24 April 2020
RIA’s last Unlocking Innovation webinar looked at ‘A 21st Century Mass Transit system for Leeds City Region’, with West Yorkshire Combined Authority looking at how the city can build more connected local travel. Tom Gifford, head of transformational connectivity at WYCA, gave an update on the region’s transport ambitions during the fifth and final session of the ‘Digital Journeys for Rail Passengers & Freight’ webinar series on 24 April.
West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) is aiming to discover and invest in the “best technologies possible” to help turn its ambition for a new ‘mass transit system’ into reality.
With a population of three million, the Leeds city region is the largest metropolitan area in Europe without an urban transit system.
Gifford said the West Yorkshire ‘devolution deal’, signed just last month (March 2020), was an important milestone, ensuring government commitment to develop and deliver mass transit during the 2020s.
He said: “We’re [West Yorkshire] at the early stages of mass transit development. But we’ve come at this with our eyes open [as we look] to come up with a clear plan.”
The region is aiming to learn from and then “leapfrog” other cities and regions, both within the UK and also overseas, for example countries including Germany and China. In the UK Gifford cited the integration between buses and trams in Nottingham as an impressive example.
About 120 organisations/companies responded to ‘market testing’ exercise last year.
Specific areas where the WYCA is keen to learn about the latest developments include “lower-cost vehicle types and propulsion systems”, as well as 5G and ticketing.
Gifford said: “We’re interested to see where industry is at the moment, and where the innovation pockets are.”
RIA’s webinar also heard an update on the city of Coventry’s Very Light Rail (VLR) project from Dr Nick Mallinson of Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG).
Explaining Coventry’s focus on ‘very’ light rail, Dr Mallinson said: “Cities of Coventry’s size cannot generate the necessary financial case to be able to go ahead with traditional light rail.”
A test track for the Coventry scheme will be located at the VLR National Innovation Centre, which is under construction in Dudley. Construction on the first route is expected in 2024, with the first phase to open for use in spring 2025.
Dr Mallinson explained that VLR aimed to reduce costs of the whole system with, lighter self-propelled vehicles allowing the use of less substantial track forms without overhead wiring, the vehicles would use low cost automotive manufacturing techniques and would have the potential to be autonomously operated and the track form would reduce the need to relocate utilities.
RIA’s webinar also heard ‘elevator pitches’ from two SMEs: Adam Stead, founder and chief executive of Apollo Rail, and Mike Lloyd, chief executive of Jnction.
Picking up on the discussion about autonomous vehicles, Stead championed the benefits of both autonomous train operation and also autonomous signalling. In respect of the former he described the ongoing costs of having train drivers as “astronomical”, citing a figure of £450,000 per train per year.
He said Apollo, which has a team of four, was developing “an autonomous train operations system that anyone can deploy for a return-on-investment within 18 months - that’s our goal.”
In respect of autonomous signalling, Apollo had been working with Swiss Federal Railways on a prototype, Stead said.
Apollo is currently seeking private investment with the ambition of being “in passenger service within three years”.
Jnction is a London-based app-development business with rail clients including MTR Crossrail, London Overground and RSSB. Among its products is Aubin, a journey-planner app designed to help reduce stress for autistic passengers.
Lloyd described how phone-based technology such as QR codes, as well as apps, can improve information dissemination and also reduce the costs of passenger information infrastructure.
RIA’s online event was attended by 100 delegates, who were polled with the question: ‘What is the major barrier to rail being a major part of the urban transport solution?’.
Of the five answer options, ‘High cost’ was picked by 43%; ‘Planning/regulations’ by 29%; ‘Lack of public funding’ by 21%; ‘Standards’ by 5%; and ‘Uncertain demand’ by 2%.
The potential long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic was also discussed. Gifford said: “We need to reflect on the longer-term implications of the travel demand changes we are seeing [during the coronavirus lockdown], and how long it will take to go back to a ‘new normal’. It may increase the need for mass transit.”
Dr Mallinson said: “With COVID-19 there may be pressure in the future not to cram so many people onto vehicles.”
Discussion also touched on how passengers would pay to use services such as the proposed West Yorkshire system and Coventry’s VLR, given the trend towards cashless, digital payments. Despite the rush to embrace technology, Gifford emphasised the importance of ensuring that people without the ability to pay using a smart-phone, for example, were not excluded.
The event concluded RIA’s ‘Digital Journeys’ series, which ran from 20-24 April 2020 and was held as part of RIA’s long-running ‘Unlocking Innovation’ programme.