Tuesday, 4 August 2020

HS2 connecting the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine

Many proponents of HS2, myself included have over the years tried to ensure that the benefits of building HS2 are focused mainly on capacity, which is the most important reason for building the new railway. The journey time improvements that will be brought about by the introduction of HS2 services are welcome, and are indeed also important, but in terms of absolute need for the project, cutting journey times is secondary.

This is undeniably true for phase 1 between London and the West Midlands, which serves to alleviate the chronic capacity shortage on the existing southern section of the West Coast Mainline. Even heading further North, between the West Midlands and Crewe there is limited to no remaining capacity available on the WCML, this despite upgrades to the existing infrastructure, such at the £250m Stafford AreaImprovement Programme, which involved grade separation of Norton Bridge junction.

The East Coast Main Line is also nearing capacity and will benefit from construction of the eastern arm of HS2. The eastern section will benefit both the ECML and MML by releasing capacity on those lines for more local and regional services. With express services from Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield and others transferred onto HS2.

It seems however that the debate about whether or not to build the eastern section has resurfaced once again. There are those who ague; that the section from the West Midlands to Leeds and the ECML should not be built at all. They argue that it isn't required and capacity could be increased more cost effectively on the existing Midland and East Coast Main Lines.

I for one think this argument is nonsense and that the capacity argument which is true for the WCML is equally true for the ECML and MML. However I also think that a massive benefit of HS2 from the West Midlands to Leeds and Manchester is often overlooked.

That benefit being; the slashing of journey times from Leeds to Birmingham and from Manchester to Birmingham. A phrase which I often use (which is yet catch on) is "HS2 connects the Northern Powerhouse to the Midlands Engine". It's corny I know, but it does say simply what the northern section of HS2 is capable of delivering. Connecting regions covered by the Northern Powerhouse partnership with regions covered by the Midlands Engine partnership.

HS2 Ltd map showing phases 2a and 2b

Currently to get from Manchester to Birmingham takes 1 hour 30 minutes. To get from Leeds to Birmingham takes up to 2 hours! In this day and age it seems crazy that it takes so long. But it does highlight the fact that there simply isn't space on the existing infrastructure to improve services which connect 3 of the UK's largest cities.

If HS2 is delivered in full these journey times will be dramatically reduced. Manchester to Birmingham slashed to just 40 minutes, with Leeds to Manchester cut by over a half, to just 49 minutes. Journey time reductions such as these simply would not be possible without the construction of HS2.

HS2 Manchester to Birmingham - 40 minutes

HS2 Leeds to Birmingham - 49 minutes

Currently the fastest services from Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham are also some of the most crowded. The problem being that the Cross Country services which currently connect Leeds and Manchester to Birmingham also serve other routes, continuing south from Birmingham to Plymouth and Bournemouth. In effect Cross Country services serve two different markets, long distance to the south coast and regional to Birmingham. As vital as these sorts of long distance routes are, it does mean that passengers end up with busy, suboptimal regional links.

So whilst I agree it is absolutely critical that proponents of HS2 continue to push the message that HS2 is needed for capacity, I also think not enough emphasis is given to Leeds - Manchester - Birmingham connectivity. The connection of which with fast and frequent rail services could boost the economies of the Midlands and the North and shift the balance the UK economy north of Watford Gap.

I must point out however, that I do not subscribe to the argument that we should be building the northern sections first. Building the section between London and the West Midlands is needed to unlock capacity on the southern section of WCML. Providing extra capacity into London still remains vital and in addition unlocks the potential for even greater connectivity with other parts of the south via Old Oak Common.

I would like to discus Old Oak Common in more detail in a future blog.....

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Wednesday, 22 July 2020

UK first, class 230 hybrid train arrives at Wrexham

It was 3years ago when I first took a ride on the first prototype class 230, since then things have certainly moved on. The diesel powered 3 car unit which shuttled people between Honeybourne and Rail Live in 2017 has been developed into a diesel electric hybrid with advanced power systems and has also had a striking facelift.

The new hybrid units, which are a first for the UK, are very much like self charging hybrid cars. The 4 diesel engines housed underneath the centre vehicle charge 4 battery rafts, 2 under each driving vehicle. Power to drive the traction motors is taken directly from the batteries, with the motors able to return power back to the batteries using a regenerative braking system.

[update] I was made aware that the traction motors can take power directly from the engines, this is something didn't know before. But thought it is an important piece of information to share. I wasn't informed when the traction motors would likely need to take power directly from the engines, but the ability is there if needed, perhaps if the unit was full and making its way up the steep incline from Shotton towards Hawarden, or in the event one class 230 is required to rescue another.

