Rail bridge

RIA: The wider Very Light Rail System

Throughout this week, the Railway Industry Association (RIA) has held its latest Unlocking Innovation series, covering the UK light rail sector.

In the final day of talks ahead of Friday’s dedicated networking session, RIA greeted speakers leading local initiatives and developing pioneering technologies in the wider Very Light Rail (VLR) system.

The event began with a presentation from Dr Nick Mallinson, who heads the Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation (BCIMO) and discussed their National Innovation Centre in Dudley which aims to help progress the development of VLR schemes.

Despite recent progress in the sector, some still key pieces are missing for the wider industry. Nick highlighted for example that city councils and regional transport bodies are not system integrators or often lack engineering teams, which can lead to projects overrunning and costs increasing.

Nick also went on to describe the “market failure” within the industry, which is to say that councils and transport bodies want to buy off-the-shelf and low-risk schemes, but the template and products for this are not readily available. This gap inspired the VLR National Innovation Centre, he added, which is due to be completed in the first quarter of 2022.

Next up was Neil Cooney from Stored Energy Technology (SET), whose presentation covered their ActiWheel GS product which he described as a potential ‘superfood’ for the rail industry.

SET has developed the Actiwheel, adding independent motors to the wheels of a train, which reduces weight, increases wheel and rail life and saves energy. Indeed, Neil mentioned that SET managed to reduce the weight of a train bogie from over six tonnes to around four. SET also believe their product will improve the passenger experience through smoother journeys and reduce environmental impact.

Neil stressed that as an SME, they have collaborated with bodies such as the Institute for Rail Research at Huddersfield University and Loughborough University, and companies such as Aviva Rail, but concluded by urging others in the industry to come forward and work with SET.

RIA’s third speaker was Chief Executive of Westfield Technology Group, Julian Turner. With a strong reputation in the automotive industry, Westfield has also become one of the leading manufacturers of autonomous pods, which Julian proudly described are fully sourced from the UK. His centred on their work installing the purely electric autonomous pod system at Heathrow Airport. The pods have now taken over 3 million passengers, proving more time-efficient and reducing emissions from cars by around 70% – critically, the system has taken 70,000 bus journeys off the road.

On the construction of their pods, he issued a challenge to the industry to think about how innovative materials can make vehicles lighter in the way Westfield have done. For example, he specifically mentioned their Graphene Battery System, which is smaller than lithium and could easily be transferred to rail, and their bodywork made from biocomposites using hemp and linseed oil.

The first elevator pitch of the session came from Lead Engineer at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), Dr Graham Lee, who ran through their work to bring autonomous control technology to VLR vehicles.

And the final pitch of the week saw Nexor’s Colin Robbins discuss the importance of cybersecurity in rail systems to protect vehicles and data.

To receive the recordings of the week’s events, click here.

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