Feature, Transport

Are standards strangling the life out of rail lighting?

Lighting on railway stations has to ensure that passangers are kept safe at all times. LED lighting has recently been fitted on the platforms of the newly refurbished Stockport railway station in the North West of England. 

Russell Sweeting-White is the senior building services engineer at Network Rail. He is responsible for developing a policy and a strategy to light stations across the UK rail network.

Sweeting-White is also involved in the setting of common standards for station lighting, which ensure that a safe environment is created for the rail user.

But are standards stifling creativity when it comes to lighting for rail?

‘Standards are a common consensus amongst engineers that helps us to achieve a certain task. For me this task is a safe environment for the rail user,’ Sweeting told Lux during our recent Lighting for Rail Conference in Central London.

‘Standards give us a set of output criteria that I, as an engineer, need to deliver, but I don’t think that innovation should be restricted by output standards.’

Sweeting-White passionately believes that the process of making the railway environment safer should be an innovative journey, not simply something that is confined to procedural box-ticking.

‘We talk about standards stifling innovation, but it is not standards that are doing this, it is our imagination,’ Sweeting-White commented during the conference.

His department is not specifically funded with a mind to encouraging greater creative thinking, it is funded instead with sights firmly fixed on continuity.

‘We are funded for a steady and stable environment,’ Sweeting-White says. ‘We are not funded to make enhancements. So in theory, I am funded to put T8 fluorescents back on every station, not LEDs.’

There are of course environmental and economic incentives to using LED, nevertheless, innovation that offers savings in the long-term is not always enough to get a project funded in the short term.  

‘We talk about standards stifling innovation, but it is not standards that are doing this, it is our imagination.’ 

Russell Sweeting-White –   Senior building services engineer at Network Rail

Network Rail is of course comprised of a number of franchises, partnerships and train operators, which operate rolling stock and use Network Rail stations.

‘Franchises are great, but when they are held for only a short period of time, the capital investment that we are asking from them, for

example to make the switch to LED, will never pay back, so this ask is sometimes very challenging,’ Sweeting-White commented.

However, Network Rail has worked with some of their train operating companies to make such investments and when they have occurred they have been quite successful.

Network Rail is in the process of starting to create a common standard for components across the network, but Sweeting White admits that this will not be an easy process.

‘Standard components across the network would mean a standard lighting column, a standard fixing height, a standard luminaire, would be required, for example.’

‘I started down this road despite not being entirely sure that I agreed with it, but when we started to score the project and started to put it together, we quickly found that it was pretty much impossible,’ Sweeting-White continues.

Sweeting-White fears that should such a move be completed without due consideration, then this could put a break on innovation, due to the fact that all the light fittings on a station would have been stipulated by a higher authority.

Also, given the wide breath of companies that provide lighting to the rail network, to suddenly start stipulating that a particular set of fixtures need to be used would start to put lighting companies out of business.

‘I could put Abacus out of business for example, with all the work that they do for us. And we would have to start asking if we go for a Thorn fitting over a Holophane fitting over a Kingfisher fitting,’ Sweeting-White adds.

‘One standard could put all these firms out of business, plus there would be no innovation anymore and nothing to drive us forward.’

Nevertheless, this is a work stream that Sweeting-White is tasked to deliver. The trick will be finding a way to fulfil the requirement for greater standardisation on the rail network, whilst also maintaining a dash of innovation in the way that problems are tackled.