 Class 230 006 at Wrexham General

The class 230s which have been built for Transport for Wales Rail are fitted with a 2 stage wheel slip protection system, with 1 stage able to precisely control the power being delivered to the wheels in order to prevent the wheels from slipping. This system will prove useful on the Wrexham Bidston line for which the units are intended. The line has many station stops, some spaced closely together along the 30 miles route, with a steep incline from Shotton up to Buckley which provides a challenge for train and the driver in wet conditions and during the autumn leaf fall season.

So far only 230 006 has made the journey north from Long Marston (where it was constructed and tested) to Wrexham. 006 is due to commence line specific testing once a second class 230 becomes available. Having 2 units stabled locally will mean that should a unit fail whilst out on the line for whatever reason, either one could recover the other.

007 is currently undergoing mileage accumulation on the Cotswolds line, as is 008, with 009 nearing completion. In total Transport for Wales Rail has ordered 5 units from Vivarail which, once delivered and sufficient drivers have been trained, will enable TfW to increase the service frequency on the Wrexham Bidston line from hourly to half hourly, starting from December 2021.

Having supported the D Train project from the very beginning and being part of the campaign for them to operate on the Wrexham Bidston (Borderlands) line, I must admit to being more than a little excited to hear 006 was making the journey to Wrexham on Monday (20th July). Having only seen pictures of the unit on the Cotswolds line it was good to finally get a chance to see the unit up close. It really does look fantastic, almost completely unrecognisable from the D 78 stock on which it is based.

The best bits of the stock such as aluminium body shells and recently replaced bogies have been kept, but almost all of the rest of the unit is brand new. The insides have been completely striped back to metal and new fixtures and fittings installed. Heavy structural work has taken place to reinforce the drivers cab and the gangways between carriages have been widened.

 Class 230 006 along side a class 150 which are set to be replaced on the Borderlands Line.

A small minority bemoan the use of the word "new" to describe the 230s, but given the work that has been carried out I think it's fair to call them new. The D78 stock on which the class 230 is based may
technically be older than the class 150s they're set to replace, but the difference in look and passenger facilities between the 2 units is night and day. Hopefully passengers will be able to judge for themselves soon, but I'm certain when the the 230s do enter service, the average passenger will have no idea that the train they are traveling on has its basis on a train dating from 1978.

[update] Since this blog was published, 230 006 has completed a number of test runs from Wrexham to Bidston and back again. During each run the unit has stopped briefly at each station along the line. Below is a video which compares the class 230 to the class 150 from a standing start, departing Neston station.

Update: side by side class 230 vs class 150 from a standing start.

More videos of 230 006 available here.

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Friday, 19 July 2019

Smart motorways, do they work?

The short answer, in my experience, no. That's not to say that I think “smart” or “managed” motorways are an inherently bad idea. The theory is sound and a study of a section of the M42 which was upgraded in 2006 showed that journey time savings of between 1 and 4 minutes could be achieved during rush hour. 1 minuted saved using variable speed limits alone and 4 minutes with variable speeds and opening of the hard shoulder. Highways England also say that “personal injury accidents reduced by more than half” and “where accidents did occur, severity was much lower overall with zero fatalities and fewer seriously injured”.

So if the data suggests that smart motorways can reduce journey times and make motorways safer, why do I think that they do not work in practice? The main factor which I believe means they do not work to their full potential is the human factor. But I also believe there are other issues which hinder drivers and the ability for smart motorways to smooth traffic flow effectively.

Smart motorways if you haven't driven on one already, are motorways which are designed to control traffic flow through the use of variable speed limits and increase capacity through the use of hard shoulder running. Gantries which are spaced at regular intervals and span the entire motorway width, provide drivers with information governing the speed limit and which lanes are open. An LED matrix mounted on the gantry above each lane indicates the speed drivers should stick to and whether or not the hard shoulder is open to traffic. Live CCTV and traffic information is fed back to a control room from where controllers can set the speed limits for individual gantries and open and close lanes as required. Controllers can also indicate that lanes other than the hard shoulder are closed in case of incidents or breakdowns.

The video below shows one of the UK's newest sections of smart motorway in action. The M6 between junction 16 for Crewe and junction 19 for Knutsford.

