Investing in rail research 'could help level up Yorkshire's economy'

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Greater investment in rail research could be used to help level up the economy in the North because of the number of companies in the region already investing in the sector, according to a new report.

The study by a team of economic experts says there is a “compelling case” for further investment in rail innovation in the region that could drive “economic recovery, and longer-term industrial advancement and economic growth”.

Commissioned by the University of Leeds and University of Huddersfield, the report Rail Innovation Eco-System: Understanding the Region’s Research and Innovation Capacity, Capabilities and Potential, describes a “collective appetite among academia and industry to drive research”.

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The Institute of Railway Research at the University of HuddersfieldThe Institute of Railway Research at the University of Huddersfield
The Institute of Railway Research at the University of Huddersfield

It says hundreds of companies in the North are already actively involved in rail industry research, development and innovation and the region boasts universities with advanced rail test facilities and expertise and a strong record of collaboration with the rail industry on research.

Perspective Economics identified more than 2,500 companies in the North of England that were operating across the rail industry supply chain. In 2018, these companies generated more than £42bn in known UK-wide revenues and employed more than 150,000 people.

And is said industry research was matched by “broad and deep” academic expertise at the universities of Huddersfield and Leeds.

Between them, the two universities have been involved in more than 400 rail research projects, generating around £100 million in research income, of which half came from partnerships directly with the rail industry.

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The University of Huddersfield, which has developed an advanced rail research centre, the Institute of Railway Research, is a leading centre in rail engineering and risk. Its research has helped to improve the understanding of the way railway vehicles interact with the track.

The University of Leeds is developing an Institute for High-Speed Rail and System Integration, which will be one of the most advanced experimental test and development facilities in the world.

Building work was started but then paused due to coronavirus and the timing of the construction of the research and testing facilities will be influenced by the pandemic.

Professor Stephen Ingleton, Engineering Director at Unipart Rail, said: "This report demonstrates the huge potential for rail innovation within the region and emphasises the benefit of universities and industry working in partnership. As a company, we have strong research links with the higher education sector, and we are well placed to build on this to deliver benefits both within the region and to the whole industry."

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The rail industry supply chain has been identified by Leeds City Council and Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership as a sector that could strengthen the economy in the Leeds City Region, and lead to the creation of new high-quality jobs.

Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at Leeds, said: “By leveraging combined industrial, research and innovation strengths for national and regional benefit, there is a unique opportunity for the industry to be a catalyst for economic recovery and one that can make a significant contribution to the UK’s levelling-up agenda.”

Meanwhile, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority has told a government review that improving transport connections in and out of the region is critical to improving ties between the four nations of the United Kingdom.

The eastern leg of HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail including a new line between Leeds and Manchester via central Bradford, upgrading the Trans-Pennine line and investing in the East Coast Main Line are among projects which would help improve connections with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, leaders say.

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The combined authority’s submission to the Union Connectivity Review, chaired by Sir Peter Hendy, says that poor transport links are a “significant factor in holding back the development of economic links between our region and the other nations within the UK”. It calls for investment in rail as an efficient, high capacity, low-carbon form of transport.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "The North was the birthplace of our railways, and the ingenuity of researchers and engineers based in the North continues to produce world-leading research.

“We are committed to fostering that pioneering work, investing to support the latest technologies including digital signalling, hydrogen and solar power.

“As we focus on levelling up transport connections through HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the Transpennine upgrade, we will also continue to invest in skills, jobs and innovation across the North, to create a stronger, more dynamic and diverse economy.”

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