Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Rail Live; plant and engineering innovation [part 2]

In the first part of my Rail Live special I looked at some of the rolling stock that was on display, but primarily the event is intended to bring together a wide variety of railway infrastructure and service providers from across the sector, from specially designed rail plant to railway specific services. 

FLOW bridge

One of the first stands I visited was that of FLOW Bridge, this innovative curved, modular bridge has been developed by Network Rail to provide a cost-effective and visually striking alternative to traditional foot crossings.

The bridge was developed in just 11 months and is made out of lightweight fibre-reinforced polymer (FRP), which at 20 tonnes is half the weight of an equivalent steel or concrete bridge. 


FLOW bridge at Rail Live 2021

FLOW stands for;


  • F – Fibre Reinforced Polymer, incorporating natural and sustainable materials.
  • L – Lower cost and lighter weight, in comparison to traditional steel bridges.
  • O – Optimised design to incorporate both architectural forms and functional needs to maximise operational use.
  • W – ‘Working’ bridge with monitoring built in to support asset management.


The bridge is very much still in the development phase with work continuing to develop a fully accessible version, but it is hoped that bridges based on this design could be used as a cost-effective way for Network Rail to eliminate level (foot) crossings. It is estimated that FLOW could be delivered for just half the cost of a steel or concrete bridge. 


Not only is the bridge visually striking but it also has some clever features which set it apart from other bridges. One feature is the concrete-less foundation, which could save on cost and Co2. The bridge instead uses a steel pad (the only steel used in the whole structure), to spread the load of the bridge. 


People have commented that this isn't the first polymer-based bridge, but I think what makes this different is how it looks. Steel and concrete bridges often look unattractive and out of place within their surroundings, whereas I think this bridge looks attractive and could be adapted to fit within rural or urban environments and would be an asset to a community rather than just a functional amenity. It will be interesting to see what the ramp version looks like, as current ramp designs often look oversized and out of place.

Coombes wood chipper

The day before the event Nigel Harris tweeted an image of a giant piece of equipment which piqued my interest. I had a vague idea of what could it be, but wanted to check it out for myself to see what it was. 

It turned out to be an enormous wood chipper, but not an ordinary wood chipper. This 500hp beast is powered by an engine from a Scania truck mounted on John Deere 1510 E foresty forwarder, the largest forwarder John Deere manufactures. 


Coombes wood chipper at Rail Live 2021

Whilst the mammoth machine wasn't designed specifically with rail in mind it is currently being used during the construction of HS2 and can be used to clear vegetation from railway sites. The chipper itself can chip trees up to 85cm in diameter, with the chips fed into a 28m³ bin. Once full the harvester can be driven to a nearby access road to discharge the chips into a waiting high-volume walking floor biomass trailer. To discharge the chips the entire bin is lifted to the height of the top of the trailer and then tips the entire 28m³ contents directly into the trailer.

Chipping trees or vegetation on-site or directly onto railway embankments is becoming less of a common practice nowadays for several reasons. For one, wood chips are an increasingly valuable commodity, the representative from Coombes was keen to say that the chips don't simply go to waste, they can be sent off to the energy industry, to power stations such as Drax, or to the wood processing industry. Another reason why it's no longer desirable to chip onto embankments in particular, is because wood chips can make embankments unstable and as they rot down can encourage further vegetation growth.

The representative from Coombes was also keen to stress that they're not just aimlessly cutting down trees and that a lot of planning has gone into deciding which trees to cut down. Coombes have their own team of ecologists to ensure that they're following all current guidelines and laws designed to protect wildlife. Unfortunately, it's simply a fact that to build any new infrastructure such as a new railway or road, that some trees will have to cut down. I know that felling to make way for HS2 has caused a lot of anger which is being targeted at HS2 contractors, I also know that misinformation is playing a big part in that anger. But it should be pointed out that HS2 Ltd and contractors working on HS2 are going to great lengths to ensure that they're removing trees and vegetation only where necessary.

QTS group vegetation management 

QTS Group also had a range of specially designed vegetation management equipment on display. The QTS range is designed more with trackside vegetation clearance in mind and the company has a wide range of road-rail vehicles at its disposal. Equipment such as the 460hp "Mega Chipper" which can chip trees up to 60cm in diameter. The chipper can propel itself overground on caterpillar tracks or rail via hydrostatically driven rail wheels. 