In many cases speed limits are enforced by speed cameras located on each gantry, although it is not clear if the speed cameras are always turned on, or if cameras are selectively turned off and on.  The issue of speed and enforcement brings me to my first complaint about smart motorways. Whilst I fully agree that in order to maintain a set speed, that enforcement is necessary, as many drivers would simply otherwise ignore the speed limit, I find that the speed limit drops are too steep. For example, I was travelling along the M6 through Birmingham and the gantries were displaying a speed limit of 60mph, then the speed limit changed to 40mph at the next gantry. The gantry had a sign indicating that there was a speed camera facing directly behind it, so drivers had to slow from 60mph to 40mph from the point of seeing the gantry to passing under the gantry itself. In most cases this caused drivers to apply the brakes in order to slow down to 40mph and avoid potential points and a fine.

Highways England argues that it should be possible to slow down without needing to apply the brakes. But I would argue that slowing from 60mph to 40mph from the point of seeing the gantry, to passing under the gantry is not always possible without applying the brakes, especially if travelling down hill. Forcing drivers to apply the brakes on a motorway is just about the worst thing you can do if want to smooth traffic flow. There is an excellent video which shows the impact braking can have on creating phantom traffic jams.

Forcing drivers to brake can cause the above phenomenon, which can, in turn, lead to drivers responding as shown in the video below, further interrupting traffic flow.

In my opinion, the simple solution is to graduate speed decreases, 60mph to 50mph at the next gantry and then the gantry after that 40mph, for example.

The problem with speed limits is something that the Highways England controllers have direct control over, however, there are human factors which come into play over which Highways England has little control.

One of the issues for the affective use of hard shoulder running is middle lane hogging drivers. They are drivers who refuse to change lane even if the left-most lane is clear. For the purposes of this explanation, I will use lane numbers, with lane 1 the leftmost and lane 4 rightmost lane. I have witnessed on multiple occasions drivers who are sat in the middle lane (lane 2) continue to sit in that lane, even after it is indicated that the hard shoulder is now open. This means drivers who were in lane 2 are now in lane 3, yet still do not move over to the left, despite lane 1 (hard shoulder) and lane 2 being clear. Sometimes gantries can direct drivers to keep in lane and not to change lane, but on the journeys that I witnessed middle lane or lane 3 hogging, no such directions were indicated.

In 2013 police were given the power to hand out on-the-spot fines of £100 and 3 penalty points, as middle lane hogging is classed as careless driving.

Theoretically speaking if all drivers are were driving at the same speed, as indicated by the gantry, then middle lane hogging should not be a real issue, although still against the law. However I have witnessed drivers in lanes 2 and 3 of 4 sitting at 50-60mph when there were no speed restrictions in place. There were also HGVs in lane 2 who were unsure of the rules or simply refusing to use the hard shoulder despite it being open to traffic.

The situation as described above becomes a problem when faster-moving traffic travelling in lane 1 wishes to pass slower-moving traffic sat in lanes 2 and 3. In order not to undertake, the driver would be forced to cross 3 lanes of traffic and then back again. Changing lanes if done properly should not be inherently risky, but add in slower moving traffic and speeding traffic, then moving across 3 lanes can increase the level of risk.

In my opinion, if the police are unable to clamp down on middle lane hogging, then the government should clarify the rules on undertaking. If there are vehicles in lanes 2 and 3 travelling below the indicated speed limit despite lane 1 being clear, then it leaves drivers who do wish to obey the law but wish to travel at the speed limit with a dilemma. Do they cross 3 lanes of traffic, or pass vehicles on the left which despite having plenty of opportunity have not moved over. In Germany it is common for drivers to flash their headlights whilst travelling on the Autobahn, which means the driver behind wishes you to move over. Flashing your headlights at a car in front in the UK would probably be seen as an aggressive act, or the driver in front may think you are trying to warn them that something is wrong, so probably best avoided. But personally, I do think it would be a perfectly reasonable way of indicating that perhaps a driver should move over to the left.

Undertaking isn't strictly illegal, however it can be considered as careless driving and as such drivers caught undertaking can receive penalty points and a fine. However the Highway Code (Clause 268) states: “In congested conditions, where adjacent lanes of traffic are moving at similar speeds, traffic in left-hand lanes may sometimes be moving faster than traffic to the right. In these conditions you may keep up with the traffic in your lane even if this means passing traffic in the lane to your right. Do not weave in and out of lanes to overtake.” So while it is not advisable to undertake there are certain situations when it is permissible.

