Network Rail supporting initiatives to solve railway challenges: London Bridge Comms Room

Wednesday 8 Jul 2020

Network Rail supporting initiatives to solve railway challenges

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Network Rail is supporting 11 of the 25 winning entrants of the Government’s £9.4m First of a Kind (FOAK) 2020 competition to provide a better, more reliable and efficient railway for passengers and freight users.

The competition – funded by the Department for Transport and managed by Innovate UK – encourages innovation in the rail industry by asking companies for ambitious ideas that could transform the railway. The projects that will directly support Network Rail’s Research & Development (R&D) Portfolio include:

  • Demonstrating low cost 10Gigabit+ connectivity for the railway
  • Creating a novel and cost-effective composite footbridge for use on the railway
  • Improving resilience through a surface water flooding decision support system
  • Tunnel and station monitoring using railway optical detection to identify obstructions
  • Integrated optical fibre sensing to optimise rail switches & crossings maintenance

Mark Gaddes, R&D third party funding and engagement manager at Network Rail, said: “We were delighted to encourage innovators to approach Network Rail with their proposals for this First of a Kind competition. The range and quality of ideas put forward was exceptional, and we’re looking forward to working with the winners to improve the railway for passengers.

"This will be particularly welcome when we can encourage more passengers back to the railway, but for now people should continue to follow Government advice around the use of public transport, and only travel if they have to.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “The winners of this year’s First of a Kind competition will support better, more environmentally friendly journeys. Crucially, these pioneering projects will also ensure that passengers have a more efficient, reliable and responsive railway, making journeys simpler and easier.”

In addition to the FOAK 2020 competition, Network Rail continues its partnership with Innovate UK to run competitions using the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) approach – where innovators compete for a share of funding to solve a certain challenge.  Winners of the competitions that have been delivered so far proposed a number of solutions to address:

  • Developing detection technology on the ends and edges of platforms to detect and reduce trespass on the railway
  • Automating data processing for railway structure gauging – a process that ensures a safe distance exists between trains and structures such as tunnels
  • Automating tunnel examinations and undertaking security surveillance and analytics to reduce the need for workers to monitor the network and test asset condition manually

Danielle Stephenson, project manager at Network Rail for the safety, security and analytics project said: “As a new member of the R&D team I have been blown away with the excellent ideas and solutions that the companies have come up with so far. I am looking forward to seeing them implemented in a live station environment in September."

The solutions for all challenge areas under the four competitions will use information technology and machine learning. This provides an opportunity to carry out monitoring faster and generate information that is more consistent than could be achieved through the judgement of people.  It also frees up our workforce to focus on keeping the network safe and available for passengers and freight users, rather than gathering data.

The competitions generated from the combined partnerships between Network Rail, Department for Transport and Innovate UK in the last year have collectively been worth over £15million, with each initiative providing opportunities for smaller organisations to work with Network Rail to bring innovative technology into the railway. This is enabled through the support from Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network.

Kelvin Davies, Innovation Lead for Rail at Innovate UK, highlighted: “As the UK’s innovation agency we are here to support the best ideas from the UK’s most innovative companies. Through working with Network Rail we have seen the strength of interest, quality of applications and enthusiasm. This shows there is a real confidence that businesses large and small can grow by focussing on opportunities in rail. This is vital as we all work together to build a bigger, better and greener railway".

These initiatives form part of Network Rail’s R&D portfolio for CP6 and will help drive improvements in efficiency and safety in the rail industry through new technology.  The partnership with Innovate UK and the competition opportunities also fit with Network Rail’s desire to be easier to engage and work with as part of the Open for Business programme.

Notes to editors

The Department for Transport announced the winners of its First of a Kind competition on 17 June 2020.

Details of the Network Rail and Innovate UK SBRI competition winners are at the links below:

Automated Tunnel Examination winners

Rail Security Surveillance Analytics winners

Automated Structure Gauge Survey Processing winners

Platform End and Edge Technology winners

Full details of all Innovate UK competition winners can be found here.

Network Rail expects to invest a total of £357M in Research, Development & Innovation through its five-year Control period to March 2024 to drive improvements across its infrastructure through new technology. 

Research, Development & Innovation is managed as the Network Rail R&D Portfolio, balancing needs across the network and supporting our Regions and Routes to deliver better services for passengers and freight customers, improve cost efficiency for funders, strengthen safe and secure operations and achieve environmental sustainability.

Innovate UK runs SBRI competitions for Network Rail under a partnership agreement.  The competitions are funded from Network Rail’s R&D Fund.  Innovate UK, part of UKRI, brings access to the Knowledge Transfer Network, providing support to small businesses by facilitating partnerships between small organisations and large companies.

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Jack Harvey

About Network Rail

We own, operate and develop Britain's railway infrastructure; that's 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts and the thousands of signals, level crossings and stations. We run 20 of the UK's largest stations while all the others, over 2,500, are run by the country's train operating companies.

Usually, there are almost five million journeys made in the UK and over 600 freight trains run on the network. People depend on Britain's railway for their daily commute, to visit friends and loved ones and to get them home safe every day. Our role is to deliver a safe and reliable railway, so we carefully manage and deliver thousands of projects every year that form part of the multi-billion pound Railway Upgrade Plan, to grow and expand the nation's railway network to respond to the tremendous growth and demand the railway has experienced - a doubling of passenger journeys over the past 20 years.

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