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. 


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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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Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A494 Dee bridge renewal

The A494 at the point where is crosses the River Dee carries over 60,000 vehicles per day and is a vital link which connects North West England with North Wales. It also forms part of the TEN-T European transport network, linking ports to the East of England with the port of Holyhead. The road also provides employees who live in North Wales access to the Deeside Industrial Park, which is to the east of the River Dee.

The video below gives an overview of the A494 from the junction with the A540, located to the west of the M56 (where the M56 becomes the A494), across the Dee bridge to Queensferry.

The bridge over the River Dee was constructed in the 1960s and carries almost double the number of vehicles that it was designed for, this has lead, according to the Welsh Government to “deterioration to some structural features[1]. Therefore in 2018 it was announced that the bridge was to be renewed, with a public consultation held during summer 2018 which outlined the proposals.

A494 Dee bridge

As an important link carrying 60k vehicles per day it is vital that the A494 remains open, closing the section of road simply isn't option. So the Welsh Government working with the North and Mid Wales Trunk Road Agency appointed Mott MacDonald and their partners Richards, Morehead & Laing to consider options for the replacement of the bridge.

The final proposal which was put to the public for consultation will see the construction of an all new 4 lane bridge crossing the River Dee to the south of the existing A494 bridge. Once the new bridge is complete, engineers will begin to remove and then replace the deck of the existing bridge. Once complete the 2 bridges will provide 3 lanes, plus a hard shoulder in each direction. The additional lane will provide entry and exit from the A548 and Queensferry junctions, this will give drivers more time to merge onto or leave the A494 and help to remove a current pinch point.

A494 Dee bridge proposal [click to enlarge]

The alignment of the A494 on east side of the river had already been altered in 2004 as part of the A494 “Drome Corner” upgrade undertaken by Highways England. The alignment change was to allow for an increased number of lanes which would have crossed the River Dee and continued up Aston Hill to the junction with the A55. However after strong opposition from local residents the plans to widen the A494 were cancelled by the Welsh Government in 2007.

The proposals for the new bridge will make use of the altered alignment with the bridge built to the south of the existing bridge. A new section of road will also be constructed west from the new bridge, underneath the Chester to North Wales railway, ending at the junction for Queensferry. Once complete the new bridge and re-decked existing bridge will provide additional benefits for motorists, by providing the 3rd lane and by providing a hard shoulder for motorist should they get into difficulty whilst travelling on that section of the A494.

Building a new bridge was, in reality the only viable option. The construction of the existing bridge is such that it is not possible to work on either side of the carriageway at a time, whilst trying to keep at least 1 lane of traffic open in each direction. Also the idea of keeping only 1 live lane open in each direction would have been unthinkable, given the volume of traffic that currently use the crossing.

Dee bridge from underneath

Building a new 4 lane bridge allows for 2 lanes of traffic in each direction to continue to cross the River Dee while work is carried out on the existing bridge. It also makes sense to retain and re-deck the exiting bridge, which apart from the deck is still structurally sound. Putting both sets of work into a single package will allow, not only for the renewal of the bridge but an upgrade of the crossing, which should in itself help to improve the business case for the proposal as a whole.

Work is expected to begin during summer/autumn 2020, subject to Minister's approval. I wasn't able to find out if a completion date has been set, however I would estimate a project of this scale would take at least 18 months, possibly up to 30 months to complete.

It is unfortunate that the urgency of the work means that it will have to take place before work commences on the so called “Red Route”, which will see much of the traffic that currently uses the A494 Dee crossing using a new route. The Red route will make use of the exiting A548, the Flintshire Bridge which was constructed 1998 and a new section of road linking the A548 at Connah's Quay to the A55 close to Pentre Halkyn. Work on this £250m proposal is not due to commence until 2025, subject to approval from Welsh Government.


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Monday, 20 May 2019

Halton Curve passenger services commence

Today marks the official launch of direct rail services between Wrexham General and Liverpool Lime St via Liverpool South Parkway, the first direct rail link between North Wales and Liverpool since the mid 1970s. From today there will be 1 outbound service from Wrexham General per day departing at 06:35 and 2 return services departing Liverpool Lime St at 17:37 and 20:14. The service is in addition to the new hourly service which will depart from Chester. The service departing from Chester will call at Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn, Liverpool South Parkway (for Liverpool Airport) and Liverpool Lime St, with a journey time from Chester of around 55 minutes.

