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Lengthy Railtrack approvals shut out new technology

RAILTRACK SAFETY approval procedures are shutting new technology out of the UK market, suppliers claimed this week.

The network operator is expecting suppliers to spend too much time and money to get safety clearance for their products, they said.

Railtrack hit back saying the approvals system would be easier for the manufacturers if they 'did their homework' before submitting products for approval.

This week the shadow Strategic Rail Authority added to suppliers' criticisms. It said that slow approvals procedures delayed the introduction of new rolling stock. Railtrack insisted the guidelines for getting safety approval were clearly laid out but not always followed, causing delays.

But one supplier, Adtranz, has called for Railtrack to simplify its safety approval regime so that companies rather than products are examined and approved.

Under the present approval regime, manufacturers of new products have to get safety approval for them from Railtrack in a process that can take several years.

Products are initially assessed and then examined by system of review panels made up of Railtrack technical personnel.

If approved, a certificate of acceptance is issued and the technology is then subjected to a final assessment by Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate.

Adtranz Signal UK technical director Chris Binns said the problem with the current regime was that it failed to differentiate between complex technology and more simple products, as both were subject to the same approvals process.

Adtranz is trying to introduce two separate signalling and points systems, one more complex than the other.

It has spent four years getting approval for its Ebilock integrated signalling and points system. Adtranz accepts that the time taken is down to the complexity of the system and the need for the highest safety integrity for equipment at the heart of a signalling system.

But Binns expressed concern that Adtranz's simpler Ebiswitch points system could be subject to a similarly lengthy process.

He wants Railtrack to replace product safety accreditation with company accreditation through regular safety audits. This would enable suppliers approved as providers of 'safe' equipment to introduce new products without going through a lengthy approvals process.

Suppliers say the high cost and time taken to get new systems approved at present act as an entry barrier to the UK market, forcing firms to rely on more expensive existing technology.

Those wanting to introduce points or signalling systems which are operating safely on other European rail networks complain they still have to spend millions of pounds getting them approved in the UK.

A source at international signalling and rolling stock maker Siemens Transportation said the cost of the approvals system was a 'major factor' when deciding whether to introduce new systems to the UK.

High entry costs may exclude products with a low price and low margin. Long approval times delay returns on investment.

Railtrack said it was trying to speed up its approvals process with a fast track system called Cross Acceptance. This allows technology in use on other railways to bypass certain stages in the approval process.

But several suppliers claimed the remainder of the process was still 'a major hurdle'.

Railtrack insisted that systems in use elsewhere might not work safely in the UK.

Suppliers this week urged Railtrack to take a more 'pragmatic and practical' approach.

One supplier said the track operator should bear in mind that 'it is always possible to be safer'.

One complaint is that the appraisal process rarely results in changes to new products. Suppliers also complained that Railtrack changes appraisal criteria too often, causing further delays.

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