Dr Jenny Illingsworth, Deputy Director, Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education at University of Birmingham explores the opportunities presented by the Digital Railway…

I expect the concept, or at least the name, of the Digital Railway is not new to most readers. These are exciting times to digitise the UK’s railway… But what does it really mean for your company, your business, even your sector within the industry? And how can you get into digital? What are the opportunities and where can you find them?

You wouldn’t be reading Rail Professional if you didn’t agree that the rail industry plays an important role in the UK economy. Backing up this opinion is an independent study, commissioned by the Rail Industry Association (RIA) in 2018, which found that the rail industry contributes over £36 billion each year to the UK economy, over 600,000 jobs in the sector and £11 billion produced annually in tax revenue. Looking forward there is an unprecedented pipeline of investment into the UK railway system, with £87 billion currently committed to rail infrastructure projects across the UK including HS2, and the national Digital Railway initiative to digitise the mainline network and invest billions of pounds during CP6 alone. Added to UK investment in rail, there is €176 billion (£157 billion) available through existing international markets, and many more new export markets are opening up.

The UK leads the world in technical foresight: look at the 2012 Rail Technical Strategy (RTS) and 2017 RTS Capability Delivery Plan. Both have heavily influenced global thinking, particularly the EU Shift2Rail Programme for research and development. The challenge facing the industry is to translate these grand plans and policies for traditional academic pursuits into step-change improvements to railway operations and innovative new UK-made products.

What the UK’s rail industry needs is support for business and the means to foster collaboration and innovation. Here at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) we are poised to do exactly this. BCRRE is lead partner in the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN); we have a portfolio of around £10 million worth of funded research projects taking place at any time; we teach the UK’s two leading postgraduate Rail Systems Masters programmes and we offer unique undergraduate degrees specialising in railway engineering.

To go alongside this traditional academic activity, BCRRE is reaching out to UK companies of all shapes and sizes with an agenda for innovation and application of ideas into the industry.

The DIGI-RAIL project is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and provides business and innovation support to eligible small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Birmingham & Solihull and Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership areas. The DIGI-RAIL team of technical and business support specialists are available for general discussion, business planning, technical expertise, demonstration facilities, and access to technology providers and buyers from industry. Co-funded by the University of Birmingham, the DIGI-RAIL project makes its laboratories and experts available to help with research and development, to foster partnerships and develop new digital rail products and services. Eligible SMEs can choose from a menu of support activities, from seminars and workshops through to bespoke consultations, diagnostic activities and hands-on technical assistance. Led by Professor Clive Roberts, Project Manager Louise Woodall and Business Engagement Manager Al-Amin Dabo, the Digi-Rail project has already engaged with 60 companies in the regions eligible.

At the launch event in March this year, Al-Amin Dabo commented: ‘We are delighted to have launched the Digi-Rail project in March and, by working with SMEs on specific R&D challenges we anticipate seeing the development of new products, processes and services into the rail industry. This in turn will provide substantial benefit for the businesses involved through increase turnover and by creating more jobs in the sector.’

See www.birmingham.ac.uk/digi-rail for more details and how to benefit and look out for news of DIGI-RAIL in other areas of the country.

What if your company is not an SME in either of these two regions? 

There is good news, whether your company is already doing business in the rail industry or if you are seeking to enter. In late 2018 BCRRE absorbed the activities of the Rail Alliance, the UK’s foremost trade association and networking organisation in the rail sector. BCRRE and the Rail Alliance together aims to create the largest community in rail and offers complete supply chain solutions, from fledgling ideas right through to commercialisation.

A freemium membership model opens the community to all sizes of company with access to the online community, news and open events. Community partnership comes at nominal cost and adds benefits including attendance at events, promotional opportunities and discounts at events such as Rail Live.

It is these events and the opportunities for networking which makes the Rail Alliance one of the industry’s most popular associations and the Digital Railway is central to much of its forthcoming events. Look out for news about Get Into Rail (digital) and The Digital Railway Revolution events coming up in the next few months. Details will be available on www.railalliance.co.uk and follow @therailalliance on Twitter to keep up with the news.

The Rail Alliance doesn’t just reach into the UK rail industry. It is the UK’s representative in the PERES project (Promoting European Railway Excellence outside of the EU) and arranged a successful trade mission to the US. It is also a core member of the European Railway Clusters Initiative (ERCI), which brings together customers, suppliers and supply chain opportunities from across Europe and the world. Demonstrating the benefit that the combined BCRRE and Rail Alliance brings to the UK, BCRRE signed cooperation agreements in May this year with the Faculty of Transport and Traffic Engineering at the University of Belgrade and with the Rail Cluster for South-East Europe. These agreements pave the way to open academic and business opportunities between the two regions.

Spreading the digital railway message in a practical way for business planning, in June this year BCRRE hosted the third Digital Railway conference together with Network Rail’s Digital Railway group, Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and the Rail Industry Association (RIA). Themed ‘The Digital Journey: Putting Passengers (and freight) First’, the conference addressed the digital railway from the perspective of government, Network Rail and both passenger and freight operators. It went on to look at ways to achieve the digital railway, with lessons learnt from other sectors’ experience of digital innovation means to achieve innovation in our challenging sector. See the digital railway website at www.digitalrailway.co.uk.

Higher education – knowledge is power!

BCRRE is the first University in the UK to offer education as well as research, development and innovation for the digital railway. Its MSc in Railway Safety and Control Systems offers a pathway on Communications and Control which was developed in collaboration with the Institution of Railway Signalling Engineers and which emphasises the knowledge and understanding needed for digital railway control. Level 6 and Level 7 Rail and Rail Systems Engineering degree apprenticeships are now available, and autumn 2019 sees the first entrants and employers taking advantage of this opportunity, studying to BEng (level 6) and MSc (level 7) within their integrated programmes.

We are using our long-standing expertise in BCRRE to take a lead in the digital transformation of our railways. The future will bring more challenges to our network and the way in which t rains operate. By driving digital innovation we can make improvements to the sector for the benefit of passengers and operators both in the UK and internationally.

Dr Jenny Illingsworth is Deputy Director, Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education at the University of Birmingham.

Tel: 0121 414 4165

Email: [email protected] 

Visit: www.birmingham.ac.uk/railway