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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

The Innovation Challenge

Written by David Shirres for the rail engineer

One of the many definitions for the word “Innovation” is “the introduction of new technology that adds value”.

Over 150 years ago, the early railways proved themselves to be a most successful innovation by creating a huge increase in economic activity from significantly improved transport.

However, as with all things, the world moves on and unfortunately Great Britain’s railways are not as good at innovation today.

That is the conclusion reached by Sir Roy McNulty’s study “Realising the potential of GB rail”.

This value-for-money study concludes that Britain’s railways are underperforming in innovation because of industry fragmentation, the need for immediate returns, an absence of incentives to innovate, a lack of a management structure to drive innovation, the restrictive application of standards undermining innovation, the lack of suitable test facilities and insufficient investment in research and development.

McNulty concludes that improvements in safety, standards and innovation could save £190 million by 2018/19 or between 18 and 26% of the total estimated savings from recommendations in his report.

Sir Roy’s findings are supported by a study undertaken by Atkins entitled “Improving Management & Delivery of Innovation”, which is essential reading for anyone with an interest in UK rail innovation.

Network Rail’s new approach

So how is Network Rail responding to McNulty’s innovation challenge? In an exclusive interview with the rail engineer, Steve Yianni, Network Rail’s Chief Engineer, sets out his strategy to improve innovation in Network Rail and explains how, in some areas, it has pre-empted Sir Roy’s recommendations.

Steve opened by stating “For some time Network Rail has recognised that there are issues with the way it introduces new technology and that an improved approach is required to improve processes and increase supplier engagement”.

He explained that, early in 2010, Network Rail started to compare the way it introduced technology both with other parts of the rail sector and with other industries.

From this comparison a new process was developed and piloted, starting first with 10 and eventually with 56 projects. The process was then finalised on the basis of feedback from users, external parties, stakeholders and launched in February 2011.

Network Rail’s new innovation process consists of four stages

Think: Ensure that the problem is understood to establish a clear business need as previously products had been developed when there wasn’t one. A Network Rail sponsor is identified to drive product development.

Explore: Establish a preferred solution through a form of brainstorming process. This explores and tests potential solutions on a cross-discipline basis.

Prove: Develop the preferred solution to the stage when it can be tested to demonstrate that the design intent is met, including any necessary safety approvals.

Do: Implement, ensuring that all necessary support, training and resources are in place and that all concerned know of the new product.

Steve acknowledged that, previously, suppliers wanting to develop new products had found communication with Network Rail difficult. Often, ideas were offered but suppliers did not know how to progress them.

Even if a Network Rail contact was found, they frequently developed things which went nowhere. This was clearly a significant disincentive to innovate and showed the need for the improved supplier engagement that is now an integral part of Network Rail’s strategy.

Matching ideas to business need

“Network Rail seeks bright ideas with matchmaking website” was the title of a press release on 14 February this year as part of the launch of the new innovation process. This invited suppliers to submit their ideas to its bright ideas website, www.networkrail.co.uk/brightideas.

To ensure that submitted ideas meet a clear business need, the website lists Network Rail’s 16 Challenges and Priorities for which innovation is required. Moreover the first question on the online innovation and suggestions form is “which challenge does your solution relate to?”.

Steve explained that this list of challenges has been developed by cross-functional innovation portfolio groups which meet to review input from suppliers and refresh challenges.

This is clearly an ongoing process as, for example, there are currently no signalling challenges. The portfolio groups also provide suppliers with feedback on their ideas.

The process is not restricted to external suppliers. There is a similar scheme to capture ideas from Network Rail’s employees and encourage them to think about the challenges.

Although the new process does not change product acceptance requirements, it has been possible to speed up the process by reducing the number of products requiring approval.

Much of the backlog did not meet the business need established by the “Think” stage of the process.

In addition, simple approvals are now delegated to a more appropriate level, e.g. route asset management, and many product approvals are what Steve described as “catalogue management” and can be processed more quickly.

The Atkins report takes Network Rail’s Innovation Management System as a case study.

It considered a particularly encouraging aspect of the system to be collaboration and early engagement with suppliers, and noted how Network Rail has deployed dedicated innovation management staff and increasing innovation management capacity by delegating authority, although with varying success between disciplines.


The McNulty report commented on the large number of standards that often conflict with each other. These create excessive cost and delay and have sometimes prevented the implementation of specific initiatives.

The report concluded that this was symptomatic of the wider issue of an industry not looking at technical issues on a system-wide basis and too reliant on blind compliance with established standards.

Although such system-wide questions are the remit of the new Rail Systems Agency, Steve explained how Network Rail is taking action to minimise the impact of standards on innovation.

He agrees with McNulty that standards are sometimes used as an excuse, and accepts that some are no longer appropriate as technology has moved on since the standard was written.

Steve Yianni acknowledges that the contract awards procedure has also resulted in unnecessary constraints. Contractors are now encouraged to submit a non-compliant bid if this offers advantages, particularly if it addresses one of the 16 Challenges and Priorities.

“You tell us why that’s better” is Steve’s message to contractors. This approach is supported by Network Rail’s Procurement community who have been actively involved in the new technology process.

If justified, derogations to Network Rail standards can be quickly obtained. Steve acknowledges that derogations to Group Standards are more challenging and the McNulty report acknowledges that this is a lengthy process.

Thus, until the Rail System Agency resolves this issue, bids that don’t comply with Group Standards bids will probably fail.

However, Network Rail’s engineering standards have all been reviewed with each requirement classified as: Red – an absolute requirement; Amber – strongly recommended but derogation could be issued if sufficient justification and Green – best practice guidance but not compulsory.

Steve explained that this process supports devolution and is being piloted in the recently devolved routes where it has had positive feedback.

The concept is being shared with other parts of the industry with the intent that it be applied to Group Standards. It is likely that Steve will get his wish in this respect as, interestingly, the McNulty report recommends the Red, Amber and Green process that has already been applied to Network Rail’s standards.

Research and Development

Successful innovation requires an effective Research and Development programme. McNulty concludes that the rail industry’s current £34 million per year R&D programme lacks the structure to drive innovation across the industry and that R&D expenditure should increase to £75 million by 2018/19.

Steve would agree with the need to increase R&D spend, but points out that Network Rail is actively promoting R&D and is spending around £18 million per annum.

It is working with a number of universities, including the funding of several Chairs, has strategic relationships with Imperial College, Nottingham and Sheffield Universities, and each year runs a conference on its research activities.

Network Rail also has its Rail Innovation and Development Centre, a 10 mile test track in Nottinghamshire which is available for the whole of the rail industry. This goes some way to address McNulty’s concern about the lack of British test facilities.

Network Rail’s Journey

Reviewing progress so far, Steve Yianni described the way that Network Rail has encouraged the introduction of new technology as “a journey that Network Rail has been on over the last 18 months”. So it is, and not before time.

In December 2009, New Civil Engineer published a critical article that “slammed the rail infrastructure manager’s claims that it fosters innovation” and complained that insufficient guidance was given for innovative products.

Such criticisms no longer apply now that Network Rail has streamlined its processes and is actively engaged with its suppliers using its website to marry ideas to business needs.

It is also changing its approach to standards and promoting R&D including the introduction of new test facilities. All of which is in tune with McNulty’s approach to innovation.

Indeed Atkins’ innovation report includes a graph showing that Network Rail has the highest innovation index of any part of the UK rail industry.

A good start has been but there is still has some way to go, particularly in respect of system-wide issues outside Network Rail’s direct control. It will be fascinating to see where this journey takes the UK rail industry.


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