Research and innovation highlights

Welcome to the February 2019 Research and Innovation Quarterly Update. At RSSB we pride ourselves on having a deep passion in using robust evidence as a means of establishing sound answers to difficult questions. And our research plays a key part in this.

The joy of a eureka moment is something to savour, but as we all know, it’s crucial that valuable findings are used in earnest to realise tangible benefits for rail’s customers and wider society.

Take the example of ‘Emergency Special Working’. Signalling failures disrupt train services causing problems and frustration to our customers. Our research looked at alternative ways of getting trains moving again through failed sections of railway. The good news is that this is now ‘old news’ because this new approach has been captured in the Rule Book and is now in use on the whole network, reducing delays encountered by passengers and freight customers when signalling fails.

RSSB supported the adoption and roll-out of ‘Emergency Special Working’, through the provision of plug and play media and I am proud to say that the work won James Webb in our Standards team, the Golden Whistle Award 2019 for Outstanding Operator. This, together with the passion and drive of many senior people from across the industry, delivered a real and tangible improvement.

The fact that RSSB houses - in one place - the mechanisms for capturing industry best practice in standards and rules; the data, tools and expertise to analyse safety risk; and the cross-industry research programme is key to our ability to support industry through the whole innovation journey from early research to adopting new ways of doing things.

In this quarterly summary you’ll find other examples of research that is being taken up and used; details of recently completed work where the findings and outputs are now ready for use; and initiatives where you can get involved.

I hope you will be inspired to engage with the research programme and help us to help you put research into action.


Research and innovation in action

A Common Social Impact Framework for rail


The social value of the rail industry is currently captured by descriptive explanations and limited metrics. The framework that RSSB recently developed provides the industry with ten key social value aspects, a full explanation for each, and data and figures that can be used to measure them.

A Common Social Impact Framework for rail

The framework also includes a library of monetised, quantitative and qualitative measures of social impact to help demonstrate and report the social value of activities underway or delivered. These can also be used to plan the delivery of social value strategies or initiatives, set requirements in tenders, or set targets for projects.

To disseminate and promote the framework, RSSB organised a webinar in November 2018 and held a seminar in January 2019.

Network Rail have already begun the process to develop a tool around the framework and staff training on the approach is underway.

We look forward to hearing your views on the framework and welcome the opportunity to support organisations in starting to use it. Please contact Lucie Anderton (ref. T1127):

Keeping trains moving during signalling failures


Keeping trains moving during signalling failures is essential but challenging, and the traditional industry procedure to do so was unnecessarily restrictive. Research helped develop and assess alternative rules which are now known as Emergency Special Working (ESW).

These have now been published as national rules, which came into effect on 1 December 2018. Since then they have been used several times and by a range of operators including ScotRail and Northern, with excellent results. Importantly, the time taken to get trains moving again was shorter when compared to the deployment of alternatives such as Temporary Block Working. There were also some secondary benefits such as the ability to use available staff to work on rectifying the infrastructure failure, as opposed to being deployed to get trains moving.

An ESW readiness review with each train operator and Network Rail route has been undertaken to ensure they are either ready or have confirmed plans and ‘go live’ dates for its introduction. Please contact James Webb for clarification, support, and to share with us your experience of using the new rules (ref. ESW):


Research and innovation ready to use

Easier and cheaper new electrification schemes thanks to non-conducting pantograph horns


Recent electrification schemes have had to deal with a range of challenges including achieving safe electrical clearances around existing infrastructure. In particular, overbridges at stations mean that either demolition or significant alterations need to take place to provide safe electrical clearances for people accessing and using the station.

A solution that is used in railways outside GB is to cover the ends of the pantograph in insulation, known as insulated pantograph horns, but there was no evidence on their performance characteristics to ascertain whether it was a realistic option for GB given our more constrained infrastructure.

