Information published on 3 September 2013 in the UIC electronic newsletter "UIC eNews" Nr 362.

Research and Innovation – essential components in the development of a healthy and efficient railway system

  • Research
  • Innovation

The European rail operating community (ROC) of Railway Undertakings and Infrastructure Managers believes firmly that a strong programme of Research and Innovation is a fundamental requisite in sustaining and developing the European rail system. The recognition of the importance of this is demonstrated by the European Commission’s (EC) Framework Programme for Research and Development and its new programme “Horizon 2020” that focuses on research and innovation.

Collaborative research that studies potential solutions to problem areas in the rail system has been the bedrock on which the programme until now has been built. That has contributed significantly to improvements in the rail system but the deliverables from such projects are often at a relatively low level of technical readiness and often need subsequent further development before being able to be operationally utilised or marketed.

The UIC has been particularly active on behalf of its members within this framework much of which undertaken in collaboration with other sector stakeholders through ERRAC. There have been numerous projects contributed to or coordinated by the UIC and as a result the UIC’s credibility as a reliable and professional project management body is acknowledged by the EC.

This level of technical readiness is not sustainable if the rail sector is going to be able to compete in an effective manner with the evolving transport modes such as road and aviation. Developing a programme that sets out to take innovation to a higher level that includes demonstrating the worth or applicability of the deliverables, is the objective of the thinking behind the Shift²Rail initiative.

Ever since the ROC became aware that Shift²Rail was being developed, there has been formal indication of support for such an initiative. The ROC has continually expressed its aspirations that those behind the initial scheme, principally manufacturers of railway equipment, must ensure that the programme being developed provides a level playing field for the total involvement of stakeholders from the ROC.

These aspirations need to be countered by the fact that the structure of the railway sector in Europe today has in effect created an imbalance that has directly affected the capacity of the ROC to be able to engage in large scale initiatives such as Shift²Rail. The smaller and medium-sized RUs, even if they have emerged from larger formerly-integrated organisations, are naturally very keen to ensure that the railway system of the future fits their business model. They are however not able to sustain a significant research and innovation team and associated budget. Even if there are some that do have the capacity to maintain this developmental activity, it is normal that they are focussing on the real issues that affect their business and not the whole system.
The IMs, most of whom are entirely responsible for the rail infrastructure in their country, are not all in a position of being able to effectively innovate. Whilst there may be some who are looking at a wider picture than simply innovation of infrastructure hardware, this is unlikely to be a truly whole-system approach that would cover issues that are unique to the RUs.

The manufacturers have of course an entirely different business model and for whom of course the ROC is their principle client base. Whilst their main focus is on developing marketable products, there is the need to also focus on the interfaces that go to make an operationally efficient and reliable railway system.
Far from the passive attitude that recent commentators seem to consider is endemic within the railway sector, the ROC has been identifying how the involvement of a wider but less affluent constituency might be possible.

With the backing of our members in the European region, the UIC has put together a proposal for a “collegiate” approach to involvement in Shift²Rail. This could be at either full TID level or at Associate level depending on how this proposal is matured with the initiators of Shift²Rail and depending on the kind of innovative development the ROC would like to undertake. There has been a coordinated action by the ROC facilitated by the UIC to draw together an innovation matrix that highlights a range of prioritised issues that the ROC believes it could lead or at least be a part of within Shift²Rail.
Shift²Rail has a stated core focus to improve capacity so as to enable the rail system to absorb a greater share of traffic, increase efficiency and sustainability and develop customer-friendly, safe vehicles. This is an important issue and one upon which the entire rail sector should be working so that rail is an attractive mode of choice to the customer.

None of this can be achieved if the Shift²Rail framework is not designed to embrace direct involvement of the ROC in the programme at every possible level either independently or collegiately.

The current framework and associated governance does not yet cater for this level of stakeholder involvement, an involvement that enables the ROC to engage from a platform that is at least equal to if not level with the stakeholders that are initiating the proposal.

The important aspect is that Shift²Rail emerges as a structure that is able to be inclusive of a wide range of stakeholders. Working with the Shift²Rail initiators so that the proposal framework can be adjusted such to meet the aspirations of the ROC stakeholders is something that will be happening in the coming weeks.
This level of promised engagement will enable the ROC to ensure that the Shift²Rail framework will mean that ROC companies at all business levels will be able to play the role that they wish to for the greater benefit of rail in general.