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Network Rail launches automated design competition

Network Rail seeks automated design options

Network Rail has launched a new £300,000 competition to look at ways of speeding up the design of, and predicting the future of, rail infrastructure.

The competition is the first to be run in conjunction with Innovate UK, the government backed innovation network.

Network Rail research and development specialist Ben Ford said no tool existed currently, to allow it to rapidly assess designs and so hoped a competition would generate new digital ways of doing so.

“At the moment when you design there are whole bunch of things that you might consider, the land usage, the geometry, topography, hydrology and so on,” said Ford. “We would like to automate some of that so we can build those constraints into the design process more easily.

“We know that when you do that it gives designs that no human being would have ever thought of. But currently there is no platform that allows us to do what we want to do.”

Network Rail project manager Michael Brown added such a mechanism would “give us more justified reasons and times to say it’s scheme A rather than B”, more quickly and efficiently.”

Projects focusing on track design will be given priority. However, the rail infrastructure operator and owner said it also hoped to get submissions to streamline the design of overhead line electrification, traction power supply system, signalling systems and associated infrastructure.

It is hoped that any new programmes will also be used to give more realistic predictions of the condition of the rail assets in the future, said Ford.

“We’re looking at 10 years out, so being able to produce some sort of guess based on some simulated data is better than having to assume or having no data is much better. It’s a bit [like using a] a crystal ball, but the more evidence bases we can put in the better.”

Ford described the rail operator as a “laggard in technology” and hoped this competition would go some way to rectifying that.

To apply for available funding, projects must be between six months to a year, have a total cost of between £50,000 and £200,000. Winning schemes will start by April next year and finish by March 2020.

Publicly available historical data can be used to show the capabilities of an idea being proposed. In addition, Network Rail said it could enable access to additional relevant data.

The rail operator was recently given the green light for its £36bn funding plan, of which £245M has been set aside for research and development. It is hoped the new partnership with Innovate UK will create a new channel to make best use of available funding.

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