Middle lane hogging mostly becomes and issue when traffic is flowing freely, undertaking on the other hand can have negative impacts during periods of congestion. I have come across situations where the hard shoulder was suddenly opened to traffic which was travelling slowly or at a standstill. In this instance a small number of cars would enter the hard should and then get up to speed (what ever the speed restriction was at the time) straight away, undertaking drivers at a much high speed than those in lane 2, this would make it difficult for other vehicles to safely move over to the hard shoulder. In this instance the hard shoulder is being used by only a relatively small number of vehicles.

The situation is made more complex by lane drops, this is when a section of hard shoulder which is open to traffic is strictly for vehicles leaving at the next junction. Drivers who may not have seen the matrix message saying that the hard shoulder is exit only, can be forced to leave the motorway, or come to standstill in an otherwise clear lane whilst they wait for an opening to get back onto to motorway. There are also those who use the circumstances to deliberately undertake slow-moving traffic and then just before the junction exit force their way back onto the motorway.

Highways England say that studies show that smart motorways do cut congestion and reduce accidents, but from my experience I don't think that the system is being used to its full potential. One issue is eduction, a large number of motorists have yet to experience driving on a smart motorway and would perhaps not fully understanding how they work. So currently we have a mix of experienced and inexperienced drivers, complicated by drivers who even on normal motorways refuse to move over to the left-most lane and aggressive drivers who use whichever lane is free to make as much headway as possible, as quickly as possible.

It took me a few trips over the M6 through Birmingham to know to look out for matrix notices which say if the hard shoulder is to be used for exiting the motorway only and to look as far ahead to next gantry as possible in order to slow down if necessary. But I do believe there are changes Highways England could do make, such as graduating speed decreases and there should be a widespread campaign to inform motorists of how to drive on smart motorways.

The theory of controlling speeds during periods of congestion is sound, but the human element sometimes means that theory doesn't always work out completely as intended. And then there is the adage that by increasing capacity on the roads you just created more congestion down the line.

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Monday, 24 June 2019

Rail Live 2019: Highlights - IEPs, battery trains and induction welding

In my first RailLive 2019 post I wrote about the UK's first hydrogen powered train which caused quite a stir at this year's event. In this post I wanted to cover some of my highlights from the event. The site on which RailLive is held is enormous and there is a huge amount to see, so I chose before hand what I wanted to try to see in the limited time that I had

Mirage Rail induction welding

One of the first displays that I set time aside for was that of Mirage Rail who were demonstrating their mobile induction welding system. Using electromagnetic induction to weld sections of rail together is nothing new, however the mobile system developed by Mirage is unique.

The whole system which includes a generator, HIAB and induction welder can be mounted on a single rail trailer and towed by an RRV to wherever it may be required. The image below shows the entire system mounted on a rail trailer.

The induction welder which is manoeuvred over the rail using the HIAB, houses an induction coil which generates high-frequency electromagnetic fields to heat 2 sections of rail to 1300°C, the rails are then forced together using hydraulic rams which are clamped to the rails. As well as joining the rail, the system also has stressing capabilities built in. Some of the other benefits listed by Mirage rail include; “no operator exposure to molten metals, Reduced Operator risk, Automatic Shearing, No gas cylinders or hoses required for pre-heating and Low energy consumption (150KVa)

The video below shows the induction welder in action, from start to finish.

 LNER class 800 AZUMA

RailLive 2019 like previous years had a massive array of rail plant on display and I hope to cover more of that in a future blog.  The event isn't solely focused on rail engineering or rail plant however, it also provides train manufactures, ROSCOS and train operating companies (TOCs) the opportunity to show off the latest trains which are being delivered to the UK network.

This year LNER brought along one of their new class 800 AZUMAs and invited visitors to come on-board and take a look around. I didn't want to give this opportunity a miss as it's unlikely I'll be able to ride one any time soon. As someone who lives and works in the North West I don't often get the chance to head over to the east of England, or South West where class 800s are also in service.

Passengers who live along the west coast corridor had up until now benefited from  some of most modern intercity trains on the network. The class 390 Pendolinos which were introduced between 2001 and 2004 revolutionised intercity travel along the WCML and were in part responsible for the doubling of rail passenger numbers on the WCML. The sleek, modern and fast trains cut journey times and introduced passengers to a whole new world in terms of rail travel.

It is hoped that the class 800s will have a similar affect on ECML routes to London. The AZUMAs will provide more capacity, with an additional 100 seats per train and it is hoped that there will be journey time improvements with the new timetable in 2021. The journey time savings probably wont be as dramatic as those achieved on the WCML with the Pendolinos, however new more spacious trains with modern features is bound (hopefully) to persuade even more people living along the ECML corridor to take the train.

