Unlocking capacity in rail by accelerating innovation

By Steve Carden

The UK’s railways are critical to a sustainable future and an essential low-carbon component of the nation’s transport mix. The network is running close to capacity. Since the mid-1990s, the number of passengers has doubled, and by 2030 there could be an extra 1 billion journeys to accommodate, even with the changes in commuter habits prompted by COVID-19.

New capacity is critical, but infrastructure can take decades to approve and build, as Crossrail and HS2 show. So, the only immediate way to move more passengers and freight is to find new ways to get more from the existing network. That means investing in ingenious technologies to increase the performance of assets and help drive greater operational efficiencies. It could be new methods to control trains and maintain rolling stock, or new ways to extend the life of track. The objective is the same: cut delays and drive down costs while keeping the railways safe.

Finding a faster route to innovation

Introducing new technologies to a system with as many moving parts as the rail network is complex. Using conventional project methods, it could still take several years to plan, develop, build, test and roll out new systems. So, what’s the best way to enable innovation while making sure the network can keep up with demand and keep the economy moving?

Our work with Network Rail shows that an agile approach to delivery addresses these challenges. By forming small teams of people from across the business, we brought together diverse views to solve problems, rapidly building a concept to test.

Working in short ‘sprints’ and learning as they go, these cross-functional teams produce valuable insight within weeks about how viable an idea could be, and whether it’s worth more investigation and investment. By contrast, traditional methods call for lengthy upfront work to define requirements, then a design stage, followed by building and testing, which means it might only become apparent after several months or more that a concept has serious flaws.

Testing earlier, revealing potential sooner

We’ve been working in an agile way as part of Network Rail’s Accelerated Innovation Programme, which is part of a £245 million R&D portfolio. Already, we’re seeing results that show Agile approaches have strong potential for the railways. By testing technologies earlier in the development process, we’re finding out sooner whether they have potential, and where any barriers could be. This makes for better-informed investment decisions. We’re also involving the users of the technologies right from the start of development. This way, we benefit from their unique point of view throughout the design process, and they’re more likely to adopt the finished technology because it directly addresses their challenges. 

Our work so far suggests the benefits could be dramatic. We’re moving from idea to trial 75 per cent faster than with traditional methods. Regular opportunities to assess value throughout projects make the method 60 per cent more cost-efficient. And because we find out more about technologies’ potential earlier in the process, decision-making comes 83 per cent sooner.

Creating a solution that’s viable and usable

Two current projects show the possibilities. In the first, we’re working with innovative technologies attached to fibre-optic cables to detect ‘wheel flats’, a typical occurrence in autumn as rails become slippery with fallen leaves, causing wheels to skid and become misshapen. Currently wheel flats are identified through scheduled maintenance checks, or manual identification when they start to make their tell-tale sounds. But microphones in trackside cables could pick up the sound sooner, so the carriage comes out of service for repairs quicker, limiting damage to the track and extending its life.

Working in an agile way meant testing was underway safely within weeks, letting us find out that the technology had the potential to solve the problem. The approach was also vital to making it usable for staff. The concept we’d developed produced data in vast Excel spreadsheets. But as we were delivering outputs in two-week sprints, we quickly prioritised creating a way to amalgamate the data and make it useful to the operations teams. To avoid staff having to correlate data from different sources, we designed a dashboard to visualise the information so it’s easier to use and act on quickly. Using the agile waterfall method, a new system might have gone all the way to launch, with over a year’s work and investment, without first knowing if it was right for its users.

Another example where an agile approach allowed us to respond quickly to changing industry demands is the Rail Asset Identification System, an artificial intelligence tool that automatically identifies, catalogues and visualises parts of the network and their location to help avoid accidents. By being agile, we could pivot the focus of a development sprint and rapidly respond to a regulatory notice by finding ways to include other assets in the system.

A new way to modernise the railway

These examples show that combining different disciplines in flexible teams and testing and learning from the start drive rapid and effective innovation. It’s a way of working that can help unleash the potential of technology for the UK’s railway. And that can only be good for a sustainable economy.

About the authors

Steve Carden PA Transport Innovation lead

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