and an international market of £128bn per annum, but also major challenges such as skills and capability gaps. The UK rail supply chain is a major economic contributor employing over 120,000 people, many of whom are highly-skilled, and delivering over £7bn of activity annually. RSG and its strategy is supported by both the DfT and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. 

The RSG strategy ‘Fast Track to the Future’, published in February, puts rail on a par with other sectors such as automotive and aerospace, whose own strategies have delivered significant successes in protecting and growing their industries. The objective of the RSG strategy is to increase the rail sector’s manufacturing and innovation capability to enhance productivity, skills and employment to support UK economic growth. Specifically it commits to: 

  • A strategic approach to procurement and planning
  • A clear plan to drive world-class UK technologies
  • A coherent skills plan to attract the best talent and increase productivity
  • A comprehensive package of support for SMEs
  • A co-ordinated approach to increase exports and inward investment 

Centres of Excellence 

To support these objectives the strategy committed to accelerating the uptake of technological innovation by collaborating with universities to create a network of ‘Centres of Excellence’ supporting the technologies where the UK is, or can be, world-class. 

So what does this actually mean and what progress is being made? The plan is to bring together the leading rail research universities and the existing test and trialing facilities, including Network Rail’s Rail Innovation and Development Centres, to create a network which will be open to all suppliers. These existing facilities will be enhanced by creating at least two new technology innovation centres to open in 2020, focusing on digital rail systems and rolling stock systems respectively. The network will also include existing infrastructure research facilities to create a ‘cluster’ to support rail infrastructure developments. There will also be a ‘hub’ to co-ordinate the network and provide a single point of contact and advice for users. 

Network Fig.1 edit

The proposed UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (Image courtesy of RRUKA)

Not about fundamental research 

Although university expertise is the foundation of the concept, the network is not about fundamental research. The centres will provide facilities and expertise which will help suppliers turn ideas into marketable products. The network will, for example, provide systems integration and testing and validation facilities to de-risk technical development and speed up product acceptance. As in other sectors, mechanisms will be in place to protect intellectual property and commercial confidentiality. Also, learning from other sectors, the network will adopt a recently agreed and consistent approach to describing readiness levels including for technology, integration and manufacturing (TRL, IRL and MRL). This approach will ensure that there is a clear understanding where a particular project is on its journey from concept to implementation and commercialisation. 

The vision is that the innovation network will provide rail suppliers of all sizes with access to world-class innovation facilities and expertise to help develop, prove, prototype, trial and scale up the next generation of products, processes and services at reduced risk. It will be an environment where companies can choose to collaborate to share risk or to use the facilities and expertise confidentially. Unlike most other high technology sectors, the railway ‘factory’ is often in ‘possessions’, in the middle of the night and in any weather. The network will therefore support design, development and demonstration of the products, tools and processes for safe and efficient installation, system integration and commissioning whilst maximising ‘off-site’ content. 

The network will be a ‘home’ for nationally important test rigs and facilities, representative examples of real railway systems perhaps including test trains, a curated set of data, models and simulations to create a capability to support the whole process of digital design, visualisation and simulation, ‘hardware in the loop’ testing, and full-scale physical testing, all at component, sub system and whole system level. 

The network will also complement skills and training initiatives such as the NTAR (National Training Academy for Rail) and National College for High Speed Rail by providing rail-focused post-graduate and executive education and two-way secondment opportunities. 

Good progress is being made towards defining and making the case for the network. The RSG is in the process of selecting the locations and securing the funds for the new centres. As is the case in other sectors it is expected that, when in operation, the Network will be substantially funded by its users undertaking projects. 

Hugely important initiative 

As part of securing the initial investment to create the network, RSG has supported a group of universities led by the University of Birmingham to bid for £40m initial funding. The rail expression of interest, which was submitted in April, has been successful in competition with other sectors and is one of the proposals selected to make a full bid in December 2016. For it to be successful, this bid will require strong support and commitment from the supply chain and engagement will be needed to ensure the network has the capabilities that are needed by suppliers. 

This is a hugely important initiative as it provides open access R&D infrastructure to the benefit of the whole railway system and will help UK-based suppliers, large and small, protect and grow their market position.

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