Unlocking Innovation: Light Weight and Low Cost Railway - Day 2

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15 December 2020

Day two of the series on Light Rail featured discussions surrounding tram/train and light rail schemes across the UK, with speakers from Network Rail, Arnold White Group and Coventry City Council.

The session began with Simon Coulthard who leads Network Rail’s Light Rail Group and explained the latest work they are doing on tram/train schemes. In particular, he focused on their work building one of the first-ever projects of its type in the UK, linking Sheffield Cathedral and Rotherham Parkgate.

Network Rail has also accomplished various other ‘firsts’ for a heavy rail line in the UK, such as fitting a 750-volt DC overhead line and developing low-floor platform compatibility of 350mm to allow level boarding.

Despite numerous challenges, including the route being flooded in 2019, preliminary problems with vehicles and the huge impact of Covid-19 on passenger numbers, the South Yorkshire project has proved successful from a passenger viewpoint according to Simon.

Since 2018, they have seen 1.6 million passenger journeys, 96% reliability of services, 100% customer satisfaction and the project has also allowed Network Rail to test processes for rolling stock and infrastructure approvals amongst other areas.

Next on the virtual stage was Arnold White Group’s Ian Foll, who presented a ground-breaking project they are developing in Leighton Buzzard, to build a housing development around a clean transport system. A family-run business since the 1860s, they are looking to build a very light rail line through old quarry sites to connect with future development of up to 4,500 houses.

The project would once again provide the community with a light rail line, along a similar route to a previous one built-in 1919 to transport silica sand from local quarries.

The third speaker was Light Rail Programme Manager at Coventry City Council, Nicola Small. She said: “Pandemic or not there is a need for mass transit which is affordable and environmentally friendly”. She argued that the city needs to avoid pre-pandemic congestion levels on the roads which cause “unacceptable” levels of air pollution in Coventry.

It is for these reasons that the City Council opted to develop a very light rail route as part of a fully integrated transport system. When challenged on why they did not choose electric buses, Nicola responded that light rail avoids the brake and rubber tyre dust from buses, known as the Oslo Effect. “[Light rail] is not the panacea but a critical part” of a green solution.

The main obstacle for the project is likely to be the cost. While current tram systems often cost around £35-50 million per km, the Council’s target is to deliver the network for only £10 million per km. During the presentation, Nicola stated that her team anticipate most of the cost reductions will come from procuring and operating smaller, lighter and UK-built vehicles, as well as through fewer earthworks and utility diversions due to shallow depth of the track design.

In the final part of the event, RIA again heard two ‘elevator pitches’, from companies with innovative ideas for the industry. First, Mike Orange from Cecence gave a brief overview of their work manufacturing lightweight, composite overhead line catenary systems.

Mike ended by welcoming engagement from partners to help scale up their operation and see where their products could bring advantages to other tram or light rail projects as well as on mainline or high-speed routes.

The session concluded with Firstco’s Michael Gray, who ran through their work to upgrade the control system for Stansted Airport’s driverless Automated People Mover (APM). As Michael outlined, the project overcame challenges to keep passengers safe and minimise disruption, to deliver a more intuitive and reliable solution which provides operational control and monitoring functionality.

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