Alex Burrows, Director of the Birmingham Centre for Rail Research and Education (BCRRE) and the Rail Alliance is interviewed by Marketing Director, Eli Rees-King (Rail Alliance) on behalf of Rail Professional…

How did you get started and how did you end up in rail? 

Completely by accident having trained as a solicitor! I have spent a decade working in the transport sector starting at the West Midlands Transport Authority (Centro as it was known then) with a focus on transport strategy and policy. I took the role because I had a latent interest in transport, the role sounded interesting (and it certainly was).

How important is education and skills to the UK and what does BCRRE do to support the younger generation with their journey into rail? 

Developing the skills of future generations will be ever more key to our shared success. I hope that we can attract more people into rail who had never thought they could develop a fantastic career in the sector. BCRRE sets out to enable the rail industry to prosper. From training future generations of railway engineers to developing world-leading technologies, we collaborate with industry and academia to drive UK and global rail innovation. It is well-known that multiple high-speed rail and metro projects are a high priority for economies in the UK and around the world over the coming decades. Add the fact that existing international railway infrastructure is under increasing pressure, high quality graduates are in high demand and a railway-related degree brings access to a wealth of exciting international employment possibilities.

Our taught programmes are delivered by academics and industrialists to blend theory with practise and are producing the next generation of systems-thinking railway engineers and professionals who will be at the forefront of transforming what railways offer in the future.

Why did you get involved in the rail sector deal and what input did you have? 

The Rail Sector Deal gave us an opportunity to demonstrate to Government that our sector could work together and build on the work we had done previously with the Rail Supply Group. Having previously worked on the team that delivered RSG Sector Strategy and assisted with the creation of the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) I was keen to use my experience from those projects to support the development of the Rail Sector Deal.

What attracted you to joining BCRRE and what difference do you feel you have made to the department? 

I knew BCRRE well from my time at Alstom, having collaborated on research on subjects including the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS) and hydrogen fuel cell technology. I should also confess that I started my PhD research while at Alstom, something I am trying to do in my spare time… to varying degrees of success! Knowing the BCRRE team and their capabilities and skills, I felt I could add to the blend to help build the group and its work further. The ambition of BCRRE, supported by the University of Birmingham, is hugely exciting and, with the new School of Engineering currently under construction, we are in a period of development that has seen us rapidly grow to become the largest specialist railway research, education and innovation centre in Europe.

My goal is to develop a team at BCRRE that can realise its ambition and fulfil its potential to truly revolutionise the railway.

What will the UK Rail Research Innovation Network (UKRRIN) do to support UK rail industry that isn’t being done already?

That is a key question that we must really tell to as much of the industry as possible. I cannot overstate how much potential UKRRIN has to turn the buzzwords of ‘collaboration’ and ‘innovation’ into tangible outcomes. We are already seeing this happen after the first year of business. Our university partners are all seeing an increase in industry interest and collaborative projects emerging. From our perspective, we have seen much more engagement with industry and a better understanding of how industry and academia can collaborate to deliver research, development and innovation activities that can deliver benefits to railway users, customers and the industry.

Our HydroFLEX project with Porterbrook is one great example of how UKRRIN has been a catalyst for industry investment in R&D. I hope that UKRRIN will demonstrate that the UK has world-leading expertise in rail R&D and that the rail industry can derive significant benefit from investing in UKRRIN.

What is the story behind the Rail Alliance joining to be part of BCRRE and how does this change what BCRRE was doing before?

Rail Alliance joining BCRRE is a fantastic development for us. The University of Birmingham, like many others, has a strong focus on working with industry to deliver research and education that is relevant and has real-world impact. For BCRRE, integrating the Rail Alliance into our team has been a perfect fit by providing a clear, direct channel for engagement between this large SME community and our academic centre. With our strengths across railway research, education and innovation, we now have a more direct route into industry, to accelerate innovation and have a much closer alignment with the practical impact of our research and the market it addresses.

You mentioned HydroFLEX – why is this an exciting project for you personally as well as for BCRRE and the UK rail industry as a whole?

HydroFLEX is a project I am particularly excited to be involved with. Obviously, I am familiar with hydrogen fuel cell technology and its application to rail from my time at Alstom. I felt hugely frustrated that there is plenty of enthusiasm and capability to make it happen in the UK but that the conditions were not being created to support innovation in this space. The market does not fully exist to enable investment in innovation activity to develop this technology to bring it to market and we were at an impasse.

A conversation with the Porterbrook team during Rail Live 2018 led to us agreeing to explore how we might take our R&D work that brought about ‘Hydrogen Hero’ (developed for the 2018 IMechE Railway Challenge and on display at Rail Live 2018) and apply it to one of Porterbrook’s off-lease class 319 units that were reserved for conversion to a Flex unit at a future date. By Innotrans in September 2018 we had an agreement in place to proceed and nine months later we have the HydroFLEX demonstrator running at Rail Live 2019!

Scaling up BCRRE research into a demonstrator in such a short space of time is a major achievement and the partnership between BCRRE and Porterbrook has been fantastic. It is also a great illustration of the impact of the UKRRIN and of how to realise closer, more effective collaboration between academia and industry.

What about plans for the future – how do you see the UK rail industry changing and do you believe that projects such as HS2 are valuable for the UK to pursue?

Obviously, we have a number of big plans for the future, but I am not going to share those! The rail industry has two major innovation challenge areas – digitalisation and decarbonisation. We at BCRRE and the Rail Alliance are geared up to address those challenges. For example, the University of Birmingham is home to the UKRRIN Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems, where companies will be able to take advantage of state-of-the-art research and development facilities.

Is international engagement important to the university and if yes, why is that?

Absolutely yes. Universities are inquisitive, engaging, questioning and curious and an international outlook is a key part of that. BCRRE has strong links with both universities and national rail industries across the world.

We have successful partnerships in Singapore and China, in particular, with a number of other relationships building that will see further large research and education collaborations for BCRRE taking place across the world.

In addition, the Rail Alliance’s position as a founder member of the European Rail Clusters Initiative has added a fantastic new network to BCRRE and provided us with a large number of exciting new opportunities.

What advice would you give your younger self? 

Believe in yourself and your ideas! It might surprise some people to know that, until well into my 20s, I lacked confidence and loathed public-speaking.