The research connection

As head of Rail Research UK, Keith Madelin faces the challenge of getting the rail industry to harness the academic research that could boost efficiency. But given the network’s seemingly intractable problems, can he deliver?

Keith Madelin has thrown down the gauntlet to the railway industry. He believes that for too long it has ignored the potential benefits of academic research into new technologies and systems that could help to solve some of its problems.

As the director of Rail Research UK, a newly-created university-led centre for railway systems research, the professor is determined to make Network Rail and the train operating companies take a new approach to improving the reliability and efficiency of the network.

The industry’s record on the adoption of new technologies has been patchy. The fitment of automatic train protection (ATP) to the UK network has suffered many delays and will not meet the 2010 deadline set by the Cullen-Uff report. A new points monitoring system has suffered similar problems and safety straps fitted to high-speed trains were found to have actually contributed to the Selby rail disaster.

Last year we revealed that paranoia in the industry, caused by intense media scrutiny following a series of fatal crashes, was being blamed for delays in taking the decision to adopt new technologies.

Rail Research UK is funded by a £7m Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant, and aims to attract more cash from industry. However, at its launch last week, John Armitt, chief executive at Network Rail, made it clear that he does not have a lot of time or money to spare. He said that the industry would only be likely to support projects that are certain to have an immediate impact on costly problems.

And Madelin, a professor of civil engineering at Birmingham University, recognises that he will have a difficult task in developing a relationship between academia and an industry under intense pressure to pull itself out of crisis.

‘To some extent it is about establishing our credibility to deliver something that works,’ said Madelin. ‘The work of universities is seen as pie in the sky. We have to change this image of research. Rail Research UK is about delivering products that can help the rail industry in the short term.’

The question is whether Madelin is up to the job? Does he have what it takes to work with an industry that has found it difficult to reform and improve?

Madelin is a veteran of transport research, with an OBE for service to transport. From 1987 to 1999 he was a representative for the UK on the Highways Management Committee of the World Road Association, and was involved in spreading best practice between developed and developing nations.

James Sorenson, a senior construction and maintenance engineer at the Federal Highway Administration in Washington DC, worked with Madelin at the WRA and is now secretary of the management comimittee. He is not surprised at Madelin’s latest appointment.

‘He is a low-key but decisive individual who was able to work with the many different people who came together for the WRA’s meetings. While he didn’t hold a senior position on the committee he regularly took on the role of a team leader on specific tasks.

‘Here he would have to bring together 25 to 30 nations to focus on issues such as contract management. Sometimes this involved trying to persuade developing nations that it was in their interest to participate. Madelin and I worked for a number of years to bring onboard southern African nations that had been reticent about any commitment.

‘Myself and fellow committee members at the WRA know him as a solid engineer who was forward thinking and someone ready to ‘push the envelope’ in advancing technologies for highway management.’

In his first public comments on the state of the railway industry, Madelin said it has already lost too much specialist knowledge. The fracturing of British Rail through privatisation and the closure of BR’s research arm has led to the irrevocable loss of first-hand experience of rail improvement.

The UK rail industry has been without a dedicated rail research centre since. Meanwhile, concern has mounted as the numbers of applications to the EPSRC for rail research fell. A subsequent report by AEA Technology concluded that a national research centre was needed.

‘The worry was that all of the knowledge BR had developed was being lost because people were moving out of the industry. Its amazing how many good ideas were lost and forgotten and there was no formal record of them in an accessible form.

‘[Previously] research was passed on hand to mouth. One of our tasks is to ensure that knowledge is unearthed, dusted off and disseminated.’

Madelin warned that the problem could get a lot worse, with long-term implications for the industry. The answer is for industry and academia to co-operate through the research centre in order to recover some lost ground.

The centre upon which so much apparently depends will involve 12 research groups from seven universities and will be jointly led by the Universities of Birmingham and Southampton.

The EPSRC has committed £7m over the next six years. The centre will concentrate on providing a strong engineering base, improving rail safety, reliability and capacity, reducing the environmental impact, improving industry practice and making rail travel more attractive. Given the scale of the industry’s problems, this represents an extremely tall order for an organisation with a relatively small amount of cash.

But Madelin is keen to stress that the £7m funding is just a starting point, and represents the centre’s core funding. He also refutes suggestions that the multi-million pound budget is a repackaging of existing monies going to universities.

‘It is £7m of extra money. We have been told very clearly we can continue to bid for railway projects from other government research agency funding.’

