Last week’s budget saw yet again significant funding being committed to the improvement of Britain’s railway system. Current high-profile projects for the industry include HS2, Crossrail and Thameslink. But in addition to these major capital developments, other significant and fundamental work is going on in the industry to prepare for the next generation of railway operations. The work on Digital Railways is notable; a cross-industry activity to realise the next generation of railway systems, which will improve capacity, reduce costs and ensure a more punctual service.

As a result of the ongoing work at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE), the University of Birmingham has been successful in winning the Queen’s Award for Higher Education in round Twelve (2016–18) for its contribution to making railways around the world safer and more efficient. This prestigious national honour has been approved by The Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister based on recommendations by the Awards Council of the Royal Anniversary Trust, which administers the Prizes scheme.

As the largest university-based centre for railway research and education in Europe, BCRRE is at the forefront of research and education, working in partnership with the industry’s main stakeholders to deliver the railway of the future, and to ensure that those working in the industry have the correct skills.

The centre’s research encompasses work at Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) 1 to 7, ie, from blue skies research to the collaborative industrial application of research. BCRRE supports over 80 PhD students, who study at Birmingham to develop knowledge and skills that can be applied in academic or industrial contexts worldwide. A number of our alumni are now Chief Executives and Chief Technology Officers of railway companies across the world. Key expertise in the Centre is to be found in the areas of digital technologies, power and traction, aerodynamics and weather effects.

Innovations include ‘intelligent monitoring’ systems, using new algorithms for remote identification of the condition of points, which has reduced faults and delays by over 25 per cent, aerodynamic and train slipstream research, which is improving the network’s capacity to carry out maintenance without full line closures, and the certification of new trains and simulators for evaluating rolling stock performance. Strategies for energy efficient driving have to date generated around 16 per cent savings on the Edinburgh Tram network.

In July 2017, the centre secured £92 million to initiate and lead the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN), which will bring together eight universities with 17 industrial partners to accelerate research, development and technology deployment in the rail industry. UKRRIN has significant government support, and was referenced on Monday by the Industrial Strategy White Paper as an example of best practice. Also on Wednesday of this week, a key commitment was made in the new Railway Strategy for the Department for Transport to ‘work with industry and academia to ensure the newly established UKRRIN delivers improved performance in the sector and supports key research areas.’
The second focus of the Centre is education, with many activities related to the development of railway systems engineering knowledge, know-how and skills.

At sub-degree level, the BCRRE team have been assisting the National College for High-Speed Rail with the creation of its curriculum, both before and after the launch of the campuses in Birmingham and Doncaster. The centre is responsible for railway-focused undergraduate programmes in Civil and Electrical Engineering at the University of Birmingham. At postgraduate level, the team delivers MSc programmes in Railway Systems Engineering and Integration (RSEI) and in Railway Risk and Safety Management (RRSM), as well as the MRes in Railway Systems Integration. Academics and doctoral students are active in widening participation and STEM.

Degree and higher degree apprenticeships form a major new initiative for BCRRE. Many railway industry companies in the UK wish to use the apprenticeship levy to fund staff development and this is expected to have a significant impact on the recruitment of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, where eligible home students form 50 per cent of the cohorts.

A new variant of the MSc in Railway Risk and Safety Management is being designed to tap a strong demand for highly qualified railway command and control engineers.

The team at BCRRE are delighted to have been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for their work and the Award will act as a strong stimulus for new developments. There are still a great many challenges in supporting the renaissance of the railways…