Network Rail's reputation for innovation is growing, with executives from the Netherlands, France, Germany, Japan and China all knocking on its door, desperate to find out how to run their railways more efficiently.
Network Rail chief engineer, Andrew McNaughton is the de facto head of Clever Stuff they all turn to: the man charged with getting more out of less to meet the organisation's commitments to the Office of Rail Regulation. Traditional methods of dealing with the track are out, smarter solutions are in.
"Innovation really stopped in 1994 under British Rail, when the research arm was sold off," explains McNaughton. "Then there was a period of privatisation where not much innovation happened. And then there was the Hatfield Rail crash in 2000, which called everything into question and changed the shape of the industry – did it really understand the state of its assets?
"One of the things Network Rail is committed to is that we will know the state of our network," he says emphatically, adding that measuring the assets is the key to achieving this.
"The philosophy, is predict-and-prevent, rather than inspect-and-find or find-and-fix," he says. "For 150 years we have been looking for defects, and then fixing them. We want the predictable route. We want to predict where defects will occur, or watch defects develop and take them out before they can have an impact on the railway."
Central to this new approach is the modularisation of infrastructure and the New Measurement Train (NMT), which not only checks the rail, but is a moving laboratory for new gadgets and software. McNaughton is opening the NMT up to small companies who have new technology to test. He adds that sometimes the new equipment doesn't work, in which case it is returned to the drawing board. "But some have delighted us. You can only pick winners by trying."
Most standard stretches of track can be analysed by the NMT. "We can train a computer to recognise surface defects, missing fastenings, cracks in sleepers, patches of slurry – known as wet beds – but that is as far as we want the computer to take it," he says.
For newbuild McNaughton wants two things – modularisation, and standardisation of parts. "The biggest single project is to make modular points. I hate the term pre-fabricated – it sounds like something dodgy from the 1950s.
"Pieces are made in a factory to factory tolerances and factory quality, broken into very large bits and brought to site on special wagons. We pinched this idea from the Swiss. I will happily pinch any idea from any country."
Making sets of points in a factory would reduce possession times from around 52 hours today to the ideal of eight-hour stretches. "By 2010, we expect to reduce weekend possessions down from 52 to 27 hours."
"When the Swiss moved to modular points, they halved their costs. They have margins that make their accountants drool. Today, only 15% of their costs are materials costs. If we can spend a little more on the design, and put in [the equipment] in one-fifth of the time, we are quids-in," he said.Naughton's ambition is to modularise the entire network. "I want a modular bridge. I want modular road bridges. Not just the deck – the whole beast".
He hopes to get one within a year and is keen for them to be used at level crossings, thus eliminating the risk of at-grade road/rail crashes. He adds that modular bridges would also be relatively cheap.
The recent erection of a fibre-reinforced plastic footbridge at St Austell, Cornwall, by Parsons Brinkerhoff was an excellent lesson in what is possible, he recalls. "But that was a little bit extra."
But to really drive innovation through the system, suppliers must come on board and stay at the table, says McNaughton. This could be in the form of standard designs. "I want someone to set up a factory and produce hundreds of these things.""We need the supply chain to come to us with a different attitude. The jobs will cost a lot less, but they will have a good margin if they do what we really want. The ones who think they can just use 'subbies' out of the Yellow Pages do not have a bright future."
But it does not stop at infrastructure – signalling is on his list, too. "This is another reason why a train could stop for days," he says. Components can be built and tested in a factory, then just plugged together.
The modular station is literally six months away, he enthuses. "The first one was knocked-up on a builder's site in Ringwood. I do not suppose it is entirely right yet, but that does not matter. It took about two days to build." The finished design will be erected at an as-yet-undisclosed location in south London early next year.
His vision is for standard sizes made from standard components and high-quality design in all newbuilds.
Looking into the future, he hopes that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology – developed as the alternative to supermarket barcodes – will be built into 'smart stones', which are buried into earthworks. These could tell the NMT whether there has been any ground movement or other abnormalities. But this is still with the white coats. The modular railway, however, is here to stay.