QTS vegetation compactor (left) and "Mega chipper" (right)

If it's not possible to chip on the railway then QTS can use its one of a kind rail-mounted vegetation compactor to remove material for disposal off-site. The compactor is designed to work alongside one of their Liebherr road-rail excavators fitted with a tree shear. The trailer can hold up to 10 times the volume of a traditional trailer providing substantial efficiency savings. Also, the Liebherr RR-excavator and compactor only requires a 2 person crew which increases safety and productivity.  

JCB material handling

Working on the UK's rail network is becoming increasingly challenging, especially in urban areas where space may be at a premium or where noise and vehicle emissions may be an issue.

With this in mind, JCB has been leading the way in providing innovative solutions for the movement of materials on site. Pictured below is the JCB ROTO which is a telescopic handler with a difference. It can be used as a standard telehandler with forks to move materials around, working in this mode it has a 2.5-tonne capacity and a reach of 5.5m. But the ROTO is a rotating telehandler which means the body can rotate independently, making the placement of materials much easier in confined spaces. The ROTO can also be fitted with a winch and used as a 5.5-tonne crane with a 20m lift height. In addition, the ROTO can be fitted with a remote-controlled access platform, which means workers can take control of the ROTO from within the platform. 


JCB ROTO at Rail Live 2021

JCB also has solutions if noise or emissions are an issue and is leading the way when it comes to battery-powered equipment. Also on display at the VP plc stand was a JCB 525-60E, which is a compact electric telehandler. The 525-60E has a 2.5-tonne lifting capacity with a lift height of 6m. It's fitted with a 24kwh battery which can provide a full days operation on a single charge. Being electric makes it perfect for working indoors or in confined spaces. 


JCB 520 60 E

Working to maintain and upgrade the UK's railways may be increasingly challenging, but it's clear from the equipment and services on display at Rail Live 2021 that companies are always looking for innovative solutions meet those challenges.


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Thursday, 24 June 2021

Rail Live 2021; rolling stock highlights

Rail Live "The only exhibition to bring the entire rail industry together in a real railway environment" returned for 2021 after the pandemic forced organisers to cancel the event in 2020. It's no surprise then that Rail Live 2021 seemed bigger than ever, not only with the usual live demonstrations that visitors have come to expect, but this year the Honeybourne shuttle made a return courtesy of Vivarail, Transport for Wales and SLC Operations who operated the service on behalf of Vivarail. Another train that will also be serving on the Wirral was also on display, one of Merseyrail's Class 777 EMUs built by Stadler ran regular short trips carrying passengers during the two-day event. 

Class 230 010 at Rail Live 2021

As someone who will, as a passenger benefit from the introduction of both units, I was keen to step aboard and take a look. My first port of call was the Class 230 which I was especially keen to take a look at inside for the first time, as I have been involved in campaigning for their introduction on the Wrexham-Bidston line for since 2016. I have to say that on first impression I was genuinely impressed. A small number of detractors like to remind people that they are ex London underground stock dating from the late 70s, but honestly, sitting onboard the Class 230  you would never know their past. I think even those who were sceptical at first have been won over by the transformation. 

Below is a short video which shows the full interior of the Class 230

During the conversion from D78 stock to Class 230 the interiors were completely stripped back to the shell and the new high-quality fixtures and fittings installed. The two driving motor cars were very quiet, more akin to an electric train than a DMU, which isn't surprising as the Class 230s are diesel-electric hybrids. The middle trailer car under which the diesel gen-sets are housed was, if I'm being honest a little rattly whilst the engines were running, however nowhere near as noisy as the Class 150s which the 230s are set to replace. I was assured by Vivarail that they are working to address the rattle from the fixtures and fittings, but honestly, even with the engines on, the middle car is a lot quieter than a Class 150.

The interior of TfW's Class 230s

The Class 230s feature all the modern amenities that passengers now expect, such as charging points and an accessible toilet. In addition, the Class 230 also features air conditioning, something which even the fully refurbished Class 150s don't have.

For much more information about the Class 230 click here

There was so much to see and do at Rail Live I had to return for day 2 to step aboard Merseyrail's Class 777 built by Stadler. If I was impressed by the Class 230 then I think I was stunned by the Class 777. When you step onboard it truly is astounding, especially when, as a passenger you are more accustomed to Class 507/8s. The sense of space is something else, looking down all 4 carriages through the extra-wide gangways it feels almost like a TARDIS. Class 777s have 4 carriages but the units are only 4m longer than Class 507/8s, at 64.98mm, compared to 3 car 507/8s which are 60.7m long. The designers have cleverly used the space to increase the 333 maximum passenger capacity of the 507/8s, to 475 seated and standing for the 777s. There is also more legroom, passengers who travel on 507/8s will be familiar with the awkward angles at which you have to sit when there are passengers sat opposite, not with the 777, there is space to comfortably seat 2 adults opposite each other, without touching knees.

