‘An opportunity we can’t let slip’

In the coming months the Global Centre of Rail Excellence will be publishing a series guest articles from senior voices in the industry about the innovation landscape in rail and how GCRE can support strategic ambitions in the sector.

Today’s piece is written by Noel Travers, Managing Director of XRAIL.

Great ideas drive all good businesses. That’s not a controversial statement to make.

No business can succeed if the core product or service its selling is fundamentally unsound, or unsustainable.

But what doesn’t seem to get as much attention is that great ideas aren’t enough, in and of themselves. For the most successful firms and organisations, the generation of new ideas is only one stage in the innovation journey.

Every idea for a new process or piece of technology is just the starting point. That idea has to be rigorously tested, analysed, refined, and then tested again. It’s the same for every business. And maybe the reason that process doesn’t get the attention it should is because the innovation journey is sometimes painful; always challenging and not always successful.

But there is no other way.

You have to find out whether a new idea or new piece of kit works – and one thing I’ve learned in more than thirty years in the railway industry is that its much better to find out if that idea is or isn’t going to work in eighteen months than in five years. You want every new idea to be a success, but if it isn’t going to work, better to fail quickly and move on to the next – that’s what I’ve always believed.

And that brings me to exactly why we need the Global Centre of Rail Excellence.

I’m a big fan of the hugely talented innovators we have in rail. We’re lucky to have some of the best and most fertile minds working in our industry with a real sense of vision and mission about the future. But we often let them down because the process we have to support the development and testing of their innovations is – frankly – inadequate.

We all know the stories.

Someone with a great idea has had to spend five years or more finding a place to test; getting the approvals they need; getting certification… for those that have stayed the course its eaten up much more resource, money and time than it needed to. Many people like them have given up – they’ve run out of cash or time leaving many good and viable ideas on the lab room floor.

The evidence for this is clear. The recent ‘Plan for Rail’ was a welcome movement forward in setting out a much clearer, strategic vision for the sector – and faster innovation was critical to the ambition it set out. We all want to build a stronger, greener and more reliable railway and developing new products faster is an important way of doing that.

But the reality is that, currently, only the bigger players in our industry have the financial clout to support taking a new product to the world’s only dedicated infrastructure testing facility in Colorado in the USA. Finding a way – and a place – for innovators big and small to develop new ideas is critical.

So having, here in the UK, a purpose built facility in the Global Centre of Rail Excellence at which to undertake world class research, testing and certification of rolling stock, infrastructure and innovative new rail technologies is, to me, one of the best  ideas I think I’ve heard in a long time.

It will help achieve both success – and failure – faster, making sure resources are used efficiently and effectively. But its also important in another sense. Wherever I’ve worked, good ideas usually mean commercial opportunity.

Producing new products, services or processes that people want to buy means revenue opportunities. That’s great for the companies and organisations developing products at the GCRE site, but it’s also good for Wales and UK Plc. Those new products and services are also tradeable commodities that can support the export potential of the sector.

And the demand for new products is certainly there. Never in my three decades in rail have the collective policy challenges we’ve all faced been so intense.

We’ve all got to get to net zero and build a transport system that can support a greener planet in the face of the climate crisis. Every nation wants to develop multi-modal, integrated transport systems that can support more dynamic growth.  And every government in the world is out to build rail infrastructure more efficiently, with less money wasted through major projects going over time and over budget.

Just recently Neil Walker, Exports Director for RIA, said as the organisation submitted a series of important recommendations to the International Trade Select Committee Inquiry:

“While rail exports are immensely valuable – totalling over £600m in the year before the pandemic started – there is great potential to grow exports more, boosting the country’s trade and increasing the resilience of the UK supply chain – for example by creating new SME jobs.”

Neil is right.

But how that is achieved and where that is achieved is something we need to grapple more with. And that’s where I think GCRE can help.

If GCRE can be a hub for innovation development then it will create a significant new export opportunity for Wales and the UK as a stream of commercial customers seek testing and research time there.

As an industry I think we have a responsibility to help make the Global Centre of Rail Excellence a success. If we lose the opportunity in front of us, we may well live to regret it. And our economy will too.

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