There is one subject that does keep cropping up, and that is the standard class seating. Having read and heard that the standard class seats are not particularly comfortable I had to try one out for myself. Straight away I understood what people have been saying, the seats are firm, very firm. On the plus side there is plenty of legroom, not something you get very much of in a Pendolino in standard class, believe me. So there are some pluses and minuses, and if you want to get the maximum number of seats in a train, all while providing good legroom, PRM toilets, luggage and bike storage and a cafe, then something does have to give (or not give, if you're talking about the seat padding) to make extra space. Reducing the thickens of each seat by a few centimetres soon adds up to a lot of space saved.

Innovation Hub


Over in the Innovation HUB there were seating solutions which did seem to save space but were actually comfortable to sit on. No I'm not talking about the ones pictured directly below, they are seating solutions for high capacity trains and are designed for short journeys. More of a perch than a seat, they offer maximum capacity whilst providing something which should be a lot more comfortable than just standing and the ones on the right had USB charging points. I'm not sure how popular they would be here in the UK, but I'm sure if people were given the choice between standing or perching on a metro or underground train, they would choose perching.


The picture below shows standard class (left) and first class (right) seating configurations fitted to the class 319 which was home to the Innovation Hub. I quipped we could do with some first class seating in Northern's class 319s, I don't think I was the first person to say that. More interesting though, keeping the AZUMA seating in mind, was the standard class seating arrangement. The seats appear to be light-weight and have minimal foam padding just like the AZUMAs, but these seats seemed so much more comfortable. So perhaps it is possible to design a space saving seat that isn't rock hard!


Class 230 D Train fast charging

Porterbrook with their HydroFLEX unit aren't the only company providing solutions to the 2040 deadline for the banning of diesel-only trains. Vivarail have been working on number of solutions which includes diesel electric hybrids, which will hopefully enter service with TfW Rail this year. Last year they also showcased a battery version of the class 230 D Train, the 2 car unit had 4 battery rafts each providing 106kw. This year Vivarail had a single car battery vehicle on display. The unit was at the event to promote a fast charging system developed by Vivarail which can charge a battery powered train in as little as 7 minutes, providing enough charge for a range of 60 miles.

The system comes in 2 part, first the static section which can be located at a terminus, consisting of short sections of 3rd and 4th rail which provides the charge. The other part is the carbon ceramic shoe gear which has been designed specifically to be able handle the high currents involved.

As well as providing hybrid and full battery versions of their class 230 D Train, Vivarial also announced in May this year that they have teamed up with Arcola to develop a hydrogen fuel cell variant. The hydrogen powered unit is still in the development stage, but Vivarail say the first prototype should enter the testing phase in early 2020.

On a final note, I thought it was interesting being able to see inside the cabs of both the class 230, pictured below and the class 800, bottom image. The cabs are worlds apart, with the class 800 looking more like the controls of the Star Ship Enterprise. But the simple yet functional cab of the class 230 still gets the job done.



Thursday, 20 June 2019

RailLive 2019: UK's first passenger carrying hydrogen train

In 2018 the UK Government announced its intention to phase out “diesel-only” trains from the UK rail network by 2040. An ambitious target which would be nearly impossible to achieve through electrification of the rail network alone. According to the DfT in 2009 just over 5000km [1] or roughly 33% of the UK's rail network was electrified, since then, and despite a wide spread programme of electrification between 2014 and 2019, that figure has only increased by an estimated 1000km. Given that the length of the UK rail Network is 16,000km, Network Rail would have to electrify 500km of railway every year for the next 20 years to electrify the remaining network by 2040. Considering it has taken 5 years and cost in the region of £4-5bn to electrify just 1000km of railway you can see how this would be a challenge to say the least.

This means then, that the challenge to phase out diesel-only trains by 2040 has been passed to train manufacturers and rolling stock leasing companies (ROSCOs). I'm fairly certain there will be some diesel-only trains still in operation after 2040, as Northern's class 195s which are being delivered now and Transport for Wales' new units which wont be delivered until 2021 will be powered solely by diesel. It is inconceivable that the government would force ROSCOs to scrap or re-engineer rolling stock which will be 20 years old or less by 2040, that would be wasteful and expensive. However the challenge faced by ROSCOs and manufactures is to develop new ways to power trains between now and 2040.