Below is a short video which shows the full interior of the Class 777

The Class 777 on display number 002 is a little bit different from the rest of the fleet, as it's fitted with a 67kwh hour battery, meaning that it can operate beyond the 3rd rail network. 002 is currently being tested on the Merseyrail network to see how well it can perform, to ensure that the added weight of the battery has no impact on its overall performance compared with the non-battery classmates, but also how well the battery itself can perform. So far 002 has been able to travel from Sandhills to Southport on battery power alone, a journey of approximately 20 miles. So far all indications are that 002 can perform just as well as units without batteries, so the added weight of the battery doesn't appear to cause any noticeable reduction in acceleration or braking performance.

The trial of 002 opens up the very real possibility of extending the Merseyrail network, or the reach of the 777s beyond the 3rd rail network and 777s fitted with batteries could potentially operate as far as Wrexham on the Wrexham-Bidston line, or from Ellesmere Port to Helsby. For the former to happen a number of 777s would likely have to be fitted with larger batteries with a short section of 3rd rail fitted at the Wrexham end for rapid charging. If you would like to know more about the possibilities that the battery variants offer click here.

Class 777 interior

Merseytravel is currently working on a business case that may see all 777s fitted with batteries, which would mean the planned extension of the network to a new station at Headbolt Lane would not require any further electrification. Fitting all 777s with batteries would also help balance the power from regenerative braking which would otherwise be sent directly back down the 3rd rail.

Class 777 002 at Rail Live 2021

One of the most anticipated features of the Class 777 is the step-free access that they will provide across the Merseyrail Network once in service. Merseytravel has had to make some modifications to platforms, which you can find more information about here, but the 777s themselves have been designed with step-free access in mind. The units have been designed so that the floor of the carriage is level with a UK platform set at 915mm, with an offset of 730mm. To ensure that there is a minimal gap the units are also fitted with a retractable step which has an infrared camera fitted inside. As the step extends the camera detects the platform edge and ensures that there is no more than a 35mm gap between the step and platform. The step, combined with the camera and the 4 slightly shorter carriages helps to ensure that the gaps are equally spaced even on curved stations.

Class 777 retractable step

Rail Live has become an event at which rolling stock manufactures want to show off their new units, but primarily the event provides infrastructure and services companies with an opportunity to display what they have to offer. In part 2 I will be taking a look at some of the plant and engineering that was also on display.

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Thursday, 10 June 2021

Guest blog; Why it's a mistake to reduce HS2's Euston platforms from 11 to 10

Guest blog by Independent rail planning consultant William Barter

HS2’s 10 years of development, modelling and iteration with all engineering functions has been the best ever example of such a process in my experience. Timetable development has fed back into the infrastructure design and the train service specification, and even expanded our overall knowledge of how railways work. The outcome is that every bit of the physical system is necessary to fulfil the train service specification reliably, and the combination of all elements of the system is sufficient to do so.

In the 11-platform hybrid Bill scheme, Euston is not the constraint on HS2, for the simple reason that there is no one binding constraint on the operational capability. The London terminus, the main line headways, the intermediate stations, the junction working and the country-end termini are all in balance. But Euston would become that constraint if reduced to 10 platforms, and so prevent the rest of the system ever working to its full potential.

There is no ‘slack’ in the hybrid Bill scheme. There are however options for absorbing and mitigating delays, and the 11th platform at Euston is one of those – somewhere between a shock-absorber and a crumple zone. To suddenly suppose that the 11th platform can just be dumped, without a hit to either service reliability or service levels, is irrational, just as removing the shock absorbers from a coach to save weight would be, and those proposing the 10 platform solution need to come clean and say which will take the hit.

To illustrate this, take a look at the April 2021 edition of ‘Modern Railways’, where a specimen platform occupation plan for Euston station is given. In its detail, such as train formations, and origins and destinations, it almost certainly won’t be the one applying throughout the life of HS2. But the broad pattern, of 25-minute turnrounds locking together like atoms in a crystal, with just the longest-distance trains taking a double turnround, almost certainly will apply, in the way that the use of parallel moves at Borough Market Junction established by the South Eastern & Chatham Railway in 1922, to maximise use of the network’s most critical asset, could still be seen until the area was remodelled in 1975.