Services between Chester and Liverpool Lime St actually began on Sunday (18th May 2019), which is when I took my first trip over Halton Curve. I picked up the service at Frodsham as I had some shots I wanted to capture in Runcorn upon my return. The trip out was on a humble class 150, but with new seating, disabled access toilet and charging points it wasn't bad at all. The return was made aboard a class 158 in smart Transport for Wales Rail colours and was a bit of a step up from the 150. I'm not sure if the 158 will remain on the route, or if it will be worked solely by 150s once attention from the press has gone.

Class 150 upon arrival at Liverpool Lime St [click to enlage]

One passenger I spoke to was under the impression that the route was to be operated by new trains, but that is not to be unfortunately. I'm not sure which units will operate on the service once the new trains being built by CAF are delivered. However what I am sure of is that no matter what train serves the route, passengers are happy to finally be able to get to Liverpool from Helsby and Frodsham by train, without having to drive to Runcorn, Ellesmere Port, or even Hooton.

Class 158 at Liverpool Lime St
Below is a short video montage I put together with some clips of the highlights of the trip.

It is hoped that the new service will remove some traffic from the often congested M56 which connects Chester and West Cheshire to the M6 and Manchester. The service will increase the number of services between Frodsham, Helsby and Chester from just 1 to 2 trains per hour. The service will also provide improved links between Chester and Liverpool Airport which can be accessed via a regular bus service from Liverpool South Parkway.

The new service between North Wales and Liverpool has been made possible thanks to an £18m upgrade of Halton Curve and recent improvements made to Liverpool Lime St. The funding was part of a larger £340m package of upgrades that took place across the Liverpool City Region.

Regular passenger services had operated over Halton Curve up until the mid 1970s, when, despite avoiding cuts made by Beaching, services were withdrawn. Then in 1994 the 2.4km double track line was reduced to a single track, and at the same time the points which allowed south bound trains to use the line were also removed in a bid to reduce costs of maintaining the Liverpool branch of the WCML. Since then the only service which had used the line was a single Parliamentary train each Saturday during Summer, between Chester and Liverpool, operated by Northern.

TfW class 158 travelling over Halton Curve on route to Liverpool

The North Cheshire Rail Users Group, which represents passengers using services on the Manchester-Chester line (part of The Birkenhead Railway) had been campaigning tirelessly for over 20 years to re-instate Halton curve, and in April 2016 their hard work finally paid off, when it was announced that the junction on the WCML would be re-instated, allowing bi-directional traffic to use the line once more.

On the 14th of July 2017 work began to upgrade a short 2.4km section of railway, which involved installing a new crossover and 60km/h turnout on WCML. In addition signalling was also upgraded on the WCML, with control transferred from Halton to Manchester Rail Operating Centre . Work was also carried out to re-signal the Frodsham area and fit a new modern signalling panel at Frodsham Signal box

Halton Curve route map

Details of the signal upgrades are as follows. (source NCRUG)
  • New relay based interlocking and re-signalling of existing Frodsham control area with LED colour light signals and train detection provided by track circuits;
  • Revised signalling arrangements at Frodsham/Halton/MROC to accommodate the bidirectional signalling using TCB
  • Retain the existing method of Absolute Block Working from Frodsham to Helsby Junction and Norton Signal Boxes 
  • Replace the existing mechanical lever frame at Frodsham and replace with an Independent Function Switch (IFS) panel; and • Install OLE overrun protection from Halton Junction.
The upgrade was actually completed in time for the timetable change in December 2018, however due to the lack of available DMU stock passengers have had to wait until now (May 2019) for the new service to commence. But now (finally) passengers can travel direct from North Wales to Liverpool and it is hoped that eventually in the future there will be more services will between North Wales to Liverpool. There is also talk of a Liverpool to Cardiff service which will also use Halton Curve.

It would seem that after the disaster that was the December 2018 timetable change, that passengers are finally starting to see the benefits of years of engineering works and the introduction of new and cascaded rolling stock.

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Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Merseyrail - Paving the way for new trains

Work has been underway since Ocotber 2018 across the Merseyrail network in order to alter 100 platforms and realign the track at 58 stations. The work which has been split into 11 separate phases has meant that sections of the Merseyrail network have had to close completely for periods of between 2 and 3 weeks. This work is vital in order to allow step free access from the train to the platform when the new class 777 trains begin to enter service from next year.

The class 777s which are being constructed by Stadler will utilise a sliding step, which Merseyrail says will provide “unassisted access” for passengers with reduced mobility. In order for the sliding step to work correctly the platforms at all 68 of Merseyrail's stations must be set at an exact position in relation to the rail.