The research included a suite of high voltage tests, carried out at Southampton University, to compare common GB pantograph horn types with the performance of insulated horns in dry and wet conditions and with/without contamination. There were differences in the electrical arcing distance or flashover depending on pantograph type and scenario but in all situations the insulated pantograph horns were ‘electrically safe’ at much closer distances than existing allowances.

So, what does this mean? By using insulated pantograph horns, there is a way to significantly reduce costs and disruption of electrifying through constrained stations.

Next steps:

The findings provide a clear case for developing and testing of non-conducting horns for GB pantographs and for this being a feature for any new pantograph introduced in GB. Get in touch with Paul Gray for more information (ref. T1120):

Accessibility Maturity Assessment Tool


The Accessibility Maturity Assessment Tool (A-MAT) developed by RSSB, allows train and station operators to self-assess their maturity in terms of accessibility and to identify steps to improve. It consists of four themes – pre-travel services and information; staff; stations; trains – each with specific objectives, which reflect the journey stages. These objectives are measured against a five-stage maturity scale, with evidence requirements to support the level achieved.

Next steps:

We have support from Abellio, Network Rail and TfL, to pilot the usability and applicability of the tool. This tool supports the Department for Transport ‘Inclusive Transport Leaders Scheme’, as the rail specific method to establish the maturity of current and planned accessibility with the wider accreditation framework across all modes planned to be developed in 2019. If you are interested in using the tool and would like more information, please contact Lucie Anderton (ref. T1117):

Electrical and data compatibility between trains


It is predicted that by 2020 at some major hubs, 50%-80% of trains could be electrically incompatible. This incompatibility generates significant disbenefits including lack of efficient rescue of failed rolling stock. Additional challenges include cascading rolling stock across franchises, and potentially unlocking the congested network through ‘on the move’ or eventually virtual coupling.


This research assessed costs and benefits of having electrical and data compatibility between trains, in three use case scenarios: a minimum rescue case, a full standardisation case, and an enhanced standardisation case to allow for dynamic coupling and uncoupling.

The study identified a total Net Present Value for the benefits of control-system and electrical compatibility between passenger trains of around £1bn over a 40- year appraisal period. Although technically feasible, a physical hard-wired solution presents considerable challenges for implementation, namely having to develop a standard electrical connection. Although there are challenges with cyber security, a wireless solution is technically feasible and has the potential to unlock the greatest level of benefits.

Next steps:

For new rolling stock it is recommended that, as a minimum, passive provision for a wireless control-system is provided. The work done presents the case for manufacturers of coupling systems to further invest in the development of wireless couplings and for industry to work together to utilise available technology in a planned and coordinated way. We look forward to supporting such developments. For more information contact Paul Gray (ref. T1137):

Improving front-line operational decision making


The safety critical nature of the railway industry encourages a culture based on adherence to rules, procedures and hierarchies. This can, in some circumstances, reduce system flexibility and the ability to respond to and manage unique circumstances quickly and effectively.


Having investigated the current state of decision-making training and tools for front-line staff and managers in the GB railway industry, and reviewed practices in other safety-critical industries such as aviation and emergency services, a simple and easy to use decision-making tool was developed. This is aimed at frontline staff to provide a reliable and consistent framework to enable decisions to be made where:

  • Adherence to a company or local procedure might lead to a delay in resolving a problem without any foreseeable safety gain;
  • There are no applicable rules;
  • Unusual circumstances mean that the rule cannot be directly applied or now does not provide the best and safest outcome.

This decision-making approach is summarised in a simple acronym – G-FORCE – and supported by briefing material. As it stands, this has been reviewed by practitioners and received excellent feedback but has not yet been validated in the live operational environment. Also, the tool in isolation (i.e. without cultural and organisational changes, and adequate training) can be of limited value.

Operational decision making has been previously undervalued. This tool, along with the training, recognises the challenges we face and enables mature and sensible operational decisions to be made by our front line staff that allows us to keep running trains, moving passengers and freight safely in difficult situations.