Luckily it seems that companies and organisations in the UK are well on the way to developing new power technologies which will eventually put an end to diesel-only trains, whilst not requiring the electrification of the entire UK rail network. Vivarial displayed a battery version of their D-Train at RailLive last year and has since gone on to develop a fast charging solution, which can charge a set of batteries in 8 minutes, providing a range of 60 miles. I will be writing more about that in a future blog.

Porterbrook Leasing have also been developing their own upcycled, re-engineered rolling stock based on the class 319 of which 84 were built. Porterbrook already has orders for a tri-mode class 769 variant of what they call their “Flex” units, which are currently having diesel engines fitted, allowing them to switch between DC, overhead and no-electrified lines. Transport for Wales, Northern and Great Western Railway are expecting units, with a total of 38 units on order.

Not content with converting 319s to tri-modes, Porterbrook, working in collaboration with The University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) have developed the UK's first hydrogen powered train. The first “HydroFLEX” unit was demonstrated at this year's RailLive event, taking passengers gingerly along a section of track at the Quinton Rail Technology Centre.

You can see a short video of the HydroFLEX in action below
The unit on display was powered by a singe 100kw hydrogen fuel cell combined with a 100kw battery and was carrying 20kg of hydrogen. The next step is to fit the unit with 2, 100kw fuel cells and 2, 100kw batteries, before beginning testing on the mainline. The unit will be able to hold 200kg of hydrogen in total, which it is estimated should be enough to power the unit for 1600km. The fuel cells and tanks, as well as the control systems are all housed in 1 of the 4 carriages.

Fuel delivery system

The first public outing for the HydroFLEX has caused quite a stir, with the BBC attending to film the train in action and to interview those involved. The team from Porterbrook, BCRRE and Fuel Cells Systems who supplied the hydrogen were busy ensuring that everything ran smoothly and were on hand to answer any questions.

Alex Burrows, Director at Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, commented: “This is a great success story for the UK Rail Industry, which shows our capability and commitment to helping the government meet decarbonisation targets. Key to this success is the close partnership between academia and industry which has enabled us to pool the expertise needed to rapidly progress this technology from concept to full-scale working demonstrator.

The demonstration seems to have been a real boon for the UK rail industry, generating positive news for the industry which doesn't always get an easy ride from the mainstream media. The HydroFLEX demonstrates that the UK rail industry can deliver innovative solutions to looming challenges, and that the UK can be a world leader in the development of alternative power systems for rail vehicles.

The fuel cells and batteries themselves are based on tried and tested technology, and have been sourced from around the world. What makes the HydroFLEX innovative is the control system being developed by BCRRE. The complex control system must work seamlessly to balance fuel delivery and energy output, whilst monitoring the battery and energy recovery through regenerative breaking. The system is what brings everything together to make the HyrdoFLEX a unique and world leading train.

Although powering trains with hydrogen fuel cells may not be the only answer to removing diesel-only trains from the UK rail network, it is one solution that could help the government deliver its 2040 promise. Apart from the remaining class 195s and Civity based DMUs to be delivered to TfW, which should end their service some time around 2050. 

[1] https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20090805225151/http:/www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/rail/pi/rail-electrification.pdf 

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Thursday, 13 June 2019

PLANTWORX 2019 – Safety innovation on display

PLANTWORX is an event held every 2 years which brings together major players in the field of plant machinery from around the world, as well as a wide variety of small and medium sized companies who wish to demonstrate what they have to offer. The huge outdoor space allows companies to demonstrate their equipment, with working machinery on display, which in many cases provides operators the opportunity to try the equipment out for themselves. In 2017 PLANTWORX attracted over 15,000 visitors, ranging from construction contractors in charge of entire fleets of machinery to individual owner operators.

It has been 4 years since I last attended as I was unable to make it to the event in 2017, having first visited in 2015. Since then it seems there have been some major changes with regards to operator safety, especially in relation to operators of site dumpers. It's easy to see why this has become such a big issue, according to The Construction Index “Between June 2016 and July 2017 eight people were killed on UK construction sites by dumpers”.

This year there was a wide variety of site dumpers on display which have features aimed at addressing the risks associated with roll overs and poor viability. JCB has been one of the more high profile companies to try and address this issue with their Hi-Viz dumpers, ranging from 6 to 7 tonnes. JCB offers dumpers from 6 to 9 tonnes with their SiTESAFE cab, which provides increased protection for the operator. JCB say that “the cab has been tested to withstand a front dump impact or a side slewing impact, from a 13-tonne excavator“. The Hi-Viz range provides additional safety and vastly improved forward visibility with an innovative dumper design which allows an operator to see a 1.2m high person or object from 1m. The dumper is also wider and has a lower centre of gravity, providing extra protection against roll overs.