The first class 777s are currently going to Wildenrath in Germany for testing and it is hoped that the first units will arrive in Liverpool in the autumn. The units will then undergo testing on the Merseyrail network, with initial tests to check gauge clearances. The image below shows a mock up of a class 777 which went on display for the members of the public to view last year. It shows the sliding step which will allow unassisted access.

[click to enlarge]
Before work commenced the platform edges were, like many across the UK network set at different positions in relation to the rail. Sometimes it is possible to see the difference with the step down from the train being visibly higher at some stations than at others. This isn't a problem for most of the trains which currently operate on the UK network, as the step always rides higher than platform, so there are no instances of steps hitting platform edges. However the steps on the new 777s will slide out level with the platform edge. There will still be slight gap between the step and the platform, however if the platforms were left as they were, then often the step would not line up correctly or the step could come into contact with the edge of platform.

The 'GB Requirements for Platform Height' state that the height of the platform when measured from the top of the rail should be 915mm. While routes on which “legacy rolling stock” operate, a minimum of 890mm is permitted. The horizontal offset, which is the distance from the adjacent rail to the edge of the platform should be 730mm to 745mm. The diagram below should demonstrate more clearly the correct positioning in relation to the rail.

[click to enlarge]

Network Rail's task is to ensure that the platform height and offset across the whole Merseyrail network conforms to tolerances which are measured to the millimetre. This is vital as any variance would mean that the step would not line up correctly with the platform edge, which could represent a potential hazard to passengers.

In some cases all that was required to bring the platform height to the correct position was tamping of the track. This would have the effect of raising or lowering the track in relation to the platform edge. However in many cases the actual platforms had to be altered in order to bring them into the correct offset position.

The images below show the work which is currently underway at Bidston station on the Wirral line which serves West Kirby. They show how the original platform slabs have been removed and are being replaced with new slabs which will be set at the 730mm offset and 915mm height.

The work which is currently underway between Bidston and West Kirby forms phase 8 of 11. Phase 9 will see upgrades on the New Brighton line, 10 will focus on Overpool in Ellesmere Port and the final phase will focus just on Green Lane in Birkenhead. Green Lane according to the Merseyrail website will take almost 4 weeks to complete, this is probably due to the difficult location, with the platforms themselves being in a deep cutting with difficult access.

If all goes well the works should be fully complete by June this year (2019). And then in 2020 passengers should begin to see the benefits of the platform alterations as the new trains begin to enter service. As far as I'm aware the new trains, combined with platform alterations will make the Merseyrail network the only heavy rail network outside of London to have step free access from the train to the platform.

Further investment is expected to improve access at five train stations across the Liverpool City Region after it was announced at the beginning of April this year, that the region will benefit from part of a £300m national fund known as “Access for all”, which aims to improve station access for passengers with reduced mobility. Of the 5 stations announced, 4 are on the Merseyrail network, they are Birkenhead Park, Hillside, Hunts Cross and St Michaels. The 5th station is Broad Green which is served by Northern.

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Thursday, 21 March 2019

Rail & the Liverpool City Region - The Track to Growth

This week I was fortunate enough to be invited to an event in Liverpool called “Rail & the Liverpool City Region - The Track to Growth”. The event was an opportunity for city, transport and business leaders to publicly give their full backing to Transport for the North's (TfN) Strategic Transport Plan (STP), and it was also an opportunity to celebrate 5 years since the formation of the Liverpool City Region, and the £340m that has been invested in rail over that period.

As part of the STP, Transport for the North have set out £40bn worth of investment in rail which amongst other things will see Liverpool connected to HS2 and Manchester by a dedicated 2 track high speed line. This is something the city has been demanding since the route of phase 2 between the West Midlands and North West was announced. Whilst business and political leaders have been supportive of HS2, with benefits coming to the region from 2026, they were never fully satisfied with Liverpool's connection to HS2 being as far south as Crewe.

Rather than seeing HS2 connectivity as an insurmountable challenge the LCR and TfN have worked together to see how HS2 could be extended and integrated with a new line which provides Liverpool with direct connectivity to HS2, but also to Northern Power House Rail heading east to Manchester and Leeds.

Also this week a proposal was put forward for a new railway station to be built within Liverpool city centre, which would be connected to NPR. The new station would ideally have platforms 400m in length to take full advantage of the new longer trains that will be used on the HS2 core network. Currently Liverpool Lime St is limited to trains of around 260m in length (the length of an 11 car Pendolino). Lime St is also about to reach the limits of its capacity, this despite the recent the upgrade to the track approaching the station and the construction of a new platform. Very soon new services to Scotland and to Chester via Halton curve will consume the new capacity created. HS2 itself will also introduce 2 new services each hour to Euston from 2026. Therefore city leaders say that it is vital that Liverpool gains a new station and dedicated connection to HS2 and Manchester via NPR.

