Building in long-term improvements across the rail industry

It is crucial that innovations and lessons learned during the Covid crisis are harnessed to drive long-lasting change in the rail network, says David Clarke of the Railway Industry Association.

As one of the few industries that had to continue operating when Covid-19 hit, rail was forced to accelerate the adoption of new technologies and working practices to keep Britain moving, while keeping both staff and travellers safe. In Lincolnshire alone, rail workers enabled over 150,000 tonnes of vital food, medicine, fuel and other supplies to be transported across the county each week.

Now, the question is - how can we ensure that the innovations and lessons learned during this period are harnessed to drive long lasting change in the rail network and ensure the industry realises its potential to fuel the UK’s economic recovery?

The idea factory

Taking charge when the pandemic hit, the Network Rail Accelerated Innovation Programme (AI) – part of its research and development portfolio – came to the fore to deliver new solutions into the hands of frontline staff as quickly as possible. AI provides an environment where products can be developed directly with end-users to ensure solutions are onboarded quicker and with more success. 

Initial solutions developed during the pandemic focused on protecting the safety of essential railway workers. Thanks to AI, Network Rail could draw on its network of partners to fast-track the roll out of thermal cameras across its offices, through its work with Thales. Capable of accurately monitoring the temperature of those coming and going from the offices, the solution helped reduce the risk of the virus being spread at over 100 of Network Rail’s locations. 

When it came to protecting the most vulnerable during the pandemic, the railway industry also stepped up. With reports of domestic abuse and family violence increasing, the industry sped up an initiative to support women and children at threat from domestic abuse. Southeastern – championing an idea from Darren O'Brien, one of its station managers – had already set up a scheme partnering with Women’s Aid to ensure women fleeing domestic abuse have access to free train travel and are able to travel at short notice without any unnecessary form filling or queuing up. 

The ‘Rail to Refuge’ scheme was sped up and strengthened in response to Covid with additional promotion from the Rail Delivery Group. It developed a cross-channel strategy – incorporating social media, broadcast appearances and newspaper articles – to raise awareness of the initiative amongst domestic abuse survivors and encourage them to take up the offer of free rail travel as possible. At the last count, the scheme has helped 1,380 survivors and 450 children as of June 2021.

‘Rail to Refuge’ involved the coordination of over 70 member organisations and several charitable organisations working at speed. It demonstrates the power of rail to create effective, credible and timely impact; an example to inspire further action as the industry looks to truly support the communities it serves.

Finding a solution in what you already have

Pushing through new technologies at rapid speed wasn’t the only innovative approach we witnessed during the pandemic. The industry also assessed the tools it already had to hand and pivoted them into new purposes. 

For example, when faced with running a network that capped train capacity to 15% passenger loads to ensure social distancing, Siemens Mobility and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) found a new role for Siemens’ Advanced Passenger Loading application. The application uses data analytics and machine learning to build a clearer picture of how many people are on a train at any given time, using train loading data based on weight. The information is then immediately presented to train control teams, flagging early indicators of busier trains and the point at which safe social distancing becomes challenging. GTR was able to monitor passenger numbers boarding and disembarking trains at individual stations, and even predict passenger numbers on specific routes. 

However, the value of this solution extends beyond social distancing. Given that people have either had to not commute due to remote working or have been travelling on trains with reduced capacity, it’s highly likely that tolerance for packed trains will be incredibly low amongst the British public. Better understanding and management of loads goes hand in hand with improved timetabling, giving passengers the experience they expect. 

Electrifying learnings 

Encouraging innovation will be essential if the industry is to meet the government’s strategy to build a modern, digital railway, one that offers a consistent customer experience and enhanced performance, while supporting net zero 2050 targets. 

A key force to reach this goal, of course, is wider electrification of the network. Answering the call for innovative solutions, Atkins delivered its Dynamic Rail System Simulation tool, which is set to play an important role when it comes to retrofitting modern overhead line equipment into 19th century rail infrastructure. Since the tool accurately mimics real-world conditions – including the behaviour of both the wire and the pantograph – it enables users to simulate and test electrification requirements. And it’s already been put to good use in the electrification of the Great Western Mainline, where the service needed to pass through a Grade 2 listed bridge built by famed engineer Isambard Brunel.

Creative uses of solutions like this will help change electrification from a vision to a practical reality. And rightly so - it is a cheaper option to traditional diesel power, far greener and an essential component in helping meet the UK’s sustainability goals. Indeed, a rolling programme of electrification could create and sustain green jobs, supporting investment and economic growth at a critical time for the UK economy.

Driving forward from the pandemic

While the innovations and change in mindsets and approaches witnessed during the pandemic were very much knee-jerk reactions, they should not be viewed as temporary – but rather permanent fixtures that can fuel further progress within UK rail infrastructure. Given the industry’s critical role to help build back the UK’s economy, these changes will also contribute to our Covid recovery overall.   

David Clarke is the technical director at the Railway Industry Association.