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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Transport Minister unveils university rail research centre

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The Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, has officially opened the Institute of Railway Research (IRR) at Huddersfield University.

The IRR’s team of researchers, headed by its director Professor Simon Iwnicki, had been at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Rail Technology Unit which had specialised in vehicle dynamics, switches, crossing and rolling contact fatigue.

However, with Huddersfield’s offer of better facilities, Simon and his team moved over the Pennines last summer. Since then, Huddersfield University has modified its technology building to provide the IRR with a reception area, laboratory, research offices and meeting room.

The Minister, who opened the site on April 15, was clearly impressed and spent the morning at the IRR to inspect its facilities, hear about its research and meet its researchers and students. This included a demonstration of the laboratory equipment together with various rail and wheel failures. On visiting the researcher’s offices he was shown the simulations used to model various research projects.

On a test track outside the Institute, students demonstrated a part-built miniature locomotive to be entered in this year’s IMechE Railway Challenge.

Professor Iwnicki feels there is a need for initiatives such as this to attract graduates to the rail industry which he felt was something of a Cinderella area in contrast to the automotive and aerospace sectors. As an example, it is difficult to find PhD students for rail research.

The IRR is a member of the Rail Research UK Association (RRUKA) which was founded in 2011 with support from RSSB. RRUKA provides a partnership between universities and the rail industry and is co-chaired by Simon Iwnicki and Colin Denis of RSSB. Hence it was understandable that RSSB’s deputy chief executive, Anson Jack was present at the opening ceremony.

An opening ceremony would not be complete without speeches and the unveiling of a plaque. In his speech, Bob Cryan, the university’s Vice Chancellor, recalled that in Beeching’s time, 50 years ago, railways were widely regarded as a relic of the past and felt 1960s future-gazers would be surprised at the importance of today’s railway with its challenges for which IRR’s research is highly relevant. This point was taken up by Simon Iwnicki who felt that one reason for the IRR’s success was it being active in both fundamental and applied research.

Anson Jack was glad of the opportunity to travel out of London to see investment in rail research, for which he praised Huddersfield University’s leadership. He was proud of RSSB’s role in setting up RRUKA and hoped that the Minister would be sufficiently impressed with what he saw to expand investment in rail research.

In his response, Patrick McLaughlin noted that Anson’s bid for increased spending was the first he had received this week. He felt the rail industry had come a long way as he recalled how they were perceived during his time at the Department of Transport – as part of Mrs Thatcher’s government 24 years ago. After congratulating Huddersfield University for establishing the IRR, he duly unveiled the plaque to mark its opening.

This event also provided The Rail Engineer with an opportunity to interview the Minister who advised that the Government’s support of rail research was part its commitment to the industry, which included the unpopular decision on HS2.

He also cited record levels of investment but acknowledged the stop-start nature of rolling stock procurement was an issue for the industry. He confirmed that the government was closely monitoring recommendations in the McNulty report noting that the report had identified the savings from innovation as a result of research such as that undertaken by the IRR. He was adamant that rail franchises would now be let in an effective manner following changes made in his department and that one lesson learned was that only one big main line franchise should be let each year.

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