Rail Industry Focus


Changing the conservative approach to rail innovation

Source: RTM Apr/May 16

As the UK rail industry starts its journey towards enabling the Digital Railway, supply chain leaders discuss the need for a change of approach to unlocking innovation. David Stevenson reports.

Accelerating the uptake of innovation in the rail industry was a key pillar in the Rail Supply Group’s (RSG’s) recent ‘Fast Track to the Future’ strategy, but it will take new collaborative ways of working to deliver real change as we move towards a Digital Railway, RTM has been told. 

During the Supply Chain Engagement Platform session at Infrarail, facilitated by RTM, Iain Roche, the recently appointed head of innovation at HS2, criticised how “mind-numbingly” complicated it is to foster innovation in the industry. 

“When I’ve come in I’ve tried to understand technology strategies, tried to understand what the rail industry is doing, understand the funding cycles, and understand where funding is available in the UK and Europe, and I am starting to get a view on that now,” said Roche, who came to HS2 from Rolls-Royce. 

“But it is mind-numbingly complicated, and that is coming from someone who can indulge themselves in it.” 

He added that he was pleased with the RSG’s strategy which is trying to remove some of the barriers to make it easier for industry partners to work collaboratively and bring innovation forward.

Long-term relationships 

Martin Buck, transition and strategy director at Crossrail, added that, historically, the “transactional and one-off” nature of rail projects has been a blocker of innovation. 

He added that one thing which innovation needs is continuity and the ability for those making investments to see their returns coming forward. 

“I think we need to create some continuity by creating longer-term business-to-business relationships between clients,” said Buck, adding that this is where Network Rail has an advantage over projects like Crossrail. 

Network Rail’s National Supply Chain managing director, Nick Elliott, said the big challenge going forward will be delivering its Digital Railway programme. 

Oomph - Infrarail - 2016 - The Platform - Day 2 -18Left to right: HS2's Iain Roche, Network Rail's Nick Elliott and Crossrail's Martin Buck

“It is where big innovation needs to be, and that is where we really want to work collaboratively with the whole of the supply chain to help develop and manage the challenge,” he said. “That is the way we are going to revolutionise the way the rail industry and sector works.” 

However, Elliott bemoaned the historical lack of a vision for the rail sector and the disconnect between the infrastructure and rolling stock aspects of the industry. 

“Certainly, if you compare it to other sectors like aerospace, for example, they have a clear vision of how the industry moves forward. We’ve lacked that vision,” he said. “We’ve also suffered from a bit of disconnect between the infrastructure part of our industry and the rolling stock and train operating company part. The two have worked in isolation. We need to change this.” 

But Elliott, like Roche, welcomed recent moves from the RSG to help tackle some of the barriers. 

Rail industry conservatism 

One of the barriers to innovation, according to Roy Freeland, president at Perpetuum and the RSG’s SME lead, has been the “conservatism” of the rail industry. 

He added that only last year marked the 50th anniversary of the world’s first fully automatic commercial flight landing of BEA Trident. 

“That was fully automatic 50 years ago,” said Freeland. “We have the DLR and Northern Line. But, really, the Heathrow Express – how does it stop at the buffers at Paddington? There is a red light. We are 50 years behind aerospace. 

“But the EU wants to have 80% of railways in Europe capable of fully automatic train control by 2062; this is 100 years after an aircraft. Let’s think for a minute, how much easier is it to control a train on tracks than it is to land an aircraft? What is changing, and I’m delighted that Network Rail have taken a lead on this, is that Digital Railway is needed much more quickly.” 

Oomph - Infrarail - 2016 - The Platform - Day 2 -10RSG's Roy Freeland

He added that while the UK rail industry has been driven by the culture of safety, which needs to be maintained, it has, at times, obstructed innovation. 

“Standards can help innovation, but equally they can stop innovation,” he said, adding that while there are aspects of the EU which “aren’t wonderful”, SMEs like Perpetuum benefit from being in the Union. 

“As a business, Perpetuum really benefits from being in the EU, from ready access to funding in the EU and from ready access to the EU markets – even helped by the EU who pay for things to help us contact customers,” he said. “Innovative members can benefit very significantly from the EU. We would be finding it difficult to survive right now without the EU’s support, funding and the other help they give us.”

He also noted that the RSG’s ‘Open-Doors’ scheme, which is  designed to help fast-track products and services from SMEs into train operating companies, OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers and larger businesses across the rail industry, is starting to really help companies. 

HS2’s Roche added that, for such a big project, the team don’t want to leave anything to chance, which is why it created its own innovation strategy. 

“This was to make sure we actively manage and drive innovation. We recognise it is critical to the success of the project. With regards to SMEs specifically, we know that is where a lot of innovation is. We are looking at this through the way we contract,” he said. 

“We are trying to encourage engagement with SMEs, early in process. This is a great lesson from Crossrail, which has been able to engage with the supply chain as early as possible. We are also asking SMEs to challenge us on our specifications to make sure we are aspirational but realistic. We are also making sure that our Tier 1s, who are going to be managing a lot of the contractual activity, are engaging on a continual basis with SMEs.” 

Elliott added that he believes, going forward, Network Rail and the industry as a whole needs to be clearer about what their expectations are from SMEs with regards to innovation. 

“I think we have got to work collaboratively and in partnership,” he said. “The problem is we are a large organisation which spends over £7.5bn a year with more than 4,000 suppliers and tens of thousands of second and third tier SMEs. Yet, there are probably 100,000 innovative SMEs trying to get into the market.”  Elliott explained that as Network Rail moves towards devolving local accountabilities to its routes, the company will be looking at how it builds local supply bases to cut through national bureaucracy. 

He also said that some of the challenges facing the industry are also the key drivers, adding that when Railtrack failed there was a major safety drive to ensure accidents like Potters Bar or Hatfield didn’t happen again. 

“What we now need to do is transition from that safety driver, we have the safest railway in Europe,” said Elliott. “But we need to change to the driver of capacity, so that we have enough railway for everyone who wants to use it. Passenger growth has been phenomenal. We have got the railway safe, and now we need to introduce innovation.”

(Images: c. Oomph and Infrarail)

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