LCR estimates the HS2 link could provide £15bn worth of economic benefits and attract an additional 3.9m visitors per year to the region. Claire McColgan MBE Director of Culture Liverpool spelled out just how important having good transport links is to the tourism economy in the region, but also how vital tourism and culture are to the region's economy. Ms McColgan made it clear that event organisers want to host events in the LCR “because they know that the city transport sectors work together”. Pointing to success stories such as the Giants Spectacular last year which attracted 1.4m visitors across Liverpool and the Wirral, and the sailing of the 3 Queens along the River Mersey, which saw 1m people line the River on both sides to see the ships sail in.

Liverpool City Region

The event wasn't focused solely on the STP, it was also a good opportunity to celebrate some of the success stories over the past 5 year, since the formation of the LCR. The LCR led by by Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram brings together Liverpool City Region’s six local authorities – Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral working in cooperation to tackle issues that face the region. Not just transport for but housing, skills and Energy. In terms of transport though the LCR was able to bring together local transport plans, Network Rail's RUS and the needs of businesses to identify key infrastructure improvements that were required to help unlock the potential of the region.

The result of the collaborative approach was a £340m package of measures that would improve rail connections across the region and would help to enable new services and improve reliability. The largest of the measures was the work undertaken at Liverpool Lime St, but improvements were not focused solely on the city centre. A long held aspiration to re-instate bi-directional running at Halton Curve linking the North Cheshire railway to the WCML at Runcon has been realised, and a brand new station named Maghull North has been constructed.

Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram

Shortages of rolling stock has meant that services using the now complete Halton Curve have been delayed, but it is hoped that Transport for Wales Rail will begin to operate services between Chester and Liverpool, calling Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn and Liverpool South Parkway in May this year.


It is clear that Liverpool transport, business and political leaders fully support HS2 and the TfN STP, but a word cropped up again which has the potential to threaten any future investment, that word was skills. Echoing the challenges outlined by the NRIL – Building New Railways report, Northern Powerhouse Rail Director Tim Wood made it clear that "the major risk to the programme is not money, it is skills” (or the lack there of). This is something I have written about for many years, in fact I first wrote about the skills gap back in 2015 when it emerged that GWML electrification was going to be delivered late and over budget, and that electrification of the Transpennine route was to be "paused".

What was true in 2015, unfortunately is still true today, we simple do not have enough skilled engineers in the UK to undertake the work that is necessary to get the North moving. It is frustrating in a number of ways, one because it seems as if people read on a daily basis in the main stream media, that the government should cancel HS2 and invest in the North and how it will solve all of our problems, but it just wont. And it's frustrating because we should be getting on with building infrastructure in the North, but we can't, not yet.

Let me give a example of why cancelling HS2 today would not improve railways tomorrow. In simplified terms HS2 is new railway and as such is moving towards the heavy civil engineering phase in which earth is moved, tunnels are excavated and structures are built. This requires a certain type of engineering skill set, such as earth work contractors and tunnelling experts. If they stopped work today and were moved up north to build something, what would it be? There are no detailed plans for NPR, no shovel ready civil engineering projects for them to begin work on.

What people might be thinking when they say “improvements” are upgrades, which is understandable, but those tunnellers and earth work engineers aren't correctly skilled to then start upgrading the railways. Most of the egineers who are correctly skilled to upgrade our railways are already doing so. Tens of thousands of them working tirelessly usually at night to improve Britian's railways.

Now I know it is probably a bit over simplified, but it does demonstrate that you simple can't down tools on one project and start another, and especially not by just throwing money at it.

The skills gap is going to take years to fill, and while good progress is being made with universities working in cooperation with TfN and NRIL and the formation of National High Speed Rail college, there is still a long way to go. Getting children ready to become the engineers of tomorrow needs to begin in primary and secondary schools.

We cannot allow there to be another lost generation like mine, which was told university is the only avenue available to you if you want any sort of career. I know in my school careers in science, education and IT were promoted, but the idea that you could have a successful career in engineering just never came up.

One last word on HS2, it was clear from yesterday's event that the LCR and TFN who represent 19 local transport authorities from across North thoroughly reject the notion that we should scrap HS2 and invest in the North instead. Tim Wood spelled out the message from TfN again "Let me be clear, we absolutely need HS2". The simple fact is we need both HS2 and NPR.

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