Rail innovators exchange ideas ahead of Temple Meads trials

Nine firms hoping to demonstrate their novel products or systems inside Bristol’s mainline station later this spring alighted in the city to showcase their grand ideas, before three are chosen for installation.

Dozens of railway industry specialists gathered at the M-Shed museum beside Princes Wharf in Bristol harbour earlier this month to hear presentations from nine shortlisted companies keen to put forward their case for inclusion in a three month trial, where passengers at Temple Meads will see their technologies or clever ideas in action.

The venue of the presentation and networking event felt suited to the occasion, given that the M-Shed stands next to historic rail lines set into the city’s quayside from where goods were unloaded by cranes onto dock locomotives 150 years ago.

This latest event took place around a mile from Temple Meads and the adjacent Engine Shed workspace which hosted a previous gathering in January of cohort one of the Station Innovation Zone programme, run by Connected Places Catapult and Network Rail.

Ecosystem Director for Rail and Stations, Alan Peters from the Catapult kicked off proceedings by showing the audience a series of colourful images generated using artificial intelligence, after he asked a computer program to illustrate a ‘station of the future’. One resembled platforms at Farringdon on the Elizabeth Line in London, another showed what appeared to be a bullet train alongside passengers and a third could have been painted by one of the Impressionists.

The results were clearly wide of the mark, which led Alan to explain that, for now, it is best left to intelligent humans to design future stations. “We can make these things happen; we don’t have to rely on AI to solve all our problems,” he quipped.

Alan then explained that he and his team were “laser sharp” in their objective for the Temple Meads trials: to help reduce the barriers to deploying innovations in railway stations so that technology specialists can focus on “coming in and doing exciting stuff”.

Up until now, opportunities for innovators to test new ideas at railway stations have been rather limited, he said, with routes to market often “very unclear and challenging”. By taking forward the three best ideas through cohort one of the Station Innovation Zone programme he hopes that more opportunities will follow through subsequent iterations of the project over the next six years.

“If we get this right, we can introduce new technology to transform the way people operate and use stations,”
Ecosystem Director for Rail and Stations, Alan Peters

Alan added that the programme also aims to “form collaborations so that rail buyers have confidence that these products have been trialled”.

But most importantly of all was an imperative to “create more choice in the rail supply chain” by championing the work of up-and-coming technology specialists to railway sector clients.

A chance to offer real impact

Delegates were reminded that the technologies and ideas shortlisted for the Station Innovation Zone programme aim to make Temple Meads safer, more seamless to use or social for passengers. Several ideas include smartphone apps that help with wayfinding and others look to make stations easier to navigate for those with special needs.

Alan was followed on stage by Social Research & Innovation Lead, Steve Close from the Catapult. Steve explained that Bristol Temple Meads is a challenging site: not only is the station a Grade I listed building featuring curved platforms, but it is some distance from the city centre and in the middle of a regeneration area that will likely see upgrades continue for the next 20 years.

“The station is located right where a huge amount of change is about to happen; which makes Temple Meads an exciting place to look at how technology can improve a station experience,” he said.

Steve predicted that trials of new ideas at Temple Meads will “increase confidence” in systems that promise to have “real impact” and that could be replicated at other stations around the country.

Delegates then heard from Network Rail’s Senior Programme Manager Brian Wortman. He described the Station Innovation Zone programme as a “real chance to bring cohesion” where there is “a lot of fragmentation” in the station for passengers who may struggle with switching trains and with wayfinding.

Brian also explained that Bristol Temple Meads is a key transport hub for passengers; a crossroads connecting the Midlands, London, South West, the West Country and Wales. “Temple Meads is a really complex station, and when things go wrong here it can affect the rest of the network. But the station lies in the centre of a once in a generation opportunity, given the regeneration of Temple Quarter.”

Examples of other station improvements

Representatives from consultant Arup then described how rail stations can provide an important role for society: increasingly they offer a broader range of services beyond just allowing people to board and alight trains.

“At the heart of this are people and places,” explained the firm’s Transport Leader, Andrew Jenkins. “Stations of the future support inclusive growth, are at the centre of sustainable movement networks and help fulfil lives.”

He gave an example of a new parkway station proposed for Cardiff, Hendre Lakes, where a masterplan is being developed to help create a station that benefits the environment and local communities.

But while new stations can clearly be designed to meet modern needs, established stations once offered communities places to gather and enjoy company too. Arup’s Placemaking Leader, Edgar Kiviet showed a black and white photograph of Temple Meads in 1871 showing many people gathered to meet others. Large stations in Victorian times were often, he said, “social places and the ‘living rooms’ of cities where businesses met and where innovation happened”.

One wonders now whether an injection of innovative technology into Temple Meads this year could help to recreate the buzz around stations seen in yesteryear.

His presentation also featured plans to regenerate nearby Bristol Parkway station, which opened in 1969, and described how the Dutch city of Utrecht has transformed its central station into a public transport and active travel hub.

In summary they described the role of stations as not just transient spaces, but those that foster a sense of community.

Connected Places Catapult’s Living Labs Manager, Clemence Martin-Beaumont explained to delegates the programme’s aim of “creating a hub for developing, testing and demonstrating innovation safely, to improve the passenger experience and accelerate innovation in UK stations”.

She added that the Catapult develops testbeds to support partners and solution providers to de-risk innovation and enhance inclusive collaboration by trialling solutions in real-life settings with relevant users and stakeholders. Building on its experience in homes and urban environments, the Catapult aims to help to shape a sustainable testing approach in railways.

Accelerator Programme Manager Poppy Driver then welcomed each of the nine technology companies onto stage to outline their ideas and explain how their innovations work, before the event concluded with a reception overlooking the Bristol city skyline.

Read about the nine shortlisted companies in the Station Innovation Zone project in our brochure below.

The Station Innovation Zone now enters its second year, with its primary focus set to be on data sharing and digital innovation.

Station Innovation Zone 2023 Cohort 1 Guide
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