Unlocking the barriers to future mobility - Part 2

Philip Hoare | 25 Nov 2016 | Comments

In this series of three articles, we will explore how the rail sector responds to the very real demands of harnessing new technology, improving the customer experience, encouraging innovation and developing new funding models. This second article will focus on encouraging and fostering the right environment for innovation.

You can find the first article in the series, which looks at changing consumer expectations and how the rail industry responds to this challenge, here

This second article will focus on encouraging and fostering the right environment for innovation.

Challenge is often the precursor to innovation

Innovation can enable an enhanced passenger experience. In times of change, both at micro and macro level, we must be able to show the government and industry that we are able to deliver value for money. Innovating, both in terms of the emergence of new technology and the more effective use of existing assets, is critical to endeavours to realise a passenger-centred rail network.

So what does innovation in rail look like and how do we make it happen? Is there a blueprint for success? Investing in new digital technologies which can help to alleviate the capacity challenges faced by the network, reduce the amount of lineside infrastructure required and facilitate the move towards pre-emptive maintenance all have a role to play.

It would certainly appear that those countries which are able to best harvest the spirit of innovation are those with certain defining characteristics:

  • a simple(r) stakeholder environment
  • encouragement of diversity and inclusion in STEM engagement, from primary school age onwards
  • continued high quality on-the-job skills development
  • long term proactive government investment
  • ring-fenced funds for research into future technologies
  • use of data to identify behavioural trends and facilitate change



Introducing new technology safely

Safety is of paramount importance and there are many hurdles to overcome before a new technology can be integrated onto a railway network. Yet, if rail is to remain competitive and take its place in this changing world, we need to facilitate the faster introduction of new technology. In protecting our safety heritage, have we become too risk averse and driven to build barriers around new technology that are hard to overcome? We must change this paradigm, not by cutting corners or missing steps, but by using new and modern tools to enable parts of the process.

To what extent can digital and automated tools allow for elements of new systems and processes to be tried and tested away from the railway? Digital tools are currently employed in various aspects of the lifecycle of our railways, from design and electrification to maintenance and product assurance, so there must be a way of increasing the role that automation plays. This would also greatly enhance the safety of rail workers, as they would be required to spend far less time on site in a safety critical environment.

The Hyperloop is an example of a new technology which is cost-effective and has strong green credentials. It is significantly less expensive than traditional infrastructure programmes and generates more power than it consumes. It will be interesting to see how Hyperloop faces up to challenges that the rail industry is already familiar with, such as dwell times in stations and how it will integrate with existing infrastructure. The potential is huge; after all, we already know that High Speed Rail lures passengers away from air travel; with the Hyperloop, it would seem the potential is endless.

Hyperloop has caught the imagination of governments across the world and has the potential to show us another way. Certainly, its progress would likely be accelerated if the rail industry shared its expertise in matters such as securing safety cases and ensuring passenger safety. Interestingly, the ambition for Hyperloop is strong in the US, in the Middle East and India, but here in Europe we are more reluctant to consider the possibilities.

The third article in this series will focus on future funding models.