Innovation and the UK rail industry

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Alex Burrows, Director of BCRRE, comments about the appetite for innovation in the rail industry and the challenge faced in converting ideas into realisation.

Alex Burrows
Alex Burrows

Here at BCRRE, we were extremely interested to see the findings of the RIA Innovation Survey published yesterday.  To start with, all respondents (of which there were around 300) said that is was very (84%) or quite (16%) important for the rail industry to be innovative.  Great!  Although the next question brought things down to earth with a bump:  46% considered the GB rail industry to be quite innovative and 47% responded with hardly innovative –and nobody described the industry as extremely innovative.

So we can see a clear need for the rail industry to be more innovative.  But how do we make an industry more innovative?

UKRRIN

BCRRE is the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) lead for its Introducing Innovation theme.  Including this theme responds to the loud request by the UKRRIN industrial partners for help in driving ideas through the innovation process – from initial bright idea based on fundamental research, through the development stages of proof of concept, validation, demonstration, testing, launching into the market and (hopefully) commercial and operational success.

We should remind ourselves that the purpose of innovation is to generate value through developing improved products, services or solutions in response to needs – innovation should provide an improved solution to demand (which may or may not be known, of course).  We work with a lot of organisations who are undertaking research and development activity. There is no shortage of good ideas and no lack of enthusiasm to turn these into solutions that can provide real, tangible benefits to the railway.  So why does the rail industry give itself such a poor score on whether it is innovative?

The answers to the final two survey questions perhaps give us an insight.  The policy or process with the greatest impact on innovation is clearly seen as procurement; while the facility or resource with the greatest impact on innovation is funding.  Both of these are predominantly public body-driven in a sector that is heavily regulated.  The industry perhaps considers that it can deliver its side of the bargain. From the supply side, innovation can and does happen – and this tallies with our view that there are huge amounts of enthusiasm and willingness to innovate in the rail industry.  However, the demand side does not provide the level of incentive and appetite to convert this enthusiasm to innovate into tangible outcomes.  The vast majority of spending on rail procurement comes from the Government and its delivery bodies, while the funding for innovation is channelled through bodies such as Innovate UK across the many different industry sectors.  Much of this happens on a project-by-project basis and on near-term priorities.

We are undertaking research on the innovation landscape for rail in the UK; we are working with industry and stakeholders as BCRRE and UKRRIN (and also as the Rail Alliance assisting our SME Community) to understand how we can convert the appetite for innovation into tangible outcomes that benefit the UK railway.  But innovation policy needs to become more sophisticated and targeted on what it wants to achieve in order to enable innovation to actually make a difference (for the UK railway and for the UK rail industry).  We are working in this field right now – look out for more updates on this in the near future!

Doors
Opening doors
Courtesy of Pexels

Alex is a Director at BCRRE, leading the Enterprise Team.  He is also the Lead for the UKRRIN Introducing Innovation theme and is the MD of the Rail Alliance.

2 thoughts on “Innovation and the UK rail industry”

  1. My MSc thesis covered barriers to innovation on the UKs railway. Factors such as funding were found to be barriers to innovation however not an exact causal link. There are multiple examples eg WCML signalling where funding has been granted but the benefits not realised. Unfortunately, the culture within the rail industry is extremely risk averse when it comes to technology and innovation. I would argue, no new technology is required – it’s here right now. But we still have engineers carrying out the most archaic of site activities that could easily be automated (eg remote securing). But the industry lets these engineers risk their lives every day standing on the line. Huge transformation on product assurance processes and policies required.

    1. Many thanks for your comment; we would be interested in hearing more about your findings around barriers to innovation. Whereas we also agree about the rail industry being risk-averse, and for no trivial purpose, and we would also agree there is a lot of technology already available, we would counter that we always need to innovate: to improve further, create better efficiencies, better journey quality, etc – these will always be in demand.

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