Innovation is important for Network Rail

Posted: 10 December 2010 | | No comments yet

Over the last decade, the UK’s railways have been transformed. When we took over from Railtrack in 2002, we took over a railway that had lost the confidence of the nation. Ten years ago punctuality was running at 79% while the number of broken rails approached 1,000. Today, nearly 94% of trains run on time, […]

Over the last decade, the UK’s railways have been transformed. When we took over from Railtrack in 2002, we took over a railway that had lost the confidence of the nation. Ten years ago punctuality was running at 79% while the number of broken rails approached 1,000. Today, nearly 94% of trains run on time, while broken rails have fallen dramatically to 152 – the railway has never been as punctual, or as safe as it is now.

The railways are increasingly popular with more-and-more people relying on rail for business and pleasure, with around three million people opting to travel by rail every day, while rail freight services carry an estimated £30 billion worth of goods annually.

This success brings many challenges. Accommodating high levels of demand while delivering a safe, efficient and reliable network means we have to work smarter and faster. Getting access to the track to carry out our essential maintenance and renewals work is at a premium, challenging us to squeeze as much work as possible into our possessions so that disruption is kept to a minimum.

The challenging environment of the railway means that we, as a whole industry, have to be more innovative in the way we carry out our work. This environment has enabled numerous innovative products and practices to be deployed with clear business benefits, helping to improve performance, reduce costs and provide the rail user with a better service. Working practices are changing; new technologies and new machinery are being introduced to help deliver ever higher levels of output.

A lot has been achieved, but there is more to do. We need to be better geared up to take advantage of leading edge technologies that can help further improve reliability and performance while reducing costs.

Controlling costs is essential. The funding we secured last year for our current control period, CP4, means that if we carried on as we were, the funding will simply be insufficient to deliver the increases in capacity, availability and performance that are vital to the long-term future of the railway.

Over the next few years we need to continue our programme for change and build upon the progress we have already made to deliver better value for money. Innovation is a key part of this, as we need to carry out our investment plans while running more trains on a railway that is safer and faster than ever before.

This requires a long-term view as the changes we make now will have a real impact on defining the kind of railway we will have for decades to come. That future needs to be an integrated transport system that is safe, efficient, reliable, and sustainable, able to cope with the predicted surge in demand over the next 30 years which, according to some estimates, could double on some routes.

It is a future where trains don’t just run on time, but run when passengers and freight users need them; a railway where working smarter also means working safer, and a railway that our people, our customers, and most importantly passengers can take pride in.

Over the course of the current control period, we aim to make efficiency savings of 21%. That means everything we do will need to be done for less. We need to be smarter in the way we do it, and do it even more safely. That is why we need to develop more cost-effective and sustainable ways to deliver a railway that not only meets customer and passenger needs but also makes a big contribution to the quality of life and environment across the country.

We need a railway that is highly reliable, easily maintained, energy efficient and sustainable. We need to create extra capacity, and carry out our major improvement projects while still offering a rail service that is available seven days a week. Innovation is needed so that we can develop quicker and safer construction techniques, more efficient possession planning, better technologies, and new ways of working.

Efficiencies can be achieved through managing our infrastructure and railway assets in a way that reduces their whole-life cost whilst also continuing to improve their condition, helping to free up resources so we can improve the railway further.

Mechanisation also has a big role to play. Anything we can mechanise helps to reduce costs, help us do things faster and deliver a more reliable network. For instance, our New Measurement Train (NMT) whizzes up and down our key routes at speeds of up to 125mph (200kph), carrying out essential track and gauge monitoring while slotting into the normal timetable, activities that would take months to carry out manually. The NMT is at the vanguard of our train monitoring fleet and with other infrastructure monitoring trains, we have enhanced Network Rail’s inspection capacity leading to unprecedented low levels of rail breaks and improved track condition.

Automation increases accuracy, and train borne systems help us pinpoint potential infrastructure problems so that maintenance teams can carry out preventative work in a planned, and importantly, safe way. The passenger and freight user, meanwhile, benefit from an even more reliable railway.

Automated monitoring systems are also being rolled out at critical junctions across the network to help us keep a constant eye on how points are operating. These remote condition monitoring systems send alerts to engineers to warn them of potential problems as they arise so action can be taken before failure. Not only does this system help improve punctuality and reliability, it also provides us with extra intelligence on the causes of faults, data that can be fed back to the manufacturer to help improve components.

