Driving rail’s green journey forward through collaborative innovation

David Clarke, Technical Director, Railway Industry Association | 21 May 2021

Conversations around climate change have already begun ramping up ahead of COP26 in November, with many concentrating on whether countries are doing enough to tackle carbon emissions. For the UK Government, it would be remiss to ignore the contribution that the rail industry can make to this country’s efforts. The volume of innovation currently taking place within rail means that it can be a leading force in driving the UK towards its net zero ambitions by 2050. 

Following the first part of this series (which you can read here) where I examined the industry’s sustainability strategy and how it is beginning to phase out the use of diesel, I’ll be digging into how we’re making widespread electrification possible and our work to improve how we use and maintain materials.

Increased electrification

The electrification of the UK railway has been an ongoing journey. Guided by Government policy, it’s had a stop-start history since the eighties and to-date 38% of Britain’s rail network has been electrified compared to 60% or more in most European countries. But electrification is no longer a nice-to-have – not only is it the cheaper option to traditional diesel power over the long-term, but it is also far greener and an essential component in helping meet the UK’s net zero goal. While the Government is responsible for driving policy forward, it’s up to the rail industry to make it a reality – which it’s doing. 

This is despite some parts of the country’s rail infrastructure dating back to the 1800s, meaning it’s not a simple case of retrofitting tracks – electrification can require intelligent solutions. A great example of this is how innovation solved the challenge to retain rather than demolish a Grade 2 listed bridge at Steventon built by famed engineer Isambard Brunel. 

Normally, the bridge would be demolished and rebuilt higher to allow Overhead Line Equipment (OLE) to pass underneath but this wasn’t possible given the refusal of planning permission. Not touching the bridge and working to normal electrification standards would limit electric trains to 60mph, which wasn’t workable for the timetable. 

So, working with Network Rail and Great Western Railways, Atkins put to work its recently developed Dynamic Rail System Simulation (D-RSS) tool, which can accurately simulate real-world conditions, including the behaviour of both the wire and the pantograph. In a virtual environment, it tested whether achieving a speed of 110mph would be possible without changes to the bridge. The result? Network Rail and Great Western Railways were satisfied that electric trains could pass through safely, with this modern approach to evaluating the Victorian infrastructure helping to deliver a system fit for the future. Now that it is proven, this approach can be applied more widely to minimise the number of costly bridge reconstructions, historic or not, and thus make electrification more affordable.

Improving our use of materials

Removing carbon-based fuels from the railway is a necessity, but it is not the only contributor to a more sustainable future. Work to ensure we’re able to maximise rolling stock and track lifecycles should also be on our agenda. And this is reflected in Network Rail’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy, where it highlights “minimal waste and sustainable use of materials” as one of the industry’s four core priorities. 

Rolling contact fatigue – the wear and tear caused by the running and sliding of wheels on tracks – is a constant challenge to manage, requiring money and effort to keep both wheels and tracks in good repair (or replaced) to maintain the safe and efficient running of railways. 

But industry suppliers such as SET are bringing to market innovative solutions that limit the need to repair or replace equipment, thus maximising their lifecycle and minimising their carbon footprint. SET designed and developed ActiWheel – an innovative rail vehicle traction system, which replaces the traditional railway wheelset (two wheels on a solid axle) and its associated friction brake equipment with separate wheels each with their own electric drive motor. An onboard digital control system links to the independently rotating, in-wheel, traction motors, that autonomously guide and steer the train over the track. The technology constantly ensures trains’ wheels are running along the optimum point of rail, minimising wear on both wheels and track. And because of that, the lifecycle of train wheels can be increased by between four and ten times, while also ensuring greater energy efficiency throughout their use. At the same time, rolling contact fatigue on the rails will be dramatically reduced saving many millions of pounds a year. The benefits are clear, the challenge for the whole industry is ensuring this new technology is introduced to the network.  

Improving the durability of materials also means significantly less energy being put into the development of new components, and less waste being sent to landfill – presenting yet another step forward in meeting the Government’s carbon reduction and environmental objectives. 

Cultivating future progress

When it comes to addressing climate change, the rail industry is operating from a position of strength – but there is always room for improvement. Going forward, our progress will stem from our continued ability to collaborate and innovate across the supply chain. By working together to develop new and better ways of operating, we’ll be one of the UK’s driving forces for meeting our 2050 net zero target.

To learn more about the role you and your organisation can play, attend the next Unlocking Innovation series taking place online daily from 5 – 9 July or get in touch through our website here.

Stay tuned for the next blog in our Ambassadors of Innovation series. 

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