UK company brings future hi-tech leaders on track

A valuable funding programme administered by the Knowledge Transfer Network in the UK has engaged a raft of creative businesses with the rail industry, bringing forward the latest discoveries in rail and other critical sectors. KTN’s dedicated rail manager is on a mission to bring a blend of experience and innovation to a sector that sways between steam age and space age.

Problem solving has been institutionalised, in a good way. KTN is government-sponsored Innovate UK’s network partner, working to link new ideas that could transform the railways of Britain with expertise, markets and finance through its network of businesses, universities, funders and investors.

Competition awards

Bringing those thought-leaders to the table is the intention behind the First of a Kind 2020 Rail Innovation Programme, funded by the UK Department for Transport in partnership with Innovate UK and delivered by the Knowledge Transfer Network.

The competitive programme has awarded 9.4 million British pounds (10.4 million euros) in funding to 25 start-up projects, many with direct implications and benefits for freight railway operations.

Bridging gap between innovation and implementation

“The winners will make railways cleaner, greener and more efficient for freight and passenger operations”, said Daisy Chapman-Chamberlain, the KTN rail knowledge transfer manager, who is keen to put emphasis on the benefits of bridging the gap between innovation and implementation.

Cutting edge every day. Daisy Chapman-Chamberlain manages the rail division of the Knowledge Transfer Network in the UK (image KTN).

“We are all about providing innovation and funding stream support to companies within the rail sector and supply chain and promoting knowledge transfer between the science base and the industry, alongside key rail stakeholders, ensuring delivery of key regional and national strategies”, she says.

Bright ideas

Projects within this round of funding include hydrogen fuel technology and track maintenance innovations. The UK government has been actively encouraging alternative fuel technology as a key driver behind their commitment to a green economy by 2050.

Technology makes this platform warm – touch your screen to feel for yourself (Image TKN)

There are less conventional, free-thinking ideas in the mix too. Among them, a concept for thermally-conducting concrete, for ice-free platforms. Initially aimed at the passenger network, the application has benefits for freight, especially where station infrastructure may be used out of hours for goods movements, when the environment is colder and manual handling would benefit from safer surface conditions.

Benefits for freight sector

KTN works to solve challenges for both passenger rail and freight. There is a degree of overlap, and projects commissioned for the passenger sector do have benefits for freight too.

Maintenance day and night, keeping the railway running (Freight Transport Association)

“Trackside maintenance is a good example”, says Chapman-Chamberlain. “We are discussing initiatives that can be implemented to support social distancing and enhanced biological protection for the workforce, meaning that the railway can be kept in good shape for all users. Innovation in automation, for example, can help keep up productivity without compromising health and safety, which is an area the KTN transport team focusses strongly on.”

Technology for training

“The challenges around route learning for drivers apply to passenger and freight services alike; we are currently discussing a range of solutions to enhance driver training as much as possible, which is crucial for learning within both sectors”, says Chapman-Chamberlain.

The change in attitude to freight during the pandemic crisis has heightened awareness, and accelerated interest in the market. That may well translate into greater demand for trained staff in future, to service increased demand. “Freight has rightly been given the credit it deserves for keeping Britain going during this crisis”, says Chapman-Chamberlain. “This perspective continuing into the future will only facilitate greater innovation and opportunity within freight.”

Predictions for the industry

Looking to the future, Chapman-Chamberlain says that the KTN is encouraging collaboration and innovation at a critical time, not just for the industry. “Investment in rail is a clear route to economic regeneration, enabling operators to deliver services more efficiently, boosting Britain’s decarbonisation agenda and positioning our national rail networks, operators and suppliers as world-leading now and into the future.”

With the potential for further competitive funding rounds, there are opportunities for more innovation, and more potential benefits for the rail freight sector. Chapman-Chamberlain welcomes that, and welcomes the prospect of more collaborators playing a part in shaping the future rail network.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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