Rail Industry Focus


Innovation and Safety - David Clarke, RIA

Source: RTM Dec 19/Jan 20

David Clarke, Technical Director, Railway Industry Association talks us through the ways innovation can be used to make the railway even safer.

In a safety critical industry like rail, it is vital that we always question and reassess our work methods. We are fortunate to work in a sector that treats safety as a number one priority, however we should never be complacent or blasé about ensuring the safety of those who work on and use the network.

Between 2018 and 2019, there were 17 passenger fatalities and two workforce fatalities on the UK’s railways. Although at low levels compared to other transport sectors and other international rail industries, I’m sure all in the industry would agree that even one fatality is too many. There were also a number of injuries that took place in 2018-19 - there were 377 major passenger injuries and 158 major worker injuries, showing there is still much more we can do. So what can be done?

An area where progress is being made in improving safety is through innovation. New methods are being found to keep passengers and workers out of harm’s way, through monitoring, alerts and modelling (to name but a few solutions). And the good news is that there are a number of opportunities for these new ideas to enter the market.

Passenger Safety

In December 2019, Network Rail’s Research & Development (R&D) Portfolio issued a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) on finding innovation in railway platform end and edge technology. The aim is to find a company that can provide an innovative solution to stop trespassers getting themselves and other customers into danger. The scope is clear – the solution must have the ability to physically, visually or audibly deter a trespasser, thereby both increasing safety and punctuality, by reducing the number of minutes delayed due to trespass. The benefit of the SBRI competition is that Network Rail has committed to spend £1 million on a winning innovation, including assisting with trials at two stations. It means smaller companies, or those that have not considered entering the rail industry before, have an opportunity to get their products into the market.

Within the Network Rail 2019-2024 R&D plans there are a range of other projects envisaged to improve passenger safety. Many of these address the significant risks associated with level crossings. Already Network Rail are working with a RIA Member on ‘Project Meerkat’ which aims to provide a low cost active warning device on uncontrolled crossings. Other projects are planned for other types of crossings including Automatic Half Barrier and Miniature Warning Light Crossings. Poor adhesion is another safety (and performance) risk and here Network Rail are working with the RSSB to trial technologies to improve adhesion management.

Worker safety

Just as important as the safety of customers is the safety of staff working on the rail network. This is clearly highly important to Network Rail, who have a challenge statement with the aim of reducing the national risk profile of trackworkers being struck by trains. Network Rail count this as one of the biggest safety risks posed to their staff, but it is also vitally important to other Infrastructure Managers and the supply chain who deliver a significant amount of renewals and enhancements work across the UK.

Ultimately, these hazards occur due to a lack of communication or human error. There have been a number of incidents over the past year where the lookouts have been distracted whilst looking for approaching trains, and have thought they were able to ‘stand down’ from their role at a critical time.

Of course, the best way to reduce the risk to workers is to minimize the work that is done whilst trains are operating and more generally minimize the amount of time workers need to be on the track at all. Better monitoring of asset conditions can help us understand when interventions need to be made and reducing potentially unnecessary and unplanned interventions. Decision Support Tools are being developed and implemented across the network that can provide consolidated data on the condition of an asset. Innovation in track monitoring can therefore directly reduce the risk to workers, whilst having other benefits, like reducing possessions on the network and lowering costs. At Network Rail’s Rail Industry Development Centre (RIDC) in Melton, there have been a number of trials of rail sensors to provide a rich flow of live data that can help in making decisions about infrastructure renewals.

Off site manufacturing, prefabrication and automation all have important and increasing roles in reducing the amount of time staff need to be on the track and can thus reduce the risk of an accident. These approaches also reduce the risk of injury through manual handling and by reducing on-site work and are also likely to deliver a higher quality, more reliable result.


Safety is vital to the rail industry and is an area ripe for further innovation. Safety innovations almost always have secondary benefits in terms of efficiency and reliability. There are opportunities for companies both within and outside of the rail industry to get involved – including those organized by the Railway Industry Association.

On 20 February, RIA will hold its next Unlocking Innovation event, which will look at how new solutions can get into the sector, bringing those with challenges together with those who may have potential products and services that can solve them. The free-to-attend event will look at ‘M.A.D.E in infrastructure’, where M.A.D.E stands for Materials, Automation, Data and Energy. It will take place at the University of Southampton, with a tour of their new National Infrastructure Laboratory and will include a number of opportunities to explore the role innovation can play in improving safety on our rail network. It will be well worth attending!

Find out more at www.riagb.org.uk/UI0220


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