And clearly, in that plan, only 10 platforms are used. But that is just a plan! The question is – do we want to operate the railway like that, 18 trains per hour, 18 hours a day? And the answer is ‘No!’ 

Current illustrative service pattern proposed once the whole Y network opens

What happens when trains run late? They will, despite our best efforts. Whilst a very high level of reliability can be expected from the Curzon Street shuttles, Manchester and Leeds train will be mixing it with NPR, and about half the specified service actually originates on the conventional network - as it should. The ability to run trains beyond the new infrastructure is a strength of our approach. But it has implications. And trains turning up late at Euston is one of those implications. On pre-Covid PPM, you might expect a train to turn up more than 10 minutes late roughly hourly.

Up to 10 minutes late arrival isn’t too much of a problem. The 25-minute turnround could absorb up to 10 minutes, so the late arrival doesn’t turn into a late start. The longer turnrounds of the highest risk trains, from Glasgow/Edinburgh, can absorb more. But above 10 minutes, things start to go wrong.

The reoccupation interval between successive trains in the same platform allowed in the timetable is 5 minutes. Technically, it might be done in 4, depending on how well the p/way and signal engineers cooperate. But clearly a late start after a late arrival is very soon going to knock on to the next arrival in the same platform. Even so, Euston as designed for the hybrid Bill has a get-out – as trains alternate between the two sides of the station, and a 200m train can stand between the station pointwork and the King points separating the East and West throats, it’ll be six minutes before a 200m train ‘waiting platform’ delays another arrival. But from then on, it’ll only be another six minutes before the queue is back at Old Oak Common. And note this get out applies only with 200m trains – a 400m train, i.e. half the service at peak times, and probably more as the train service specification evolves, blocks the whole station to further arrivals immediately if it can’t run into its platform straight away.

Where does the 11th platform come in? Simply this – any train arriving more than 10 minutes late can be pointed there instead, and all other trains run as planned. Running into platform 11 is easy, as it is the ‘left hand down’ route that conflicts with nothing else; running out means finding a path amongst everything else, so you have to choose your moment carefully. Clearly if two trains in quick succession turn up more than 10 minutes late, the second has a problem, and here the more drastic option of terminating short at Old Oak Common and restarting from there comes into play. That is possible, but no easy matter – passengers have to be forwarded either by Crossrail which isn’t too good for those with heavy luggage, or on the next HS2 to Euston, which plays havoc with the dwell time. Unless the train crew are working back on the same set, their diagrams and breaks will be disrupted. And passengers for the departure have to be shipped to Old Oak, which means anyone turning up at Euston less than about 6 minutes before time will probably miss it.

And the point is this – without the 11th platform, when a train presents more than 10 minutes late, the choice will be either extensive knock-on delay at Euston, or terminating it at Old Oak. How often do you think the latter is acceptable? Hourly? Daily? Weekly?

And let’s be clear about one thing. It’s not the high speed plain line that will have the problems with late presentations. The feasible headway even at 360 kph is between 2 and 2.5 minutes. So there is between 1 and 0.5 minutes buffer (not ‘slack’, please) between trains, and even if a train turns up out of course and squeezes in, the resultant delay will decay over the next 5 or 6 trains at worst. That’s even before considering that 360 kph is just a ‘get out of trouble’ capability; the timetable works at 330 kph max, so that trains in front of the late one can actually speed up to create a gap for it. Most of all, the key risk on a mixed-use line arises when a fast train gets stuck behind a stopping or slow train. But that just won’t happen on HS2, as all trains are running at the same speed, and on the core route are all calling at Old Oak Common.

You don’t need ‘extensive modelling’ to see that running on 10 platforms with the same robustness as 11 means cutting the service. Plausibly, 16 trains per hour instead of 18 would do it, by freeing one of the 10 platforms for ‘events’. But if that’s the outcome, please take the train service specification given in the April 2020 business case and point at the trains – Stoke? Liverpool? Sheffield? Newcastle that you don’t want to run. Then go and tell the local representatives. I’ll hold your coat.