The core EPSRC support will allow Madelin to offer researchers long-term contracts. He said this would provide a stable framework for rail research, whereas previously there were only individual academic projects for the sector.

He does not expect the centre to replace BR’s efforts but it could stem the loss of expertise that threatens to cripple future improvement efforts.

‘The reality is that BR’s research capability does not exist in the same form that it used to. It was far bigger than we can ever be and they had more money. We will never replace BR research.’

Madelin acknowledges that if his centre is to have any chance of becoming an effective force, industry must invest in it.

‘We expect to encourage industry to match that £7m. Frankly, I think we will have failed if, over the next two to three years, we do not get a commitment from industry for at least another £7m. That doesn’t mean to say they give us a blank cheque. What it will mean is that they will give us a mixture of money and support in kind, and we are very used to working like that.’

For example Birmingham University’s research on live track at Lempster involves working with a number of companies that provide access and safety protection in-kind. He estimates that those firms have spent thousands and thousands of pounds through their co-operation.

‘On this project, the cash value is £250,000, but we reckon we’ve had another £250,000 of support over a three-year period’.

So far as the centre is concerned, Madelin plans to spend 70 per cent of the funding on developing technologies that will be ready in the next two years. The other 30 per cent will be used for long-term research on projects expected to take five to ten years.

And he won’t tolerate industrial indifference to the work his centre produces. He has harsh words for an industry that has previously shunned academia’s proposals. A particular case of corporate preference for consultants has clearly angered the professor.

‘We developed an asset management system for the rail infrastructure, which was something the industry didn’t have. Unfortunately, Railtrack wasn’t convinced enough to use it.

‘Instead, they commissioned consultants to do a lot of work which came to nothing. They are no further ahead now than they were three years ago. If they had given us the money we could have finished our work and they could have had something up and running.’

The situation today is not much better. Network Rail is still considering the issue and, according to Madelin, is in talks with his team, which specialises in this area. For its part, the rail industry is equally determined to deter any research that is not directly applicable.

However, Madelin has already identified technologies that meet Armitt’s needs and satisfy his own criteria.

One is remote condition monitoring, which records the performance of points and level crossings so engineers can predict when they are likely to fail. Sensors on the points send data to a computer, which can be accessed remotely, allowing researchers (presently those at Birmingham University) to view the results.

Madelin is adamant that this is the kind of technology industry must take up. Like so much of UK industry, preventative maintenance simply does not happen and he sees it as a must for the rail industry.

‘That has an immediate application, because the industry has got to start predicting where problems occur rather than reacting to them afterwards.

This product has now been proven on several sites. Network Rail is introducing it to a number of sites. But with a lot more money we could have developed it more quickly.’

Reliability is a word repeated by Madelin again and again during the conversation. He was keen to make it clear that his centre will focus on improving the reliability of the whole rail system.

‘If we stop the track from breaking up so often, if we stop the train from breaking down so often, and if we can help signallers not to make too many errors or drivers to misread a signal, then we will contribute to improving reliability. Once you have got a reliable network you can schedule it, and you can put more trains onto the network’.

That reliability can only come with sustained funding. Madelin hopes that his emphasis on partnership with rail firms means a rosier financial future.

‘For the first year, I’m happy with what we’ve got, but in our second year, I would like to double that amount of money. Instead of a million I’d like to think we’d have two million available – and we’d need to expand further after that.’

However, Madelin is realistic about his centre’s prospects, and knows there is unlikely to be any rapid change.

‘I’d like to believe that we can make a difference. But the issue here is the scale of the industry’s problems. We can provide some tools and help the industry to look in a new way at solving these problems, some of which are fairly old. We can help, but we can’t do it all on our own.’


Keith Madelin gained an MSc in Transportation and Environmental Planning from The University of Birmingham in 1964. He worked in local government, specialising in traffic engineering, transport policy and maintenance management, before being appointed deputy county surveyor of West Midlands County in 1974, and in 1982, county surveyor of Shropshire. Madelin wrote the first Local Authority Associations Code of Good Practice for Highway Maintenance in 1983, co-chaired the Highways and Utilities Committee from 1990 to 1995, and represented the UK on the Highways Management Committee of the World Road Association from 1987 to 1999. He is a fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Highways and Transportation, and was awarded an OBE for services to transport in 1994. Madelin rejoined Birmingham University in 1996 as professor of civil engineering, where he now specialises in asset management and its application to roads and railways.