Innovative thinking is also helping us to generate efficiencies in the way we develop new infrastructure, delivering value for money at every stage of the design process. Whether it’s a set of points, a platform, or even a station, we have traditionally focused on creating designs that can be delivered within a set timescale. But with tough CP4 efficiency targets to meet, we need to focus on reducing costs at every stage of the design process.

That means creating, where possible, standard design specifications for high quality pre-constructed components that can be easily transported, installed and used at multiple locations. These have to be appropriate for a range of environments requiring clever designs that work. Components like those used to construct the new modular station at Corby, or the East Midlands Control Centre at Derby have helped to deliver modern facilities to address the needs of the railway while keeping the all important costs down.

Lean engineering and modular design is also helping us slash the time it takes to renew a set of points, reducing the need for lengthy, weekend long line closures. Pre-constructing sets of points and delivering them to site by rail using new tilting wagons technology has drastically cut the time it takes to renew a junction, allowing the work to be carried out within overnight, eight-hour, windows.

We aren’t there yet, but ever since we first deployed our fleet of tilting wagons in October 2009, we have already cut the time it takes to renew a set of points by 50%, enabling us to squeeze more work into our possessions, making the railway more available, especially at weekends.

These modular components not only reduce installation times, but generate significant cost savings through lower maintenance requirements and longer life sustainability.

On trains, other improvements are being made to make trains more track-friendly to reduce wear and tear. We are working closely with train operators to provide incentives for them to make changes to their fleets. Reducing track wear means that we carry out fewer rail replacements, saving money and freeing up time for maintenance teams to focus on more preventative work. It also increases performance and timetable reliability by reducing the need for temporary speed restrictions.

We are also changing the way we plan for the ongoing needs of the railway so that we have greater visibility of future works. We will also be looking at work-banks to identify potential bottlenecks, and using our engineering expertise to develop flexible solutions to minimise project management risks.

These are just a few examples of how we are changing the way we maintain and improve Britain’s railways. Network Rail has recognised, however, that improvements to the process of innovation and new product introduction can be made to address the speed of deployment and the rate at which new technology can be approved for use on the railway. As such, a new innovation process has been developed, learning from best practice from the rail industry as well as other industries.

This process is currently on trial with a number of new ideas before being applied across the broad spectrum of new products driven by the needs of the business. The process of development has included an extensive benchmarking exercise with other organisations from both the rail and non-rail sectors.

We have adopted best practice for the trial. Given the importance of using technologies developed by suppliers to the rail industry, we have sought to engage widely with our suppliers, with open feedback on their perceptions of us and the industry. We have also sought to canvas their concerns and further ideas for improvement. A key objective of the Network Rail New Product introduction process is to speed up the approval process by working closely with suppliers. With this new process in place, we hope to cut the time it takes to get new products onto the railway by up to 50%.

We recognise that prescriptive standards can inhibit innovation unnecessarily, so by focusing on a requirements based specification, suppliers can also develop their products with more freedom.

There are four key stages to the innovations process. Firstly, the initial idea for a new product is screened to make sure it is aligned to our business objectives and priorities. This is absolutely essential as in the past we may have allowed too many products to be considered, clogging up the system and slowing down the whole process.

The product is then developed into prototype before being tested and developed further as part of the third stage. Once the product is fully tested it is ready for launch, and here, at the fourth stage, the process looks to measure any impact and capture the benefits. Any lessons are also shared with the industry as a way of promoting best practice and further innovation.

We have come along way in 10 years, but we recognise there is more we can do. The only way we can deliver a railway that meets the demands of passengers and freight users is to be smarter and more efficient, and that means we have to foster a culture of innovation, and be open to change.

About the Author

Steve Yianni

Steve Yianni graduated with an Engineering Degree from Cambridge University in 1983. He is a chartered engineer and a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. In 1990, he attained an MBA from London Business School. He has gained experience in a variety of roles in Engineering, business management and leadership at the Ford Motor Company (from 1983 – 1991), JCB (from 1991 to 2007) and Network Rail (from 2008). He is the Director of Engineering at Network Rail.