Posted 13th September 2010 | 1 Comment

OPINION: Innovation in the rail industry is overdue

Chris Williams-Lilley

Chris Williams-Lilley

Rail Champions may be a new name to you.

But its founder Chris Williams-Lilley argues here that although there are some groups who inspire progress and innovation in the rail industry, there are still many neglected areas which deserve attention too, particularly in uncertain

times like the present.

IN MANY walks of life, we seek approval, recognition and reward from our peers.

The railway industry certainly has many areas of activity which can be complex and highly specialized, not least due to the heavy regulation that is imposed on suppliers, constructors, maintainers and operators. I am not, by the way, implying that all regulation is wrong or unnecessary, but it has to be taken into account at every turn.

Rail Champions was established in October 2009 to offer professional engineers a unique platform to showcase industry innovation, talent, but more importantly, to offer recognition to those younger engineers who have shown commitment, integrity and leadership beyond their years on key infrastructure projects.

Personally I have lucky enough to be involved with many of the major station enhancements and refurbishments over the past four years.
The current government mantra of ‘more for less’ is prevalent in all the headlines, job security is in everyone’s mind, and affects all sectors. It is my strong belief that there is real scope to achieve cost savings if we in the rail industry collaborate, share knowledge and embrace change -- because changes are set to happen whether we like them or not.

There are many different groups representing the industry and I acknowledge their skill and success in debating Value for Money throughout the supply chain.

Groups such as the Rail Industry Association and the Derby and Derbyshire Rail Forum are effective, but exceptional.

Rail Champions, on the other hand, represents a corner of the industry that sometimes feels forgotten. I am referring to aspiring consultant, contracting, and sales engineers (we like to call them business development managers these days) who will be proposing and delivering innovative solutions in the future, be it on stations, trackside or rolling stock. 

It’s those individuals we seek out – the real Rail Champions, not necessarily the company they work for.  Most successful companies recognize that their employees are the biggest asset they have. Sound familiar? Why not let them speak?

Rail Champions will specialize in accelerated learning opportunities by engaging with some of the industry’s leading lights.
We aim to offer in depth analysis of lessons learned from constructors, suppliers and train operators.

With over 200 members already signed up in little over six months, we are fortunate to have the support of luminaries from some of the highest schools of learning across the UK, transport policy makers, and technical gurus supporting exciting projects such as Crossrail, the Thameslink Programme and the London Underground power upgrade.

Personally having worked in many industry sectors throughout my career, the rail sector is the most demanding, yet rewarding, sector to be involved with. But starting out, I found it to be such a closed industry; it took a lot of hard work and effort to make the leap a success!

With the implementation of a quality assurance program, Rail Champions will provide a focus for high quality white papers and case studies that will inform, inspire and educate.

There are clear objectives for the group to achieve in the first year, which will set the scene for the future of the group and the direction it wishes to take.

In effect their mission statement is:
1. To become the most innovative ‘professional networking’ group in the UK Rail Sector.
2. Provide access to key members of the transport industry for one to one dialog and coaching at regional Rail Champions Live events.
3. Launch a Technical Advocacy Panel to support members' interests in Rail.
4. Offer themed regional networking sessions and an AGM and awards event.
5. Provide a conduit between the industry, colleges and schools to promote ‘engineering excellence’.
6. Promote the group’s activities and successes both in the UK and around the world. 

A highly skilled professional membership working together, using common sense and drawing on anecdotal practical experience, can achieve great things.

With developments ranging from new rail links for the London Olympics, Crossrail -- which it is envisaged will add a whopping £36 billion to the UK’s economy -- to the revolutionary domestic high speed intercity network which is now being planned in Britain, there couldn’t be a more exciting time to become involved with the Rail Champions group. 

Over the next 12 months the group will reflect on the challenges that lie ahead.  Leadership through the recession is needed to keep confidence and aspirations alive.  We will work tirelessly to meet this goal by focusing on the positive action the industry is taking towards, development of engineers, projects and leading edge technology.   

Rail Champions is a not for profit organization. The ethos and integrity of the group is clear.  Transparent operation and operating costs for its activities and events will be available for its members at the Annual General Meeting.  Nothing is possible without the valued good will and sponsorship support from the industry and engineers it supports. 

My reasons for starting the group were borne out of a desire to inspire others to work to their best abilities, be part of a team and collaborate across disciplines and at all levels of the industry.

The group is nothing without proactive support and commitment of the Rail Champions Steering Group. They are my constant source for inspiration, as well as those individuals whom I have worked with or acted as mentors for me over the past four years.

To close, I’m reminded how lucky I have been to work on so many landmark projects; including the historic St Pancras International and Kings Cross stations,  Cooling the Tube, Metropolitan Line resignalling and the early electrical design for Crossrail.

I have also had the great pleasure of working with some of the most amazing, intelligent and inspirational leaders, including Stuart Norfolk of Network Rail,  Nick Martin of Balfour Beatty, David Burton of Fifth Dimension, Derek Frost and John Wilkinson of Arup, BBC technology reporter Maggie Philbin and last but not least Derek W. Plowright of EPS who gave me my first break in Rail.

This list is far from complete, but they are some of the names which immediately come to mind. People like them (and there are many more, so my apologies if you are not mentioned here) are the people who embody the spirit and the mission of Rail Champions.

It can be be done, and we intend to do it, as the part played by rail in our national economy -- often thought by some to be in slow decline -- becomes increasingly important, indeed essential, once again.

Comment? Suggestion? Email Chris at

Reader Comments:

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  • Llion Wynne Jones, aberdare

    I agree, but I hope that the changes aren't going to result in job losses, because that is the last thing this county needs. If anything they need to create more jobs on the rail industry. After all without humans there would be no railway. I just hope that the plans don't result in trains being computer controlled, and that signal boxes (small ones, that are needed (but NR doesn't recognize this) are closed, as this man seems rather powerfull in the industry.