Unlocking the Railway of the Future

29th January 2021

Dr Sam Bemment, Technical & Innovation Manager, Railway Industry Association

Assisting our members and, by extension, the wider industry to innovate has long been a core activity of the Railway Industry Association. That is why RIA was a founder member of the UK Rail Research & Innovation Network (UKRRIN), formed in 2017 to bring together the leading Universities in Rail with industrial collaborators, along with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), to create a step-change in innovation.

The portfolio of innovations across our membership is large and varied. Rail is an industry of large projects which means that some system-level innovations take decades from inception to completion: The Bi-Mode Intercity Express Programme and Thameslink core signalling are great examples. Perhaps, because of the nature of these flagship projects, there is a public perception of rail being slow to innovate.

Cue 2020: the year innovation was forced upon us by necessity. Our industry proved that when it mattered, we could pull together to adapt: the railway carried on running, keyworkers and freight carried on moving.  All organisations were forced to readjust, often weekly, to keep up with the rapidly changing COVID situation. RIA was no exception, and our team had to innovate around our own innovation programme!

RIA’s Unlocking Innovation Programme, of which UKRRIN is a strategic partner, seeks to showcase new ideas and thinking from across the industry, reaching thousands of people. Through a series of events each year, the programme brings together the people with ideas and ambition to drive change within the rail industry, helping to build supply new supply chains, supporting clients in finding creative solutions and showcasing the incredible work going on in the industry.

Unlocking Innovation events had a tradition of being hosted in iconic locations with ‘hands-on’ demonstrations. In 2020, this evolved to a webinar format, with more reliance upon video. Whilst the webinar format has lost some of the networking element that made the original UI programme so successful, there has been an uptick, in that many people who would not have been able to attend the events in person were suddenly able to, from the comfort of their own lounge – the sheer scale of reach can be seen in the attendance figures below.

Come the return of normality, RIA is exploring options to give the best of both worlds. But firstly, a review of RIA’s 2020 Unlocking Innovation programme.


Unlocking Innovation in 2020


With five events over the course of the year, Unlocking Innovation has covered a range of topics, and see a variety of speakers, including from UKRRIN members:

February – MADE for Infrastructure (Southampton)

The year’s first event was held at the University of Southampton. This was to be the last site visit of 2020, and it built upon 2019’s success in attracting 144 attendees from 100 companies, to see 31 speakers and meet 16 Exhibitors. The theme was built around four key enablers of innovation which had been the backbone of the 2019 programme (M.A.D.E. – Materials, Automation, Data and Energy) and examined their application to infrastructure. This followed M.A.D.E. for Rolling Stock, held at the University of Huddersfield on 10 December 2019. The one-day event also had time to squeeze in a tour of the new National Infrastructure Laboratory. Excellent feedback was received from client organisations, Tier 1’s and SME’s alike.



April – Digital Journeys for Passengers and Freight (Virtual)

Unlocking Innovation – Digital Journeys for Passengers and Rail Freight, took place on 20-24 April as part of the Leeds Digital Festival, the UK’s biggest tech event. Daily one hour webinars, over five days, were individually themed to allow attendees to dip in and out to relevant presentations. There were 413 unique attendees, and an average audience size of 107.

Monday explored, with the help of Network Rail, opportunities for companies to work in rail for the first time. Tuesday and Wednesday examined ‘Better journeys for Passengers’ and ‘Better use of rail freight’ respectively, with Birmingham University looking at how data can improve the passenger experience. Thursday was dedicated to examining the implementation of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), with Connected Places Catapult looking at how we engage Rail as MaaS develops. Finally, the event closed on Friday with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority giving a regional flavour for Leeds Digital Week, with look at proposals for a 21st Century Mass Transit system for Leeds City Region.

June & July – Digital Railway (Virtual)

Following on from the April theme of Digital Journeys, the webinars taking place from 29 June – 3 July explored digital signalling. This event attracted 505 unique attendees, at an average of 297 for each of the five days. Crucial to the large attendance numbers was that the event did not just explore the underpinning technologies and innovations – time each day was dedicated to the organisational change required to enable such a colossal shift in the installation, testing, operations, and maintenance of technology which will touch every corner of the railway. Theme days specifically addressing these wider issues were also included: Monday – ‘A New Structure’, and Wednesday – ‘The Future Outlook’. Friday was dedicated to assisting RIA members in winning work in the Digital Railway field and received particularly good feedback for signposting opportunities for SME’s to engage with the digital railway programme, including funding, either directly through Network Rail or via opportunities with Tier 1 suppliers.

