Rail research hits red light

Academic research body Rail Research UK is to hold talks with Network Rail amid fears that an overly risk-averse culture in the industry is preventing new technology from being introduced on to the network.


Academic research body Rail Research UK is to hold talks with Network Rail amid fears that an overly risk-averse culture in the industry is preventing new technology from being introduced on to the network.


One researcher working on a £500,000 project to improve axle design said in three years he was prevented from doing any tests on actual trains in service.


Rail Research UK director Keith Madelin is to meet senior managers at Network Rail this week to discuss steps to remove the barriers preventing new research ideas being tested on the railways.


Researchers are concerned that the industry is now so worried about safety risks and the threat of being sued if things go wrong that it is becoming hard for track-based trials to be approved. ‘Everyone is becoming very conservative,’ said Madelin.


Rail Research UK, a consortium of seven universities based at Birmingham University and backed by a £7m grant from the EPSRC, is looking at a number of projects that it believes would help Network Rail.


These include technologies for measuring track strength and movement, and devices tomonitor the condition and reliability of parts such as switches and crossings.


But the organisation is unsure how these technologies will be applied, as they are likely to fall foul of Network Rail’s procurement processes, under which the university would have to guarantee the quality of the work. ‘If we are doing research then we obviously cannot give guarantees,’ said Madelin.


‘We have to have a sensible arrangement for trying something out in the lab, trying it out on real track, then moving on to larger trials on the network.’


The situation may get worse as Network Rail takes direct responsibility for more maintenance work, he added. ‘In the past it has been less of a problem, as most maintenance work has been done by contractors. We have done a lot of work with Carillion Rail, which has taken on the risk [of the project] and been prepared to try out new ideas, so we were able to work through Carillion and be shielded by them.’


Network Rail will have to accept some of the risks involved in trying out new ideas, he said.


Prof Rod Smith, head of mechanical engineering at Imperial College, has experienced the problem first hand, when a £500,000 study into how axle design can prevent fatigue – a topic with the potential to save money on equipment inspections – ended without his team being able to install equipment on a train in service.


‘In three years we haven’t been able to get a strain gauge on an axle of a train in service because of bureaucracy and completely false safety fears,’ said Smith. ‘The cost of doing anything [on trains in service] far outweighs the technical cost of the work.’He added that too many lawyers and accountants have their ‘fingers in the pie’, making it hard for decisions to be made on the introduction of new railway technology.


‘We have developed some fantastic instrumentation that can measure and analyse strain in axles, and, using GPS, detect areas where track puts particular strain on axles, but [the industry] has wasted the opportunity, the money, and a lot of time,’ said Smith.


A spokeswoman for Network Rail said safety has to remain a top priority for the company. ‘But at the same time we recognise the need for a balance so that we don’t stifle innovation,’ she said.



On the web