August 29, 2014

Streamlined approvals can unlock technical innovation

Written by  Gerhard Dodl, Tracksure
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Companies need deep pockets and extreme patience to overcome the numerous hurdles to get innovative products accepted by railways. Gerhard Dodl, managing director of Tracksure, Britain, argues the case for change.

THE advice I received from a rail insider when we first set out to market our range of specialist track fasteners was: "It will take 10 years before you break through." Rightly or wrongly I didn't believe him, but almost 10 years later only now are we starting to reward the patience of our investors, most recently with type approval from German Rail (DB) for our retarder fasteners. So how have we succeeded, why does it take so long to break through the barriers, and can the railway industry find better and quicker ways of adopting innovative technologies?

The simple fact is that you get nowhere without a decent product, huge amounts of patience and persistence and, in our case, the backing of long-term investors who understand the relative conservatism of the rail market. But that alone is not enough; you also need to somehow find "champions," engineers and managers who are capable and willing to see the potential of a product rather than all the reasons not to use something new. In our case we were very lucky to find one or two such people within London Underground and Prorail, Netherlands. From these early adopters you can then progress elsewhere.

Gerhard-1-revSo is it right that it takes so long to commercialise products in the rail industry? The obvious answer for my business is no, and I think this is also the same from an industry perspective. The challenges of running more trains for more people on a finite asset while continually enhancing safety, demand innovative and progressive solutions. My experience, and that of many who I speak to, especially smaller businesses, is that whilst innovation is a banner headline for many infrastructure managers, the reality belies the sentiment. Initiatives such as Future Railway in Britain are of course to be welcomed, but they need to genuinely deliver in order to allow our railways to benefit from the huge amount of talent and ingenuity that exists in the supply chain.

The reasons for the lengthy gestation periods for new technology are well rehearsed and I will not repeat them all here. Approval processes and gateways that are the exact opposite of what they advertise, bureaucracy, and national differences are probably familiar to many companies seeking to get their products adopted. However, the biggest issue is one that is not unique to the railways: the overwhelming need to keep everything running today that precludes the time and ability to think about tomorrow. This is of course what the public and politicians demand but it can and does militate against innovation.

Somehow we, and I speak as a passionate railway advocate, need to find a more effective means of evaluating and adopting technologies. Importantly, I am not talking about the huge capital projects so beloved of politicians; I am talking about the day-to-day measures that will individually enhance productivity and performance. As the saying goes, "you can only eat an elephant in tiny bites."

So, to indulge in the game of being king for a day, what would I propose?

The most important thing would be to achieve a clear and transparent gateway/ approval process, with clearly defined stages of when to use off-line testing and proving facilities. Whilst elements of all these things exist in various countries, for example Arema in the United States, they are fragmented with little synergy between them.

Wouldn't it be great if tests undertaken in one European country were accepted as a genuine basis for evaluation in another?

These reforms will only work if the presumption is that the people knocking on the door have something useful to sell and are not nuisance callers. I accept entirely that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between them, but the presumption should be positive and not negative.

In reality I am sure this will be hugely beneficial to infrastructure managers to have a clear, transparent and fair process which suppliers can see works.

A more positive attitude to innovation will deliver increased productivity, customer satisfaction and safety for rail as it does in other industries. But this will require a significant cultural shift with an openness to new ideas at all levels of the organisation, from track workers to the managing director and all points in between.

Almost 10 years after setting up, Tracksure has broken through with sales to customers in about a dozen countries and technical approvals for our specialist range of fasteners. But many companies, SMEs in particular, will not survive that 10-year period. We all must be quicker, more proactive and more open and make innovation the lubricant of change.

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