How else could you run the 18 tph on 10 platforms:

Shorter turnrounds so as to use less than 10 platforms in the plan? All that means is that trains turning up less than 10 minutes late, which will happen far more often, become a problem as well. So the shorter the turnrounds, the more contingency platforms you will need, and more trains will be departing off-pattern in throat, which isn’t pain free;

Run trains on time? Well yes. So why aren’t you doing it now? And it’ll cost you, as part of the solution would be infrastructure, such as on critical mixed use sections like Crewe – Carlisle – Scotland and York – Newcastle. Even to make termination at Old Oak no more frequent than daily, PPM would need to be 99%;

Make it 18 tph peak but less off-peak? Maybe. But you still need to tell someone they aren’t getting their off-peak service, whilst the risk persists in the peaks. And there’s almost no scope for keeping up the number of destinations by combining trains – look at that specification and ask which services you could combine. The only one I would suggest as even passingly realistic is to drop the fast Newcastles between the peaks, and extend the Leeds/York portions of the two Sheffield trains to Newcastle instead. But that’ll give you a radically different pattern on the conventional network which will probably come with an infrastructure cost, as well as a slower off-peak service. Besides, what, post-Covid, are the peak and off-peak anyway?

Technology? I was very interested in Roger Ford’s description of the Luminate TMS at Liverpool Street, re-planning trains away from a platform with defective OHLE. But it has to have somewhere to re-plan trains to, which without the 11th platform it hasn’t, and can no more do the impossible than a human can.

But I do not accept that loss of the 11th platform is necessary. The total of 26 platforms as now proposed is in fact more than the 24 offered by the hybrid Bill scheme. What is wrong is the split of those platforms between the conventional railway and HS2, bearing in mind that however integrated the stations are in terms of passenger facilities, the two railways at Euston are operationally as separate as are the Victoria and Northern lines. Rebuilding the station in one stage, instead of the two envisaged in the hybrid Bill, means that the conventional service needs 16 platforms up to completion when trains can transfer to HS2, but, despite then having no further need for 16 platforms, the 16 : 10 split becomes the end state.

The challenge, then, is to enable a different split, ideally 15 : 11, before completion (and I am conscious that this implies two side platforms which takes more space than one island). No doubt just reducing the over-site development would throw up space for, say 16 : 11, but construction periods, however nasty, finish, whilst the end state is for ever. First, I would ask whether the coincidence of the Covid effect is not in fact an opportunity for a slightly reduced service on the WCML, sufficient to operate on fewer than 16 platforms, until completion of the rebuild.

Then, although terminating HS2 trains at Old Oak is operationally messy and commercially neutral at best compared with the existing conventional service, the ‘one of these and one of those’ approach tabled by the DfT in the April 2020 Business Case is the worst of all worlds. Selecting a complete service group to be converted to HS2 despite terminating at Old Oak would at least enable passengers to plan around the London stations on offer, and permit full operation of all other service groups on the reduced conventional platforms.

Those are only my suggestions. Others may well have better ones. But the proponents of the 10-platform scheme must accept the challenge of finding them, as the end state inherent in the single-stage 10-platform scheme - for Network Rail, for HS2, and thus for the new Great British Railways - is wrong. 


If you have something you would like to say about transport or engineering planning why not get in touch? Guest articles are more than welcome, e-mail;


Friday, 28 May 2021

Wirral Waters: Transforming Birkenhead's fortunes

I think it's fair to say that for decades Birkenhead has been a town in decline, having once been a very large town with a population of 110,000 and an important hub for shipbuilding. However, by the 1980s shipbuilding had started to decline and by 1993 the last remaining shipbuilder Cammell Laird was forced to close. The name Cammell Laird has since returned to Birkenhead all be it primarily as a ship repairers, although in recent years it has won contracts to build the flight deck for HMS Queen Elizabeth and to build RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Despite the return of shipbuilding to Birkenhead the town has continued to decline. Whilst it does still have a large population, by the 2011 census this had shrunk to 88,000 from a peak of 110,000 in 1901. By any measure, Birkenhead remains a large town, but it has always played second fiddle to Liverpool, both in terms of shipping and commerce. Birkenhead retains a large working dock, but it is nowhere near as big as that of Liverpool. In terms of commerce, in the 1990s the town did see a significant development with the opening of the Pyramids shopping centre and up until recently had a bustling town centre. However, once again Liverpool stole the limelight in terms of shopping, with the massive Liverpool One development which formed part of Liverpool's capital of culture regeneration in 2008. Liverpool One combined with the financial crisis of 2007/08 lead to the decline of the town centre. The global financial crisis also had an impact on housing in the area, with a large number of dilapidated houses demolished prior to 2007, which were supposed to be rebuilt, however, the crisis saw finance withdrawn, which lead to areas of land sitting empty for over a decade.

Since then and with high demand for housing, those empty plots have finally begun to be built upon. However, one of the largest derelict sites in Birkenhead remains the Four Bridges dock area. For years Peel Ports who own the land has talked about regenerating the area with ambitious proposals for skyscrapers to rival those over in Liverpool. However up until now very little has happened, which has lead local people to be sceptical about any proposals. Before now, whenever you read articles about ambitious plans they were usually accompanied by comments such as "we'll believe it when we see it"

Now however, it appears that the first small steps are being taken towards the Wirral Waters development as it's being called. The developments which have begun may seem modest and far from the tall glass skyscrapers promised. However, these are the first steps towards the eventual regeneration of the entire Four Bridges area, which given its size could take decades. But what this could hopefully mean for Birkenhead is a return to population growth, and an increased population will hopefully drive increasing footfall into the town centre. Of course, Liverpool One will always be the big draw for shoppers, even in this post Pandemic era. But hopefully, the recently announced regeneration of Birkenhead's town centre and an increasing population will bring some life back into the town. There won't be a return to the heyday when thousands of people worked in the shipyards and docklands, but perhaps new housing and commercial developments will entice people who currently live on the outskirts of Liverpool to live on the "other side of the water" whilst still being able to commute into Liverpool easily, be it by regular rail service, bus, or even by ferry.

Wirral Waters progress 2021 

Wirral Waters is the name given to the development of the Four Bridges area as a whole, but in reality it is a long term project that will be split up into many smaller projects. The area is currently a mix of large derelict brownfield sites, active docklands and active light industrial sites.

The plaque reads; Thomas Brassey 1805-1870. World's foremost builder of railways in the 19th Century. His Canda Works opened 1853 adjacent to this site.

The initial developments are currently taking place over by the East Float situated alongside Tower Rd and Dock Rd. It is unclear what will become of the active berths, but they are currently still visited by a number of vessels and Peel itself actively promotes its 60,000 sq ft storage facility for steel and metal imports. 

Tower Road transformation

A significant step towards transforming Tower Rd started in June 2020 when work began to radically redesign the road layout. The new design aims to reduce the speed of road traffic and provide better facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.

Tower Road transformation

The £3.2m project was designed and delivered in partnership with Peel L&P, whilst the work was carried out by Wirral-based civil engineering contractor, Cambrianway. The project involved widening pavements, installation of new separate walking and cycling routes, new pedestrian crossings facilities and the planting of 130 trees.

Looking north along Tower Rd, with the recently constructed Wirral Met College building on the left

There was some confusion about part of the new road layout, as an unusual swirl pattern was put onto the road surface, leading people to wonder if it was in fact a roundabout. A spokesperson for the authority said: "Junctions like this one are 'no priority' and do not give one vehicle a right over another nor do they give vehicle drivers priority over people walking and on bikes. "They operate on the basis of all users reducing speed or stopping in order to negotiate the junction safely."

The new 'no priority' junction

I think shared spaces such as this will take some getting used to, especially as currently Tower Rd is a high traffic road, with a mixture of local commuter traffic and heavy vehicles accessing the Twelve Quays terminal from the direction of Birkenhead. But the developers say that as the area is developed and more pedestrians and cyclists take to the street then motorists will begin to take more care and slow down.

It is yet to be seen whether or not the new layout and envisaged greater footfall will reduce the speed of traffic driving through the area, but the project has certainly transformed Tower Rd and made it look like a much more inviting place to walk and cycle.


In December 2020 work started on a new £7.5 development which aims to provide 25,000 sq ft of high-quality flexible office space for local businesses. The building is being constructed alongside Tower Rd which is located on the East Float.

Steelwork forming the hythe structure

Hythe as it is called, formally known as No1 Tower Road South is due for completion in late 2021. Funding for the new office space was provided by Peel L&P, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and the Merseyside Pension Fund. 

East Float 

Site clearance for a new 350 home development continued through 2020 and now work has begun on the construction phase. The East Float development is a joint venture between Urban Splash and Peel L&P, which promised to deliver "a brand new waterside neighbourhood on the left bank of the Mersey. With communal open spaces, pedestrianised streets, 1500 trees and soothing open waters"

Artist's representation of the new East Float development. Image Credit Urban Splash

A total of 347 homes will be constructed which will be comprised of three-storey townhouses, row houses and apartments. The developers also say there will be "quiet pedestrianised streets and large communal gardens."

