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How can the railway industry encourage innovation?

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During the recent general election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn talked of plans to renationalise the railway. Amidst promises of fare capping, free Wi-Fi and safe levels of staffing an inherent advantage, he failed to mention innovation. Stewart Thorpe reports

Was the UK’s railway industry more prepared to take risks when it was nationalised? That was one question posed by the Rail Industry Association’s (RIA) technical director David Clarke during the Rail Exec Roundtable in May.

Representatives from the industry’s biggest companies – Network Rail, SNC-Lavalin, Thales – came together to discuss ways of encouraging innovation to improve capacity, reliability and safety. Hosted at law firm Addleshaw Goddard’s London office, David kicked off the proceedings with a keynote speech before diners discussed focused topics – engineering, electrification, rolling stock, ERTMS, station design and traffic management and passenger information systems – over a three-course lunch.

British Rail

Defining innovation as ‘something new to a business that takes it beyond best practice’, David reflected on successful innovators, why the railway industry has an issue with innovation and – somewhat appropriately – asked whether British Rail was more innovative than the collection of train operating companies (TOCs) we currently have.

A chartered engineer who represents RIA members in the areas of safety, technical standards and strategy, research, and innovation, David said, ‘British Rail managed to develop things like the high-speed train and the advanced passenger train. It developed intercity too, which is effectively still the model that we operate on long-distance services with today.

‘What was different? Was it because it had less interfaces? It was a monolithic, nationalised industry. Did they have clearer line of sight for the business case? And that leads me to the challenge that perhaps we’re not as agile as we could be in the rail industry. It’s a complex industry with lots of parties. You often find that the business benefit is with one party and the cost if with another – well how do you make that work? That’s challenging.’

David didn’t offer up a definitive answer but his thought-provoking keynote provided a platform from which discussion was sparked.

Barriers to innovation

Representatives from CRRC and Vivarail were among the guests on the ‘rolling stock’ table and they identified a number of barriers to innovation. The railway is inherently short-sighted, they concluded, focusing on the operational delivery of the here and now rather than thinking about the future. Compounding that issue are the ‘stiff penalties’ surrounding the franchising model which discourage operators from trying something new because of the culture of blame if things go wrong.

Obstacles to innovation was a theme David Clarke also addressed. He said, ‘Innovation is about taking a risk, but we don’t tend to like risk. No self-respecting project director wants novelty on his project. No novelty, no innovation.

‘I think we’ve got to find out how we can cope with risk. We’re not starting from zero, there are lots of good examples out there. We have coped surprisingly well with the growth in demand. We see the TOCs doing a lot of good things to grow their market and provide improved service, it’s not universal but there’s some good things going on – Crossrail, King’s Cross, St Pancras, Birmingham New Street, whole waves of new trains now and Thameslink.’

David Clarke of RIA speaks about innovation at the Rail Exec Roundtable.
David Clarke of RIA speaks about innovation at the Rail Exec Roundtable.


On the ‘traffic management and passenger information system (PIS)’ table, the likes of Costain and telent said that companies need to stop looking for the cheapest tender and instead come to evidence-based conclusions. They spoke about directly connecting traffic management systems with PIS to better inform passengers. What is important, they added, is to give the customer coherent information – ‘one source of truth’ – to best advise their travel. Informing a customer that their train is delayed without telling them for how long could put them off using services in the future yet giving them poor information could have a similar effect.

Meanwhile on the ‘future stations’ table, guests – including AECOM, Carillion and RIA – said that passenger experiences are broadly felt to be on the decline as expectations increase. Making the most of what we have, stations should be made more inclusive. Digital users should not be made to feel second class but more interactive signage and activity zones should be introduced to better the experience.

Taking charge

Throughout there were key conclusions made about what action needs to be taken: collaboration, leadership and taking small steps. A number of delegates touched on the need for firms to work more closely together to share risk. One example provided was the European Train Control System. This benefits track infrastructure because it removes lineside equipment and benefits TOCs because it helps to increase capacity yet a lot of cost lies with the TOCs.

Appointed individuals should also be made personally responsible for driving and taking ownership of innovation in organisations too so there is a degree of accountability. On a related note, the question of whether there should be a centralised plan for innovation or whether it should be consumer-driven surfaced, with guests deciding it should be a mixture of both.

The final conclusion was that the industry needs to start small. Britain runs on a Victorian railway but it’s difficult to look at a huge changes, small steps need to made and existing practices should be adapted rather than starting from scratch.


The inaugural Rail Exec Roundtable provided a platform to bring industry decision makers together to make progress towards innovation, which David Clarke stressed the importance of. He added, ‘I think, potentially, we have a crisis in the rail industry in terms of the affordability to government of what we have to offer. So I would encourage us all to think about how we can help government help us to deliver a more affordable railway.

‘You could say if we had behaved 40 or 50 years ago like we do now we would still have steam trains and semaphore signals.’

As the dust settles after the election one thing remains indubitably true; innovative railways hold the key to a prosperous and sustainable future.