UK railways are getting more innovative, survey of experts finds

The UK’s railways are becoming more innovative but the Covid-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on forward-looking projects, a new survey of industry professionals has found.

The survey of 321 rail experts, conducted by the Railway Industry Association (RIA), revealed that 62 per cent of respondents in 2021 believed rail is ‘extremely, very or quite innovative’, a 12 per cent increase from 2019.

For the current five-yearly funding cycle, Network Rail has allocated £245m for research and development projects.

The money is being spent on various efforts including digitising the railways as demand for services continues to rise, creating algorithms to improve safety and “intelligent” infrastructure that can detect problems with passing trains.

But while the survey showed that confidence in rail innovation is on the rise, the sector was seen as less innovative than the automotive, transport, finance and defence sectors, even though it had seen the largest swing of those sectors from 2019 to 2021.

Availability of rail funding, testing and trialling facilities and innovation advice were listed as the three ‘facilities and resources’ that have the biggest impact on innovation in rail.

However, some 56 per cent of respondents said that the coronavirus pandemic had had a negative impact on their planned innovation projects in 2020/21.

Last month, a House of Lords committee stated that technology would be a key driver to reforming railway passenger fares and ticketing.

The government has also faced criticism for not pursuing a programme of railway electrification fast enough to for the UK to meet net zero carbon targets by 2050.

David Clarke, technical director at the RIA, said: “Innovation is vitally important for the rail sector - helping ensure the industry continues to provide the best possible services for passengers and freight users, whilst delivering more cost-effectively, reducing carbon emissions and with less disruption to the public.

“[The survey] showed that more work needs to be done, particularly in areas like procurement and rail funding, to ensure rail suppliers have all the tools they need to bring new products and services into the market.

“Although moving in the right direction, rail professionals still see their industry as less innovative than some others. Whilst it is unclear how objective this assessment is, it suggests that there is more to be done in celebrating and promoting rail industry innovation.”

David Rowe, head of rail technology at Network Rail, said: “Through the Network Rail Research & Development Portfolio, we’ve been investing some £245m for innovative products and solutions including using new, lightweight products and automation processes – with examples like the Prometheus drone and FLOW Bridge.

“And through the Accelerated Innovation Programme, we’ve been taking a new approach to procuring innovation, taking ideas from proof of concept to first deployment within 12 months.”

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles