IN 2021, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) published “Insight into railway innovation through patenting trends,” an exploration of patenting data which identifies trends in railway research around the world.
The study uses the Cooperative Patent Classification system to identify patent applications relevant to railway technology, split into four principal subsystems: control, command and signalling (CCS), comprising both lineside and onboard equipment; energy, which covers the energy supply system, including overhead electrification; infrastructure with its subcategories of rail, fastenings, sleepers, ballast, switches and crossings; and rolling stock, including suspension systems, couplings and brakes.
Across these subsystems, EU patenting trends data indicates that the energy and infrastructure have remained relatively stable in terms of patent filings, but that CCS and rolling stock have seen significant increases since 2010. In particular, the number of high value inventions for which patent applications were filed with more than one patent office in CCS and rolling stock increased significantly between 2010 and 2017.
Within rolling stock, suspensions, traction equipment and vehicles, including passenger coaches and freight wagons, account for the largest share of observed growth. It is particularly interesting to note that vehicles - or skeletal design innovations - are leading the charge by some margin, indicating that attention has turned to the design of the whole train itself and, perhaps, methods to improve efficiency.
In the near to mid-term future, CCS and rolling stock are likely to see the most technological change. One observation noticeably absent is that despite relative increases in filings in some areas, the actual number of filings remains very low in comparison with other transport industries, such as aerospace.
There could be many reasons for this; there may be comparatively fewer inventions in the rail sector; or the rail sector may be less patent-focused or perhaps less patent-aware in some cases than the other sectors. Comparatively higher R&D spending in sectors such as aerospace leads to a desire to protect this increased investment by means of asserting intellectual property, including patent filings.
A standout metric in the report is the relative number of patent filings by territory. A contributing factor to this trend may well be rooted in domestic policy. For example, a marked increase in filings for all inventions by Chinese applicants can be traced back to 2013, two years after the Chinese government introduced a policy to increase the number of IP rights per capita. By 2019, China had surpassed the United States as the largest patent filer across all filing areas with various patent-filing incentive programmes for Chinese applicants considered key to this growth.
While China leads overall, when high-value inventions are considered, EU applicants are filing significantly more patent applications than those in other territories. The data indicates that since 2000, EU applicants have been most active in devising inventions which are valuable enough that protection for them is sought in multiple jurisdictions - suggesting that the EU remains a powerhouse for research and development in the rail sphere.
Nevertheless, the number of high-value inventions from Chinese applicants has risen significantly in recent years and is likely to continue to do so. The growth of Chinese innovators and suppliers could also result in more competition in the wider rail industry, which may ultimately lead to a squeeze on price at manufacturing level.
The number of high-value inventions from Chinese applicants has risen significantly in recent years and is likely to continue to do so.
The report also considers the number of filings for technologies which “mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases and technologies that facilitate adaption to the adverse effects of climate change.”
In the data presented, EU-based applicants are filing the largest number of high-value green inventions across the four railway subsystems. The report suggests that this is based on know-how built up over the last few decades in combination with a favourable regulatory framework in Europe. Other reasons may include the general increase in environmental awareness, both in industry and amongst the general public, and the fact that the EU is already highly active in R&D in the rail sector.
The report also considers the most prolific filers of patent applications for railway technology. Among the top 10 innovators, Chinese rolling stock manufacturer CRRC holds first place and the Korean Railroad Research Institute (KRRI) is third. That CRRC occupies first place should not come as a surprise given the patenting data observations.
In Europe, Siemens is by far the most prolific filer of patent applications, producing over 600 high value inventions between 2010 and 2017. Alstom is second with around 150 over the same period.
In contrast with other industries, the United States is less represented. This could be attributable to the USA being less focused on rail in its R&D activity and a lack of emphasis on the environmental benefits of rail in the US compared with Europe.
There are several limitations to the conclusions drawn both here and in the report. Not all innovations are protected by patent applications and these statistics will therefore not consider any non-patent innovations, such as trade secrets. Furthermore, patent applications are not the only type of intellectual property and the report does not consider filings for registered design protection, or for trademarks.
With patent filings, for the most part increasing, intellectual property is arguably playing an ever-more important role in protecting railway industry innovation. To maintain rail’s status as an environmentally friendly, efficient, and progressive industry, as well as to maximise returns from their R&D investments, all innovators should prioritise protecting their inventions.