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Digital railway comes to Derby

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Balfour Beatty has opened a Rail Innovation Centre at its site in Derby which will drive the development of its intelligent asset management technology.

Around 150 members of staff will be employed at the Derby centre and its supporting offices in York and Matlock.

The facility, which was only completed a month ago, provides Balfour Beatty with a dedicated research and testing facility for its innovative data capture and analysis tools.

Systems engineering and computer science experts will further develop a number of solutions which are already being used to aid design and monitor the condition of the railway so that failures can be predicted and addressed.

“I’m really proud to say that Balfour Beatty is at the forefront of developing some of that emerging technology,” said chief executive for rail and utilities at Balfour Beatty, Mark Bullock at the official opening.

Fundamentally, this technology aims to improve the reliability of the infrastructure and reduce the need for physical interventions on track, which will in turn improve safety and cut costs.

“I think there’s a really neat fit between what we do here and some of the really key themes for the rail sector,” said Mark.

Emerging technology

Balfour Beatty held a formal opening ceremony on 28 June, during which it presented some of this emerging technology.

The company, which has been part of the rail supply chain since it was founded more than 100 years ago, has developed train-mounted lasers that are able to continuously monitor track geometry and overhead line position. The equipment has already been installed on several trains for the Elizabeth line Aventra fleet and Hitachi-built Intercity Express Trains.

Balfour Beatty is also working with London Underground and the Tyne and Wear Metro to map their networks using lasers and high-definition cameras fitted to the front cabs of passenger trains.

The centre also has a test rig with a robotic arm which can replicate the movement of the rail.

Two graduates presented the solutions that have been developed to monitor the condition of points machines and level crossings. The level crossing sensors are currently being used on 25 crossings on the east coast. The data they collect can be used to predict and prevent serious failures and, if they are successful, they could reduce the requirement for regular manual inspections.

Is the creation of the Rail Innovation Centre a statement of intent to the industry about Balfour Beatty’s future?

“It is and it isn’t,” said Mark, who explained that the company has been investing in this technology for some time. “The statement of intent has kind of been there for a long time.“

The innovation centre will initially employ four graduates, five apprentices and three trainees. Balfour Beatty chief executive Leo Quinn is the founder of The 5% Club, whose members aim to employ 5 per cent of their workforce in ‘earn and learn’ roles. Mark said he saw the recruitment of graduates and apprentices as a moral obligation but one that has obvious commercial benefits.

Change in direction

As CP6 approaches, Mark said he has mixed views about the future. He welcomes the level of investment but has concerns about the lack of visibility of the enhancement pipeline.

As well as investing in high-tech data capture and application solutions, Mark believes the next control period could result in a change in direction for Balfour Beatty in the scale and type of work it delivers. It may be that Balfour Beatty delivers a larger number of small projects and fewer large, multi-disciplinary schemes.

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