In a growing landscape where research, development and innovation are vital to meeting the rail industry’s future needs, Rail Research UK Association (RRUKA) has become an established focal point for universities and industry alike.

Set up in 2010 to be a partnership between the GB rail industry and UK universities, RRUKA has been steadily developing its operation and profile. From a small core of researchers with a strong history of railway research, RRUKA now has nearly 35 universities and research institutes in its membership. Colin Dennis, director of Policy Research and Risk, RSSB, and co-chair of RRUKA said: ‘When RSSB and Network Rail agreed to fund RRUKA, we were keen to reach out to all universities who could contribute to the future development of the rail industry. The fact that we have such a diverse membership, growing all the time, will allow the considerable knowledge already in the rail sector to benefit from the research and solutions being developed in other industries.’

Bespoke events for industry’s issues

This was demonstrated at RRUKA’s first workshop, held in December 2011, where Network Rail asked RRUKA to bring together academics who could propose solutions to the issue of how to safely minimise the time spent undertaking maintenance and renewals, to maximise line availability. Healthcare logistics experts, nanotechnologists and space technology experts took their places alongside traditional railway experts to explore the issues, and RRUKA is now seeing the emerging results of three feasibility projects funded by RSSB after the workshop, looking at optimising possessions, and more effective use of data.

The opportunity to explore issues on behalf of industry at bespoke events continues to be a core part of RRUKA’s activities. In July, economists, modellers and engineers were brought together at an event instigated by ATOC, looking at ways to reduce the whole life cost of the train system.

At a time where cost is continually being questioned, alternative ways of approaching train specification and train design to drastically cut costs are keenly sought. ‘I was very encouraged by the range of expertise of the people who participated in the event and of the breadth and scope of the ideas that were submitted and we were able to support,’ commented Louise Shaw, head of Engineering at ATOC, following the funding of three further feasibility studies.

Simon Iwnicki, Professor of Railway Engineering at the University of Huddersfield and academic co-chair of RRUKA reflected: ‘At all of the events, we have been pleased to hear how open the industry seems to be at being challenged. ‘Don’t be constrained by the way we do things right now’ is becoming an increasingly common direction. This is very welcome for researchers, who are well-placed to propose innovative solutions. Much of the research funded after these workshops has explored more novel ideas than would usually be considered for funding within the usual railway industry business.’

Industry priorities focus universities’ research

RRUKA has recently turned its attention to the newly published Rail Technical Strategy 2012 (RTS), which provides something vital for researchers: long-term direction.

By understanding rail’s priorities over a 30-year time horizon, researchers can direct their research to tackling those issues. Since industry has funding available to support the achievement of its vision, researchers are keen to understand how they can play their part.

In February, 90 researchers from 25 universities gathered to form their response to the RTS 2012 and create an academic-led research strategy. This is expected to help industry understand where university strengths lie in helping it to deliver on the RTS and to fund research appropriately in the areas where expertise is lacking.

Strength in depth

The unique selling point of RRUKA is its breadth of capabilities and its collaborative network. This was showcased at its first Annual Conference in November 2012, where researchers shared the diversity of research being carried out with a mixed audience of university and senior industry figures. Keynote speeches from Professor Richard Parry-Jones CBE, chairman of Network Rail, Francis How, technical director, RIA, and Paul Stein, chief scientific officer, Rolls-Royce showed how other influential people are engaging with RRUKA.

Bringing the different disciplines together at one event gives people context for their own area and allows them to gain an understanding of the different issues facing other parts of the railway. The networking made possible at this type of event paves the way for future partnerships and projects.

World-leading research in UK

RRUKA is now ready to take steps into new areas. Its new business plan outlines its focus, including enabling access to opportunities.

One of the areas it will explore is how it can coordinate the work of UK universities in European projects.

Andy Doherty, chair of ERRAC, systems director, Network Rail, and RRUKA committee member said: ‘UK universities are sought after in Europe for their expertise. We really have world-leading research here. But when a consortium of 20 partners contains several UK universities, questions are asked – more diversity is expected. RRUKA is looking at ways that this could be overcome, which could allow more inclusion for smaller partners and less administrative burden in getting involved.’

Partnerships and collaboration

Research is not all about PhDs and long-term projects and another area that will be the focus of attention is raising industry’s awareness of the different ways they can work with universities. There are many different mechanisms available, which will suit different needs. These were shared with the participants of a breakout session at RIA’s Innovation conference in March, who heard about the opportunities of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, collaborative research, masters projects and university consultancy. They all have different funding requirements and different timescales, but if a company wants to explore or develop a new offering or solution, universities may be the most effective way of achieving that.

RRUKA can advise on the mechanisms and put companies in touch with universities who may be able to help.

Partnering with industry is of increasing importance for universities in an environment where continuity in research funding is a concern. With reduced government budget to the research councils, a key source of funding for universities, sustaining the research base and skills is a challenge. RRUKA is keenly aware of this and so the partnerships and opportunities it is able to help bring about are at the forefront of its thinking.

‘RRUKA has been very positive for universities,’ said Simon Iwnicki, ‘Although there are a few strong railway research groups there has not previously been such a strong buy-in from industry. Now it really feels as though industry is part of the partnership and the way it is engaging with the academic community allows us as academics to fully understand the industry issues.

With all the different funding mechanisms opening up, and having industry supporting us, it is a great time to be involved in railway research.

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