Tim Shoveller, Managing Director, Stagecoach Rail

Next steps:

To test the tool, associated supporting material, and the cultural and organisational enablers, an in-service pilot will take place in collaboration with East Midlands Trains and Network Rail’s London and North Eastern route over a twelve-month period (March 2019 to March 2020). If you want to know more or are interested in using the tool please contact Justin Willett (ref. T1135):  

Research and innovation in progress

Enabling better network performance through data


For customers, reliability of train services is of paramount importance and the industry must make significant improvements in this space. This is why just over a year ago we initiated a programme of research called PERFORM to work with stakeholders across the industry to develop new knowledge and tools to reduce train delays and cancellations.

As part of this programme, five academic-led feasibility studies exploring novel data-driven solutions to improve performance are due to complete in the early spring. These projects have successfully integrated existing datasets from a wide range of sources and demonstrated that machine learning, graph theory and data analytics can be used to accurately predict the impact of reactionary delays and dwell time variations.

Each project team has worked closely with a train operator (Greater Anglia, Merseyrail, South Western Railway, Southeastern and Great Western Railway) and Network Rail to develop innovative techniques that could be used to identify delay interventions and mitigations, support timetable planning, and inform decision making.

Get involved:

We are inviting interested parties across industry to help shape the next phase of this work, particularly how to benefit from real-time data solutions and scale-up solutions to route or national levels. Register to attend the ‘Enabling Better Network Performance through Data’ dissemination event in Central London on 4 April, where you can learn more about these projects and other research including the PERFORM programme. For more information contact Giulia Lorenzini (ref. COF-INP):


Do we need railway detonators as a safe control in the 21st century?


Detonators are used in nine different scenarios on the railway, and research is now in progress to evaluate both the benefits they bring in controlling and mitigating risks, and the risks of using them. The safety risk probability of each scenario with detonators, without detonators and with alternative product(s) in place will be calculated using fault tree analysis.


A parallel project has also commenced, working jointly with Network Rail, to test the degrees of audibility of detonators and how distinguishable they are as an audible warning. This also includes testing the effectiveness of possession limit boards (PLBs) as a visual secondary control for trains that are approaching a line under possession due to an irregularity.

Get involved:

If you are interested in these projects and would like more information, contact Susan Cassidy (ref. T1155 and T1167):

Options for decarbonising rail


Decarbonisation means reducing and, ultimately eliminating, carbon dioxide emissions. It is essential in tackling climate change, a fundamental issue facing all industries and the wider society.


In January 2019, the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Task Force and RSSB published an initial report for the Rail Minister outlining a credible set of technical options to decarbonise the railway. The report is underpinned by an extensive research project ‘Options for traction energy decarbonisation in rail’ (ref. T1145), aimed at improving our understanding of the path towards decarbonising traction energy, and the associated economic and commercial case.

Further work is underway on the economic model that will enable stakeholders to assess the technical options. This will be completed in the next couple of months together with a roadmap for deployment which will further improve the understanding of the actions industry needs to take to deliver a low carbon railway.

One of the challenges highlighted by the work to date is how the freight sector can make significant progress in decarbonisation. RSSB has, in response, developed and launched research focused on this specific challenge (ref. T1160).

Get involved:

To find out more, contact Richard Walker:  

Get involved

Research and Innovation Showcases

Our next showcase will take place at RSSB’s office in London on 8 May. Alternatively we can come to you. Our team recently ran Research and Innovation Showcases with Merseyrail and South Western Railway at their offices. These targeted sessions provide a convenient way to get up to date and linked in to the most relevant R&I for you and your organisation.

Get Involved:

To attend the London event or to plan a specific event for your company please contact Robert Staunton:

Machine learning: what it is and what it can do for rail

Our latest ‘Over The Horizon’ blog series takes a deep dive into machine learning, and what it means for the rail industry. The series began by examining what machine learning really means, providing an explanation of the core principles of this technology to equip rail professionals with a working knowledge of machine learning principles and techniques. This was followed by an examination of key areas where rail stands to benefit from the application of machine learning, such as predictive maintenance, safety analysis, and customer experience. The series continues to examine key topics such as the validation and skill challenge around using machine learning in rail.

