Nicola Anderson of Withers & Rogers looks at innovation from  grassroots through to major infrastructure projects…

Britain’s railway is undergoing some major changes thanks to a number of ground-breaking projects, which are promising to transform the country’s Victorian rail infrastructure into a state-of-the-art modern transport system that is fit for purpose for decades to come.

With several major infrastructure programmes underway, including HS2 and Crossrail, and others expected to begin soon, such as the east-west northern powerhouse rail link, the sector is experiencing a wave of innovation activity. This will form the basis of multiple research and development projects. 

Along with established rail sector engineering companies, such as Alstom UK and Siemens, a host of small and/or early-stage businesses have been involved in the design and manufacture of some highly innovative technologies – from long-length escalators to new tunnelling construction methods. 

Data analysis by European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers, reveals a 37 per cent increase in the volume of patent applications made at the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) for rail-related innovations from 2014 to 2017 inclusive, compared to the four years prior. Many of these applications were first filings, suggesting that the origin of the application is likely to be the UK rather than elsewhere in the world. This data is indicative of the strength of rail sector innovation in the UK, much of which is linked to the delivery of specific infrastructure programmes past and present – from HS1, which completed in 2016, to programmes that are underway currently. 

Encouraging grassroots innovation

To encourage more grassroots innovation in the UK, Network Rail has recently joined forces with Connected Paces Catapult (CPC) to launch ‘Innovation Station’ – an initiative that aims to solve some of the biggest problems facing British railway stations, using Manchester Piccadilly Station as a testbed. Among the areas of focus, the initiative will be collecting real-time crowding information on platforms and finding new ways to monitor and check station equipment. In another recent development, Siemens Mobility is soon to start work on a new Rail Accelerator and Innovations Solutions Hub for Enterprise (RaisE) in Goole, East Yorkshire, which will share the same site as a new £200 million manufacturing facility. The rail engineering company is also extending its research partnership with the University of Birmingham, which will also be involved in the RaisE initiative, with the aim of creating a pipeline of innovation for the rail industry. 

Adding further impetus to rail sector innovation, the Department for Transport and Innovate UK launched the First of a Kind 2020 competition at the start of the year. This annual competition, which has a prize fund of £9.4 million for this year’s winners, aims to find new ways to improve rail journeys for passengers and to decarbonise the network. A former winner of the competition, Porterbrook Leasing Company, has integrated emissions technology onto a diesel multiple unit operating in a normal passenger service. A Porterbrook Class 150 train has been installed with after-treatment technology, developed by Eminox, to test whether mid-life rolling stock could achieve the as-new, ultra-low emissions of Stage IIIB diesel engines. The early-stage research is showing promising results.

Patents by programme

A closer examination of rail-related patents filed at the EPO reveals that many are directly linked to the delivery of major infrastructure programmes. For example, HS1, which involved the construction of a high-speed rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel, was the focus for a number of key innovations, which have since been employed on other programmes. Hitachi, which manufactured the British Rail Class 395 fleet, filed a patent application for an adaptive rail car suspension control system with an adjustable vibration cushioning apparatus. The control system aims to reduce the levels of vibration and swing when turning corners. The control system also detects real-time site information on the optimum strength of the control force acting on the cushioning apparatus. This data is subsequently used to optimise the strength of the control force and adjust the levels of vibration cushioning.

Similarly, Crossrail has inspired a significant amount of innovation activity, particularly in the area of tunnelling. Balfour Beatty and Morgan Sindall were both contracted to build access shafts for Whitechapel Station and London Liverpool Street Station. Morgan Sindall filed a patent application for a novel method of forming lining element, such as precast concrete units, for use in tunnels and access shafts. The precast concrete units have arcuate profiles and angled end faces, which means they can be arranged to form non-circular linings to shafts or tunnels. 

Balfour Beatty has a granted GB patent for apparatus that aims to improve the efficiency of installing cables in tunnels with access shafts. The apparatus comprises a motorised vehicle with an arm at the front, which is used for sagging the cable. There is also an arm at the rear of the vehicle, with a roller arrangement for positioning the cable in a final position.

While the delivery of HS2 is still relatively early stage, some inventions with potential for much wider, potentially global application, have already emerged. The engineering and consulting group, Systra, which has won two construction contracts on HS2, has recently had a patent application published relating to a new fixing device for sleepers. This fixing device has a guiding rod for positioning the sleeper body in the base plate and an anchor bolt for fixing the sleeper body in the slab track. This arrangement aims to increase the service life of sleepers used on high-speed rail tracks. Recognising the value of reaching out to innovators, HS2 also has an innovation hub and holds its own hackathons to encourage fresh ideas. 

Accelerating change

In an industry that has been accused of being slow to change in the past, innovation activity is definitely alive and kicking in the UK’s rail sector and the Government’s promise of an ‘infrastructure revolution’ should help to accelerate progress, assuming it doesn’t get derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. In order to realise the potential of this fresh wave of innovation, however, the exciting technologies that are now emerging must be adopted widely.

Of course, intellectual property rights play an important role in making this happen, as global patent protection enables innovative businesses to commercialise their inventions quickly, without the risk of losing out to reverse engineers. Once patent protection has been applied for, they can confidently embark on collaborative initiatives to develop their technologies and ensure they are ready for mainstream application. Alternatively, if their business model is more focused on ideas generation, they might choose to license their inventions to third parties, in exchange for royalty payments, so they can concentrate on coming up with more new ideas.

Whichever route they choose to take, it’s important that today’s innovators leave a lasting legacy, which will benefit Britain’s railway for many years to come. This will involve sponsoring continued research and development here in the UK and encouraging more industry-wide collaboration.

Nicola Anderson is a patent attorney at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers. She is a member of the Advanced Engineering Group.