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Slow product accreditation is holding back rail innovations

ICE news

INNOVATION IN the rail industry will die without changes to speed up the accreditation of new products, contractor Balfour Beatty has warned.

Without a fast-track approvals process and in the absence of a national testing centre to demonstrate new products, the industry will shy away from the cost of developing innovative solutions, Balfour Beatty Rail Technologies technical director Neil Andrew warned.

'If we are to develop innovation, the railway administration needs to set up a body with the ability and powers to get things through the regulatory process in a far more timely manner, ' Andrew told a meeting of the Railway Civil Engineers Association at the ICE last week.

'Developing innovative products is extremely expensive in terms of time and commitment, ' he said. 'Firms are becoming more risk averse, and unless the approval time is speeded up, innovation will suffer.'

Balfour Beatty is a leading innovator in rail, and has recently been testing a new embedded slabtack system (NCE 14 March).

However, the lack of suitable test facilities in the UK has forced the firm overseas, something that angers Andrew: 'It's disgraceful that we've had to pay the additional cost of going to Spain to trial a product that could be a world beater for UK plc.'

'It is essential to have somewhere you can demonstrate a product's compliance, but without a national testing facility this is very difficult, ' Andrew added.

Balfour Beatty's patented system uses a re-profiled 74kg/m 220mm x 370mm rectangular rail embedded in a precast concrete slab and gripped by an elastomer to allow the rail to be removed without damaging the slab.

Despite demonstrating that the system can reduce whole life costs by 50%, Andrew is still facing an uphill battle to establish it as a viable option.

'Nobody has done this before simply because the techniques weren't available 15 to 20 years ago. Only now is manufacture of the elastomer economical, ' said Andrew. 'The system is maintenance free, the rail profile is easier to inspect with ultrasonic tests, there are no loose components making it vandal-proof, and as an added bonus there is a 400mm height reduction.

'But our network is not one where you can roll new products out en masse, ' said Andrew.

'You have to target high maintenance areas such as bridges and tunnels, yet even then you have got to have the will of the public and political backing.

'People's ability to accept innovation on the railway on a day to day basis is something we really need to work on, ' said Andrew. 'A step change requires a lot of people to be sold into the idea.

'And the more significant the innovation, the more likely it is to be rejected, ' added Andrew.

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