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| 2 minutes read

A neat invention for rail network electrification and the value of patents

This is one of the stories from the last few months that caught my eye as it illustrates a number of things:

  • a neat technical solution;
  • how innovation is taking place in the rail industry, despite its struggles post Covid; and
  • how well-directed patent protection can allow greater flexibility in a company’s sales strategy.

First, a brief bit of background.

Much of the UK rail network is currently undergoing electrification as part of the move towards decarbonisation of the economy. For higher speed parts of the network, overhead power cables are often favoured as the means for transmitting the power needed, with the apparatus referred to in the industry as “overhead line equipment” (OLE). In order to collect current from the OLE, a train uses a device known as a “pantograph” to press against an electrified “contact wire” above the train. The contact wire needs to be as level as possible in order to transfer power to the train efficiently. So, to avoid the contact wire sagging between its ground supports (which may be up to 50m apart), another wire, known as a “catenary” or “messenger wire” is run along above the contact wire, and the contact wire is suspended from it. The suspension is achieved using vertical wires known as “droppers” which support the contact wire at regular intervals to keep it as level as possible.

During rollout of OLE, droppers must be installed every few metres, and previously each was quite time-consuming to install. Gripple has developed a new dropper product (shown below), now approved for use on Network Rail, which can reportedly be installed up to 8 times faster than existing droppers and without the use of tools. This looks set to provide significant time savings during electrification of the rail network.

A video comparing installation times between existing droppers and Gripple’s product can be seen here.

It is heartening to see that really useful solutions are being produced, and adopted, in an industry still struggling financially from the effects of the pandemic, and these solutions can help accelerate our path to decarbonisation.

Nearly 35 years old, Gripple has built up a reputation as an important innovator in wire joining and tensioning systems across a range of industries. According to the article, Gripple and Unipart Rail have signed a collaboration agreement whereby Unipart Rail is the exclusive distribution partner for the product in the UK. Gripple have filed a patent application to protect their new dropper product. This patent application allows Gripple to enter into the agreement with more confidence that Unipart will not, later on, decide they like the product so much they will switch to a cheaper supplier or make it themselves. From Unipart’s viewpoint, whilst restricting them in some ways, the patent application should give them confidence that new entrants will be less likely to enter the marketplace. This is a classic example of the value of patents to innovative companies in allowing them to outsource distribution or other steps to partners with confidence, so that they can concentrate on what they do best. In a different industry, Arm has taken this one step further and even outsources manufacturing to third parties, all made possible by the IP it has built up over the years.

The new Rail Dropper will be the first product in the new Gripple SwiftLine range of OLE solutions, designed by Gripple for fast, safe and efficient installation of overhead catenary lines.


transport, patents