At the moment, large sections of the UK rail network are undergoing major development, all the while using the latest engineering techniques and technology to help deliver a system that runs efficiently and safely in the face of growing passenger demand. One of the groups helping UK rail do this is the Institute of Railway Research (IRR), a department of the University of Huddersfield that comprises around 35 members of staff, the majority of whom work in research and mechanical engineering.
The IRR director, Simon Iwnicki, joins SmartRail World for the latest 5 Minutes With… to explain some of the ways that the dedicated team in West Yorkshire applies its expertise. In a wide-ranging interview, Simon speaks to Dave Songer about the systems that the IRR has helped create, how he feels he is contributing to UK rail and, as ever, his favourite place in the world to travel by train.
Dave Songer (DS): Please can you begin by telling me about the University of Huddersfield’s IRR department and what it does?
Simon Iwnicki (SI): Well, our main area of activity is in modelling and understanding the interaction between railway vehicles and the track, building up computer models so that we can predict what the forces are between each. This could include what happens if things aren’t perfect – such as faults in the suspension or track, or the result of improvements to different types of suspension systems and how that affects the safety of the vehicle and the comfort of the passengers.
We work a lot with the industry to improve performance and to look at reliability: how it can be optimised, how we can reduce maintenance – that sort of thing.
DS: Presumably the operators then use that information to inform their systems and make them safer and more efficient?
SI: Exactly. We work at different stages of the process really; sometimes we’re working on the design and even the concept, while other times we’re looking at a novel new system – such as the vehicle we’re currently working on which has active suspension. Or we might look further downstream at existing systems whereby an operator or maintainer is having problems and wants to better optimise their maintenance procedures.
DS: You are the IRR’s director, what does your role there involve?
SI: I chair the management board which makes strategic decisions and determines which projects to take on, what new areas to work in, what staff to employ, the whole process really. I also have a role within the school, where I am professor of railway engineering and I am in involved in some teaching – in mechanical and electrical engineering courses, in addition to post-grad students doing projects on different aspects of railway vehicles.
DS: What is it about the rail industry that you most enjoy?
SI: Being involved in an industry that is making a contribution to society, that’s important to me. Also, rail is one of the most environmentally friendly transport systems – except bicycles! – and has a very good safety record when compared with most modes of transport. I believe our train industry is among the safest in the world but it does have its challenges because, rightly, to maintain that safety record and its environmental performance we need to meet many different requirements. I find it fulfilling to be able to be able to use my engineering knowledge and training to help support the industry in meeting those challenges.
DS: And what is the main challenge, would you say?
SI: Probably the main challenge is currently capacity. More people want to travel by rail but that means that we have to provide more capacity because in many areas it has already reached, and in some cases exceeds, that. We’ve seen a doubling of passengers numbers and increases in freight, but in order to be able to maintain that growth we have to do something to increase the capacity sustainably.
DS: What will be some of the biggest differences between the passenger journey today and in 10 years’ time?
SI: I’m only too aware that people often get these completely wrong! I suppose that one area where we’ve seen change but where I believe there will be much more isn’t actually connected to the engineering. At the moment we’re very focused on timetables, but I think in the future – by using IT more effectively – we will just type into our handheld device where we want to be and we won’t even be interested in timetables, or perhaps even the type of transport we’ll use! It will just say, ‘okay, when the time comes, walk in this direction, go to this location, get on a vehicle’, a bus, train or whatever it is and you’ll arrive. You might even have the meeting on a train. Also, the things that you’ll need to make that journey more comfortable and efficient will be provided – that could a meal, your IT services and any documents you need.
DS: There’s a lot of work being done to bring more women into rail – has this push led to more women working/studying at the IRR?
SI: Sadly not, yet, despite the large amount of effort that is put into improving things. I’ve been working in this industry and academia for 30 years and in that time I’ve seen lots of schemes set up so it’s really disappointing that – in the case of engineering – we’re still at around 5% of women making up the workforce. Naturally it varies in different disciplines; the balance in slightly better in the case of civil engineering, but slightly worse in electrical and rail is pretty bad too.
Maybe we are still not getting the message across to younger people – at school, or even before to demonstrate that engineering-based professions are interesting careers as much to men as to women. There’s nothing inherently male about it but my feeling is it will change as we reach critical mass perhaps as it did in the medical profession 50 years ago when the percentages were similar to engineering. Now it is roughly a 50/50 split in medicine.
DS: Finally, we like to ask our interviewees that their favourite rail journey is – what’s yours and why?
SI: Well, I’ve always thought that there’s something nice about sleeper trains (an area of train travel where the UK doesn’t offer too many opportunities). I got the chance to travel by sleeper quite a bit when I stayed for a while in St Petersburg, Russia, and always loved going to Moscow because I knew we would go by sleeper (on the ‘Red Arrow’). On board, my colleagues and I would socialise over a few cups of tea from a samovar (or sometimes something a little stronger) and the next morning the train would roll into Moscow. It’s a very civilised way to travel.
By the way, there is a nice anecdote (that may not be true) relating to the Russian word for railway station. It’s said that a group of railway engineers from Russia visited the UK to understand the railways sometime in the mid-1800s and they were taken to Vauxhall station in South West London, but due to a misunderstanding they thought Vauxhall was the English word for station. It’s allegedly for that reason why Russian railway stations have that word in their title – or as they spell it, vokzal.
DS: I hope that is true! Thanks very much for your time, Simon.