When American scientist William Edwards Deming said that ‘innovation comes from the producer, not the customer’ he could easily have been talking about the rail sector

The wealth of innovation in the sector at the moment is staggering; from manufacturers’ development of hydrogen trains – reducing emissions at the delivery point, to Talgo’s promotion of the patented ‘Rodal’ system – delivering higher speeds on existing tracks, and at the same time dramatically reducing wear and tear on tired infrastructure.

All of this is important, because not only have the total passenger kilometres risen staggeringly (up from 38 billion at the turn of the century, to 65 billion last year), there are more trains, operating over a greater distance than ever before.

We are operating an increasingly digital service on an ageing Victorian system and the only way that it will continue to work – and improve – is through innovation and greater efficiency. Sometimes that involves great leaps forward; sometimes it means sensible development and adaptation of what we already have.

Passengers may have replaced top hats and canes with smartphones and laptops – but how can we, the industry, drive innovation on a system where even some of the newer infrastructure is well over one hundred years old?

We have already seen the huge benefits that Transport for London (TfL) sharing their data free of charge has brought about, with Deloitte estimating the information is helping London’s economy by up to £130 million a year. Now the ‘Sector Deal’ with Government will see the establishment of a platform for securely sharing rail industry data that will enable the development of ‘innovative customer-focused products, which will enhance passenger experience’.

Joined up thinking and sharing is exactly what the industry needs. Open source information now permits applications such as traksy.uk, which provides the same view that a signaller would receive on screen – particularly useful for when you grind to a halt in the middle of nowhere, and the traincrew aren’t exactly forthcoming in explanations.

Another result of open-source information is real time trains. This app (http://www.realtimetrains.co.uk/apps) shows trains due at or due to pass a particular point; it often provides a more accurate indication of when your train will arrive, than the station-based systems (some of which do not ‘trigger’ lateness until a particular threshold has been reached).

Of course, not all the information is available yet. ‘Commercial confidentiality’ restricts access to delay causation and incident codes. However, if the public had access to the information that explained why their frequent morning commute delays were regularly caused by, say a freight operator’s repetitive slow movements further up the line, then (apart from some embarrassment for the operator) it could trigger a whole new range of activity and external research: the sort of research that leads to innovation.

The ‘evolution/revolution’ argument continues over whether other projects can be viewed as either adaptation to circumstance, or innovation in their own right. Whilst bi-mode locomotives have operated on Britain’s railways since the 1960s, these were intended primarily to operate at the periphery of the network, in remote sidings, where third-rail electrification was undesirable given human and other factors.

Nobody can seriously compare the ageing class 73 with the heavy-haul capability of a Vossloh-conceived class 88, over the hills of the northern West Coast Main Line. Similarly, detractors to Hitachi’s response to the Department for Transport’s scaled-down electrification programme may claim that the company has simply bolted a few underfloor engines to an otherwise smooth and powerful electric multiple-unit. They miss the point; Hitachi has risen to the challenge of a suboptimal situation and provided a solution.

Viva Rail’s bold conversion of former London Underground trains – to include battery and diesel-engine options – has created the opportunity for greater efficiencies in the UK. Elsewhere, there are export opportunities, with the prospect of entirely new services being trialled at realistic cost, using a ‘pop up metro’ concept.

Innovation doesn’t always come from the ‘usual suspects’ and their multi-million R&D budgets. For instance, the projected shortfall of freight locomotives for GB Railfreight has led to an innovative solution, where dormant class 56 locomotives have been rescued from the knacker’s yard and will undergo a vigorous re-engineering programme, to include new engines, new systems, and a further design life measurable in decades.

Thanks to the Government’s Industrial Strategy, coming up with bright ideas is one of the key commitments in the Rail Sector Deal. However, whilst the rail industry has never been short of good ideas (the Advanced Passenger Train being one of them), turning them into a practical proposition has not always been a smooth process. That appears to be changing, as more and more are prepared to give it a go. It seems that the more people and organisations there are involved, the greater the opportunities.

One such example is the partnership between the ROSCO Porterbrook, and the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education – who have jointly developed the UK’s first full-sized hydrogen train from a Class 319 electric multiple unit.

But times are a-changing as we welcome new disruptive innovators to the UK. Spanish firm Talgo has a global reach, and has been building trains for over 75 years, yet until recently it was relatively unheard of in the UK. With plans afoot to bring patented technology – including independently rotating wheels and a quantum leap in efficiency – to the UK, the future is bright.

Part of Talgo’s contribution to joined-up thinking and partnership working across the supply-chain is an ‘innovation centre’ in Chesterfield. This will be an interactive process with the production facility in Longannet.

Together with a far greater integration with the UK supply-chain than assemblers, Talgo believes that its ‘true manufacturing’ philosophy, transplanted from Spain, will encourage development and innovation and further the renaissance in the sector.

British Rail had an excellent research and development capability. It left a legacy from which the sector has continued to grow. There are probably more people and organisations working to innovate now than ever before. Long may it continue.

Lucy Battle is a Director at Freshwater, a full-service corporate communications and public relations consultancy with over a decade’s experience advising organisations in the rail sector. To get in touch, email [email protected] or call 020 7067 1595.