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. 


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