October – Routes to Zero Carbon Rail (Virtual)

This was a four-day event from 19-22 October, originally timed to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which was later delayed until 2021.

The rail industry, with organisations like RSSB and RIA, have worked to develop a strategy to decarbonise the railway to achieve the Government’s target of removing all diesel only trains from the network by 2040, and making the network net zero by 2050.  This event explored the available technologies and strategies that can deliver a zero-carbon railway.

Over the week there were 702 event attendances, comprising 309 individuals indicating that the majority attended multiple webinars. The webinars were themed around different aspects of decarbonisation. Monday and Tuesday focussed on decarbonising traction, with electrification and self-powered options explored. Thursday examined zero-carbon operations, maintenance, and renewals.


December – Light Weight and Low-Cost Railway (Virtual)

The 2020 Unlocking Innovation Programme closed on 14 – 18 December with an event dedicated to the fledgling UK very light rail industry, again held virtually. Though the series explored the innovations and developments of very light rail within the UK, there was significant crossover into the light rail space, reducing the costs of railway infrastructure build, operation and maintenance. Webinars were packed full of speakers from across the industry and beyond, covering a wide variety of topics including successful applications of Light Rail Technology as well as exciting developments including the new Light Rail innovation Centre being delivered by Black Country Innovative Manufacturing Organisation. Over the week there were 479 event attendances, comprising 201 individuals, indicating that the majority attended multiple webinars.  Individual theme days included an overview of the latest light rail innovations, a closer look at the Coventry Shuttle project, and a surgery on how to engage with Network Rail, UKRRIN and BCIMO


Looking forward to 2021

RIA’s goal for 2021 is to build upon the success of 2020, and to do this, our Unlocking Innovation events will remain free to attend and open to all. They will continue to bring together clients, challenge owners and innovators, both new to rail and existing suppliers, to share opportunities and develop new collaborations. Whilst events will remain virtual in the near future, longer term, RIA is exploring making Unlocking Innovation events the best of both worlds through hybridisation: in-person meetings at iconic locations, for those who can travel, which are broadcast to the web, for those who are unable.

Our 2021-2022 events calendar is already packed out. Through specific and targeted subject matter, the ‘M.A.D.E.’ theme has been very successful, but for the next few years we are looking to run events across a much wider interest base to expand scope and inclusivity. The theme of the forthcoming events will be built around achieving the ‘Railway of the Future’.

Here’s what’s planned for 2021:

  • 9-12 February will see the first event of 2021, to be run in conjunction with Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network. With the theme ‘Railway of the Future: Building Back Better for the Passenger’, it will focus on helping Stations and Rolling Stock adapt to the post-COVID world, improve passenger experience, become more accessible, and bring back ridership numbers sooner;
  • 28-30 April is RIA’s flagship Innovation conference will see the industry come together to discuss the key issues in the technical and innovation space – visit for more information
  • 10-14 May features an event concentrating on organisational and systemic change to help bring about innovation, titled ‘Railway of the Future: Whole-system Innovation’
  • 5-9 July’s ‘Railway of the future: Data-driven Maintenance’; event will focus on the current and future shift to predict and prevent maintenance regimes, and the underpinning technologies to enable them’
  • On 11-15 October we’ll be holding our ‘Railway of the Future: Resilient to Climate Change’ event which will, concurrently with the UN’s COP26 Climate Summit, investigate opportunities for decarbonisation, the impacts of climate change, and resilience
  • Finally, 6-10 December’s event, marking a key milestone at roughly half-way through CP6, will focus on the ongoing and completed projects from Network Rail’s Research & Development portfolio, and highlight areas still ripe for innovation in the remaining period.

For more details about the Unlocking Innovation Programme visit RIA’s website here – or contact us at

We hope to see you at a future Unlocking Innovation event soon!



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