Maritime Knowledge Hub

The iconic Grade II-listed Hydraulic Tower is set to be transformed after ambitious plans for £23m Maritime Knowledge Hub was agreed. The new hub will feature a maritime technology centre, space for offshore survival training, a marine simulation and training centre, a hydrobab, 60,000 sq ft of collaborative space and state of the art research and development facilities.

Hydraulic tower, Tower Road

Wirral Council has agreed on a 250-year lease of the building and to invest in its redevelopment to help maintain the momentum of regeneration in the area. The next stage in the development will be to secure detailed planning permission and Listed Building consent before work can start on the site.

Egerton Village

Plans for the £4m Egerton Village development were agreed in 2019 however, work has yet to begin. The new space which will be located next to hythe will provide shops and arts and events space, which according to Peel, will be a "creative and community hub for visitors, students, businesses and residents".

The waterside village has been designed by OMI Architects and will be be "modularly constructed", which will provide work experience opportunities for construction students at Wirral Metropolitan College.

The projects described may seem modest by themselves but collectively will transform a large part of the East Float, and will hopefully in time make the area look much more attractive and in doing so encourage more investment in the Four Bridges area. Redeveloping the whole 52 acres site will probably take decades, but these first tentative steps could transform the area and in turn transform the fortunes of Birkenhead as a whole.

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Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Re-Blog: Merseyrail: Expanding the network

Originally published in Rail Magazine issue 920

The Merseyrail network currently consists of 75 miles of railway, 6.5 miles of which are underground, split between 2 lines serving a total of 68 stations. The line is electrified by means of 750v DC third-rail and is served by 56 Class 507 and 508 EMUs, however, these units are due to be replaced by new, Class 777 trains over the next couple of years.

Prior to the outbreak of Covid 19 the network carried 110,000 passengers per day and Central Station where the Wirral Line intersects with the Northern Line was the second busiest station in the North West with over 14 million entries and exits between 2018-2019.

Current extent of the Merseyrail network

The Merseyrail network is, in effect a self-contained network which has 8 termini, 6 of which join the national rail network where passengers can transfer on to services which operate beyond the Merseyrail network. These include Southport, Ormskirk, Kirkby, Ellesmere Port, Chester and Hunts Cross. Ellesmere Port currently only has a limited service beyond the Merseyrail Network with 1 arrival from Leeds at 18:08 and a service to Liverpool Lime Street via Warrington Bank Quay departing at 18:25.

The network also has a number of other stations which have connections to the national rail network. They include Liverpool Lime St, Liverpool South Parkway, and Bidston where passengers can join Wrexham-Bidston line services.

Outgoing Class 507/8s are due to be replaced by Class 777s over the next couple of years.


Currently, Merseyrail services are unable to travel beyond those 8 termini because that is the extent of the third-rail network. It is unlikely that the third-rail network will be extended, as the Department for Transport and Network Rail have little appetite for future expansion of the UK third-rail lines.

When compared to 25kv overhead electrification, 750v DC third-rail is less efficient, more expensive to install and maintain, and with a live conductor rail at ground level is also more dangerous. Having said that, in terms of efficiency, third-rail electrification is still vastly more efficent than diesel traction.

Taking this into account you could be forgiven for thinking it is unlikely that the Merseyrail network will be expanded in future and that services are destined to remain limited to third-rail lines. However, there is some good news on the horizon and Merseytravel which is the strategic transport advisor to the Liverpool City Region is certainly not content with terminating services at the current stations.

The Class 777 units being delivered to Merseyrail are set to provide serious opportunities for expansion beyond the third-rail network and Merseytravel is working with the train manufacture Stadler to investigate technologies that would allow just that. Firstly, units on which Class 777 are based can be constructed with a pantograph and transformer to take power from 25kv overhead wires. Or could be fitted with batteries, and in fact, one of the Class 777s which is being delivered to Merseyrail will be fitted with batteries and trialled on the Merseyrail Network.

Update. The first Class 777 fitted with batteries, 777 002 arrived in the UK last week and was spotted in Crewe on the 5th of May.

Merseytravel plans to test how well the battery-powered Class 777 can perform, initially limited to operating on the third-rail network to provide a fail-safe should the batteries fail. However, Merseytravel will be able to put the battery-powered unit to the test across the Merseyrail network. Particular attention will likely be paid to how the unit performs on the steep incline on either side of the tunnel underneath the Mersey. The standard Class 777 units will have much better acceleration characteristics when compared to the outgoing Class 507/8s, so much so, when all Class 777s are in service the timetable will be sped up. This will allow Merseyrail to provide the same level of service (pre Covid19) with fewer vehicles, the order for new units stands at 52, compared to the current 56 units. For the battery trail to be successful the unit must perform comparably under all conditions to the Class 777s which are not fitted with batteries.