[Click to enlarge

Thwaites who are synonymous with site dumpers have also sought to address safety concerns and now also provide their 9 tonne dumper with a fully integrated cab. The company also had a new product on display at PLANTWORX which aims to address visibility issues. Their “Super Seven” dumper, based on a 9 tonne platform with a 7 tonne capacity has improved visibility and 180° forward facing camera.

Wacker Neuson who are renowned for innovation and producing specialist equipment have taken site dumper safety a stage further with their Dual View platform. The company can provide 6 to 10 tonne dumpers which have a fully integrated cab, much like JCB and Thwaites, but their Dual View product has an extra trick up its sleeve. Within the cab the Dual View allows the operator to rotate the seat and controls through 180° and drive cab first. This system allows near-uninterrupted forward visibility and reduced risk when manoeuvring within tight work sites. You can see the Dual View in action here (11 minutes in).

Ausa have also developed a dumper with reversible controls and were showcased their new R1001AHG 10-tonne dumper at PLANTWORX. Their system called “2 Way Drive” works much in the same way as the Dual View, with a seat and controls able to turn 180° allowing the operator to drive cab first. Ausa say “Thanks to this, AUSA is positioning itself as a market segment leader in the area of safety”.

Contrast the modern dumpers with a couple of classics which were also on display this year.

Site dumpers aren't the only pieces of equipment being radically designed in order to improve operator safety, manufactures are now also starting provide solutions to the affect that vibrating tools have on operators. Wacker Neuson has gotten around this problem with their vibratory plate models by using an infrared remote control system, which they say “provides maximum safety: The operator is protected from vibrations, noise and dust”. The remote control system means that the operator need not touch the vibratory plate whilst it is in operation, cutting down the risks associated with vibrating tools.

Bobcat's solution to the risk associated with vibratory compaction tools is to offer compaction plates for their range of 3 to 8 tonne excavators. You can see one of the compaction plates in operation here (8 minutes in).

Although the risks associated with vibrating tools are not the same for ride on tandem rollers, BOMAG has sought to remove the operator from these too. Their “ROBOMAG” tandem roller is an autonomous version of their BW154, 7 tonne roller. The concept model was launched in bauma in April this year and was on display at PLATNWORX 2019. I didn't get to see it in operation but I did do a quick walk-around which you can see here (10 minutes 40 second in)

Although it is still in the early stage of development BOMAG say that “Based on geo-fencing and GPS data, it can autonomously compact a pre-planned area”. It may be a while until we see these machines on site however as the “ROBOMAG” which was developed in collaboration with Trimble is not available to buy yet. One of the main stumbling blocks at the moment seems to be more to do regulations rather than technological limitations. But rest assured autonomous equipment will be making their presence felt on worksites in the not too distant future.

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Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Chester to Leeds by Rail - A bumpy start.

Travelling from Chester to Leeds by rail isn't anything new, but prior to May 2019 passengers had to change trains at Newton Le Willows, having caught the Chester to Manchester Piccadilly service operated by Transport for Wales Rail, then changing to a TransPennine Express service to Leeds. However, being able to travel directly from Chester to Leeds and vice versa is novel.

The direct Chester to Leeds service operated by Northern has been operating for almost 3 weeks now, having started on the 20th of May this year. The service forms Part of what Northern are calling their 'Northern Connect' services, which are long distance services, operated supposedly by high quality rolling stock, namely refurbished class 158s and the new class 195s, when they finally begin to enter service.

142 051 pulling into Chester

The title of the article suggests that the service may not have got off to the best start, which is certainly true if my journey is anything to go by. I knew before booking the ticket that the service would not be operated by a class 195, they are still undergoing modifications and many of the train crews are yet to receive training in order to operate them. I was mildly disappointed that I'd have to wait to ride a 195, however I was under the impression that my journey would at least be made on a refurbished class 158. Well, you can appreciate my surprise and disappointment when I found out the service would be operated by a class 142 (Pacer). At first I thought it was a terminating Manchester to Chester service via the Mid Cheshire line, which is also operated by Northern. I thought maybe it will move off, or the Chester-Leeds train would pull in behind. But no, a Pacer was to be my ride all the way to Leeds. It wasn't just me who was disappointed, the train crew were not too thrilled either, I overheard a driver remark "they're just so slow". The line speed between Chester and Warrington is 90mph, yet the service is currently pathed at just 75mph, so perhaps Northern already knew when they launched the service that Pacers may have to operate on the route, 75mph being the top speed of a Pacer.