We have been liaising with machine learning experts and suppliers to discuss opportunities for rail in this cutting-edge field. We are also extremely keen to hear where the industry is already employing machine learning or has interest in doing so.

Get involved:

Do you have questions or misgivings about machine learning? Do you want to stay up to date on developments and opportunities in this field? Join the discussion on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter or email Olivier Marteaux:

Managing fatigue risk


RSSB has drawn together a suite of practical tools, guidance and research on fatigue and alertness in an easy-to-use portal on the RSSB website: search “RSSB fatigue” on Google.

The materials are arranged by function or role, helping you to easily find what you need. Recent feedback from RSSB members at our regional engagement days shows that 40% of attendees had already accessed the materials and a further 36% had an awareness of them.

We are hosting the Fatigue Risk Management Forum on 26 February 2019 at RSSB’s office, when we will be finding out the results of the cross-industry fatigue survey. More than 7500 rail staff took part in this survey, which will provide our industry with data to drive its fatigue risk management activities. At the forum, we will be exploring how the tools and resources on the Fatigue and Alertness web portal can be used to address the issues that the fatigue survey highlights and help our industry improve the management of fatigue.

Get involved:

Get in touch with Dan Basacik for more information on all aspects of fatigue:

Adhesion research dissemination events: Sheffield 27 March and Cardiff 3 April 2019


Low adhesion during autumn has been calculated to cost the rail industry and wider society £345 million per annum. Cross-industry efforts are vital to tackle this challenge and big data techniques present the opportunity to perform deeper analysis on the causes, effects and mitigations of low adhesion while accounting for the high variability that exists on live railway networks.

RSSB, working together with West Midlands Trains, Network Rail and wider industry, carried out an extensive data collection exercise on the Cross-city line in Birmingham in Autumn 2018. The data collected over this period includes detailed braking activity and performance from data logging equipment (installed as part of these projects); On-Train Data Recorders (OTDRs); unit and diagram allocations; real time service timetables; moisture levels from trackside sensors; adhesion forecasts; railhead treatment plans and operations; and low adhesion reports.

This data is now being analysed with two specific objectives: assessing the effects of three different railhead cleaning treatments and better understanding the variability of train driving during low adhesion.

Get Involved:

Join us at the dissemination events to explore the outcomes and recommendations from these projects:

  • Sheffield: 27 March, The Edge, Endcliffe, 34 Endcliffe Cresent, Sheffield, S10 3ED
  • Cardiff: 3 April, Parks Inn by Radisson, Mary Ann Street, Cardiff, United Kingdom, CF10 2JH

Please contact Aaron Barrett:


Suggest research


The research programme is driven by the rail industry’s needs. We receive and review hundreds of ideas each year. New research ideas are always welcome. Drop us an email and we will be in touch to discuss your research needs and ideas further.

Contact us via the Customer self-service portal

Request a knowledge search


Do you want to know if research has been done on a topic, and what knowledge already exists? Our Knowledge Services, which include horizon scanning activities, support the R&D programme, cross-industry groups and RSSB members by finding out relevant knowledge and analyse it.

Contact us via:

Access to past research


SPARK is a knowledge hub with over 20,000 records where you can discover who is doing what in rail related research and innovation. In SPARK you can find the Research and Solutions Catalogues that provide information on research and innovation managed by RSSB on behalf of the GB railway industry.

Find out more about the Solutions Catalogue and Research Catalogue 



Research & Innovation quarterly update - February 2019
Research & Innovation quarterly update - October 2018
Research & Innovation quarterly udpate - August 2018
Research & Innovation quarterly update - May 2018
Research & Innovation quarterly update - February 2018
Research & Innovation quarterly update - October 2017
Research & Innovation quarterly update - July 2017
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