Class 777s at Kirkdale TMD

Merseytravel isn't paying lip service to future expansion with this trial, they have serious ambitions to extend the network and are already working on plans for an initial modest extension from Kirkby to a new station to be constructed at Headbolt Lane, but they have more ambitious plans to extend services to Skelmersdale, which would require reinstating a former route which was closed in the 1960s and the construction of a new station. Plans for Skelmersdale link are currently at the GRIP 3 stage. The new Headbolt Lane station would become the new eastern terminus on the Kirkby branch, until such time that services can be extended further. The new station would require a short section of third-rail from Kirkby, although if the battery trial is successful the new station could instead be served by Class 777s fitted with batteries.

Merseytravel also has a long term goal to extend services from Ellesmere Port to Helsby or Warrington Bank Quay, they would also like to extend services from Ormskirk to Preston and from Bidston to Wrexham. In order to ensure that any further extensions can become a reality Merseytravel has an option to purchase a further 60 units from Stadler, should the need arise. These units could be fitted with either pantographs or batteries, depending on how further extensions are to be delivered.

Wrexham-Bidston Line extension 

Electrification of the Wrexham-Bidston line was discounted back in 2008 when Network Rail published a report which estimated the cost of electrifying 27 miles of railway with 750v DC third-rail to be £207m, a figure which was said to be 3 times higher than that estimated by Merseytravel. This meant that it seemed as if through services to Liverpool from Wrexham would be put on hold indefinitely. However, the introduction of Class 777s does provide a reason to be optimistic that, in the medium to long term services could operate from Wrexham Central through to Liverpool on the Wrexham-Bidston line.

One option that was investigated was electrifying the Wrexham-Bidston line with 25kv overhead wires, this was thought to be a cheaper option than third-rail electrification, and with the option for Class 777s variants to be constructed to take power from both third-rail and overhead wires, that could have been a real option. However, the publication Network Rail's traction decarbonisation network strategy suggests that the Wrexham-Bidston will not be electrified. The report now suggests that through services will be provided by battery-powered units.

It is likely that if the Class 777 battery trial is a success and proposals for the Wrexham-Bidston line are taken forward, that some infrastructure would be required at the Wrexham end of the line in order to re-charge the units. Vivarail which is currently delivering class 230 hybrid units to Transport for Wales for use on the Wrexham-Bidston line, has been working on battery technology for some time and they say one of their units fitted with batteries could travel as far as 60 miles on a single charge.

Class 230 diesel-electric hybrid built by Vivarail currently being tested on the Wrexham-Bidston line before their introduction later this year

If we assume that a Stadler unit could be fitted with enough batteries to travel up 60 miles between charge, whilst maintaining the same acceleration characteristics as the non-battery variants, it is still thought that the 54 mile round trip from Bidston to Wrexham and back on one charge would be difficult. This is due to the steep gradients on the route from Shotton towards Buckley and the frequent stops spaced closely together from Shotton to Wrexham Central. Therefore it is likely that a short section of third-rail would have to be installed leading into Wrexham Central.

Rapid charging via third-rail is another area in which Vivarail is leading the way. The system which Vivarail is developing has interim Network Rail approval and is set to become the UK standard system. Their system is capable of providing enough charge in just 8 minutes to power a class 230 battery variant for up to 60 miles. The system uses a short section of third-rail to charge the batteries via third rail shoe gear. This power can either be provided directly from the National Grid, or via stationary second-life batteries, which could be charged more slowly and then used to provide rapid charging to a unit.

Ormskirk to Preston and Ellesmere Port have been classified by Network Rail's report as “multiple (proposed battery)”, which could mean partial electrification with batteries being used to bridge the gap between electrified and non-electrified sections. This raises the question about which means of electrification would be used, as the DfT, Network Rail are against expansion of third-rail. Class 777 variants could only be built to take third-rail and 25kv overhead power, or third-rail and batteries. This is because the batteries would occupy the same space in which the transformers to convert the 25kv AC to 750v DC would. But Merseytravel is also investigating using 750v DC overhead, this means it could potentially be possible to produce units that could draw power from third-rail, overhead 750v DC and also be fitted with batteries.

So, whilst the expansion of the Merseyrail network isn't something that is going to happen in the short term, with new more adaptable units on the way and ever-improving battery technology, it is a real possibility that the network can be expanded in the medium to long term.