Below is a short video montage I put together with some clips of the highlights of the trip

Speaking to the guard he told me he has worked on a mix of 156s, 142s, single car 153s and 158s on the route so far. It would seem then, that the DMU shortage is still a big problem for Northern, despite cascades and the arrival of new trains. It seems Pacers may be in service right up to the January 2020 deadline when they must be withdrawn, as they will no longer meet new standards for persons with reduced mobility.

The service I was on wasn't that busy, but there was a good number of people on the train given the time, just after peak. The guard informed me that the peak services can get very busy and the 153s and Pacers can get crowded. I'm not sure if many of the passengers on the train that I was on continued all the way to Leeds, a number of people got on and off at Warrington Bank Quay and Manchester Victoria. A number of people also got on and off at the station stops along the Calder Valley line, with stops including Sowerby Bridge and Bradford Interchange.

View of the picturesque Calder Valley

Oddly some services are scheduled to call at Frodsham, others at Helsby. The guard seemed as perplexed as I was, as it was initially intended that the service would operate non stop between Chester and Warrington Bank Quay. There seemed to be no particular reason or logic to the stops at Helsby and Frodsham, as the timetabled stops at those stations were so infrequent that it didn't serve commuter traffic. Helsby and Frodsham did recently benefit from the doubling of services into Chester with the introduction of the Chester/Wrexham service to Liverpool Lime St via Liverpool South Parkway operated by TfW Rail.

I may have been disappointing by having to ride a Pacer for 2 and a half hours, however I certainly couldn't grumble at the price! I paid just £28 for an advanced return travelling off peak, compared with £51 return if had I travelled with TfW Rail and TP Express. There is one slight downside though, and that is the journey time. Currently the journey time from Chester to Leeds is between 2 hours 29 minutes and 2 hours 32 minutes. The service changing at Newton Le Willows on the other-hand takes just 2 hours. There is also now a third option, taking the Chester-Leeds service to Manchester Victoria and changing trains there for a TP Express service to Leeds, which will get you into Leeds 25 minutes faster than had you stayed on the Northern service. The service changing at Manchester Victoria also works out at about £50 return however.

If you're happy to enjoy the views across the Pennines for half an hour longer you can save yourself almost £25. It is important to stress, that in order to get the £26-28 fare you have to book the tickets in advance. I booked mine via Northern's app just an hour before booking my train and paid £28 for a return fare, but there are return tickets available costing just £26. 

The return back to Chester was made on the yet to be refurbished 158 848

I must also say that the Northern service isn't just cheap to Leeds. Currently Northern's advanced fares are considerably cheaper than TfW Rail's service to Manchester which is currently £18 one way. You can get to Manchester Piccadilly for £13 if you book in advance and go via the Mid Chester line which takes half an hour longer than TfW Rail service. Alternatively, if you don't mind getting off at Victoria rather than Oxford Rd or Piccadilly you can get to Manchester in just over an hour for £8.50 if you book in advance with Northern.

I should add that I'm not certain if these are just introductory fares which are place because it is a new service. So if you're reading this some time after I posted the article then the fares may have changed.

It's not clear if the 2 and a half hour journey is temporary or if it can be improved when they have a sufficient number of new trains and or class 158s, which can be guaranteed to operate the service. The class 158 has a top speed of 90mph whereas the 195s are capable of 100mph. Given that the Northern service, which skips Helsby or Frodsham currently takes roughly the same amount of time as the TfW Rail service which stops at Frodsham, Helsby and Runcorn East, I would think a few minutes could be saved between Chester and Warrington Bank Quay alone by pathing the service as 90mph instead of just 75mph. I'm not familiar enough with the Calder Valley line to make a guess if any improvements could be made to journey time between Manchester and Leeds, however 158s and 195s can accelerate more quickly and travel faster than Pacers so perhaps additional time savings can be made.

It is a shame that the required stock wasn't in place for the start of the new service. Passengers from Chester have been crying out for improved connections to the North East of England for years, but the use of Pacers on what is supposed to be a high quality service is not a good start. Hopefully the prices will persuade enough people to travel on the service despite it being slower than alternative routes and operated by a mix of antiquated stock and some refurbished units. Once the new class 195s begin to enter service journeys from Chester across the Pennines will be transformed and hopefully see even more passengers choosing to take the train.

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