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Weighing up the results of EU-funded rail research

The ERRAC ROADMAP project is working to promote a more systematic and focused approach to the use of rail transport sector resources. In a recent workshop in Brussels, participants discussed lessons learned from past research projects, with a view to enhancing real market uptake of results.

The ERRAC ROADMAP workshop © Peter Gutierrez
The ERRAC ROADMAP workshop
© Peter Gutierrez

The European Rail Research Advisory Council ( ERRACexternal link) is charged with the development of a concrete and detailed strategy for common European research activities in the rail transport sector. To this end, the ERRAC ROADMAP project is producing a step-by-step guide to help reach the goals presented in ERRAC's Strategic Rail Research Agenda.

"I believe we all love our jobs," said Luisa Velardi of  Trenitaliaexternal link. "We all love research. But ERRAC is not really about research, it's about results. Our Research is only useful if we see the results being taken up in the market." The ERRAC ROADMAP evaluation process, she explained, is therefore based on market uptake, not on the quality of the work done.

Evaluating innovation

Over the past years, a great number of rail research projects have been funded by the European Commission, representing billions of Euros of investment. Yet the question remains as to how much of this research has actually been useful or relevant. It is clear that otherwise valuable research results are sometimes lost (forgotten) and some work is repetitive or redundant.

"At some point we need to stop and think, evaluate and decide if we are going in the right direction," says Velardi. "We want to develop rail research projects that can guarantee concrete market uptake, offering real improvements and solutions for the future rail industry."

ERRAC ROADMAP carried out an analysis of finished project results and deliverables, together with interviews of project participants and stakeholders. Grades were assigned in terms of market uptake, as follows:

  • Strong market uptake – clear evidence of use of products, processes, dissemination of knowledge, tools etc., in several countries. Need for additional projects but only in complementary areas.
  • Medium market uptake – some evidence of use of products and processes, limited dissemination of knowledge, tools etc., in a few countries. Follow-up projects may be necessary and the results might eventually be used more in the future.
  • Weak market uptake – no known use of products, processes, dissemination of knowledge, tools etc. No follow up project unless the reason for the failure of market uptake is clearly understood.

Of the projects evaluated, said Velardi, 13% showed strong market uptake, 7% were medium, and 24% were judged weak.

"No market uptake means money wasted, public money wasted. But it is also a waste of our intellectual capacity, of time and other resources," she said. "And it is not rewarding on personal and professional levels for individual researchers."

Cases: weak, strong and why

GARGOSPEED loading platform © Newrail
GARGOSPEED – an innovative
project that got lost in
the shuffle
© Newrail

At the workshop in Brussels,  Newrailexternal link 's Mark Robinson had the unenviable task of presenting his 'weak' project, 'CARGOSPEED', an interesting and very innovative research initiative that had little impact in the real world.

'On one level, CARGOSPEED was very much a success," said Robinson. "It produced real results, a working system for transferring freight to and from trains and lorries. Unfortunately, the market uptake was in fact very poor."

The CARGOSPEED system is ingenious: a train of wagons with removable floors arrives at a terminal and stops between two raised platforms; a hydraulic 'pop-up' column rises from a pit between the rails, raising and then rotating the wagon floor, allowing a lorry to drive onto it from one side, detach its trailer and then drive off on the other side. The wagon floor is then rotated back into position and the train can depart. The process is reversed for unloading. With multiple wells and pop-up columns serving several wagons on the same train, several lorries can deposit or retrieve trailers at once, greatly reducing the amount of time needed to load and unload freight.

"The reason we have seen no market uptake," says Robinson, "is that we simply didn't have a customer. The system works, lorry drivers say they would use it, freight transporters say they would use it, but the parties who could actually put it into practice, that is to say the terminals, just do not want to undertake the investment."

The lesson learned: make sure you are addressing a real and pressing need in the rail market and make sure you include real users, i.e. 'customers', as part of the project consortium, parties that will use the results.

On the other hand

Counterbalancing the CARGOSPEED story, George Kotsikos, also of Newrail, delivered a positive example. The 'ALJOIN' project, which carried out studies of aluminium use in train wagons, received a 'strong market uptake' rating.

"Aluminium alloys are now in widespread use for rail vehicle construction," explained Kotsikos. "However, in collisions involving aluminium rail coaches, like the one we saw here in Belgium just recently, it has been observed that some of the longitudinal seam welds have fractured for several metres beyond the zone of severe damage, while the panels themselves are generally left intact without significant distortion."

ALJOIN partners realised that designers needed better data to assess this fracture phenomenon. In addition, there was a real need for innovation in the use of joining techniques and joint design to improve the performance of aluminium vehicles under crash conditions.

George Kotsikos © Peter Gutierrez
George Kotsikos
© Peter Gutierrez

"We addressed a specific technical problem," said Kotsikos. "We had a clearly defined goal, we had a logical array of partners, and the division of tasks among the partners was sensible and coherent."

Some of the fundamental data generated during the ALJOIN project have had far-reaching effects indeed, having leading to new Europe-wide legislation on train wagon design and construction; all new wagons now produced in Europe must incorporate ALJOIN design innovations. The ultimate result, says Kotsikos, will be greater survivability of severe rail accidents.

In closing…

After the case studies, Chris Brown of the UK Department for Transport delivered a presentation on how to embed market uptake in research projects. This was followed by an open discussion on lessons learned, suggestions and propositions for more successful research projects.

Velardi said ERRAC ROADMAP partners hope their work will prove valuable to the European Commission when it decides whether or not to support new rail transport projects. "It must be a priority to consider both the potential and likely impacts of publicly funded research," she concluded.

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