IF THERE WAS any doubt that a great deal of research is still being undertaken into the rail mode, this was rapidly dispelled by the seventh World Congress on Railway Research on June 5 - 9. Over 750 delegates from more than 40 countries assembled in Montréal to debate several hundred papers under the general theme of ’Progressing Together’.

’Montréal will be a milestone in development and co-operation on rail research’, predicted outgoing WCRR Chairman Roy Allen. He summed up the commercial and technical imperatives for the rail industry with the challenge ’let’s do more with less’.

The depth and scope of current and recent research projects ranged widely, from alternative fuels through environmental sustainability to the fatigue forces affecting the life cycle of wheelsets. East Japan Railway’s Fastech trainsets are probing the boundaries of high speed operations, and the same company is about to put into operation a prototype three-car multiple-unit powered by fuel cells. Network Rail and TTCI continue to refine their mutual understanding of creep forces in the critical wheel/rail contact patch, picking up one of the eight ’best paper’ awards.

If there was any criticism of the organisers, it was perhaps that the selection of papers erred in favour of breadth over depth. With four plenary sessions, six parallel streams of workshops, interactive poster debates and further poster displays, plus the stands of more than 40 exhibitors, there was simply too much choice. Getting the balance right is clearly difficult, but some delegates suggested a more rigorous selection process could focus on the ’best in class’ making a paper at WCRR a genuine pinnacle of achievement. Something, perhaps, to consider for 2008 in Seoul.

Whilst some railways are still investing in R&D, others are increasingly relying on joint ventures with suppliers and academic institutions. We were concerned that many papers reported parallel research rather than building on each other’s work. The Eurnex programme to co-ordinate European railway research projects seems to be making slow progress, whereas the tripartite agreement between KRRI in Korea, RTRI of Japan and CARS in China, for example, appears more fruitful.

One factor may be a higher reliance on supplier involvement inEurope. One insider commented that some current international research projects are making little progress, and suggested that the participating suppliers may be finding it difficult to reconcile the need for openness and co-operation in research with the imperative of retaining the competitive advantage.

As more decision-makers recognise the fundamental benefits of rail, it is good to see a healthy debate helping to secure the technical foundations of our industry.