A Clear Track to Toilet Innovation?

How GBR-Rail is innovating to make train waste systems greener and cheaper | January 2022

In the first Ambassadors of Innovation post of 2022, we sat down with Tim Brown, Chief Executive, and Natalie Cartwright, R&D Market Research, at GBR-Rail, whose team have developed Cleartrak. 

Tim started his career as a mechanical engineer, spending 30 years in the steel finishing equipment industry before moving to the rail industry in 2008 to work for Smith Brothers and Webb. Tim remarked that much of the technology in train toilet systems and depots today, remains the same as 30 to 40 years ago - when Controlled Emission Toilets (CET) began to be introduced in the UK.

Dealing with waste

Perhaps not the most glamorous part of our railways, but nonetheless important, Tim noted that disposing of toilet waste often seems to cause issues for operators. Trains have to be moved around to depots to empty CET systems and refill water tanks - meaning they aren’t always ideally placed for their next service.
Tim noted that disposing of waste always seems to cause issues for operators. Trains have to be moved around to depots to empty CET toilet systems and refill water tanks, meaning they aren’t always ideally placed for their next service.

After being approached by RSSB in 2017 about developing automated train cleaning equipment, GBR-Rail were introduced to the team at Cranfield University, who had been working on toilet projects for over 10 years. 

Tim explained his team looked at the technology the university had developed and how it could be adapted for rail systems, finally producing Cleartrak. They currently have a small site in Sheffield where they assemble and test the products. 

Natalie explained that the system, which can be installed in the space of a standard Controlled Emissions Toilet (CET), treats all train toilet waste on board - purifying and recycling liquid waste for reuse in toilet flushing, and processing solid waste to Biochar. Cleatrak’s only by-product is an inert and dry Biochar – that is to say a charcoal produced by pyrolysis of biomass (waste) in the absence of oxygen, which can be emptied in locations outside a train’s depot.

Flushing out real benefits 

GBR-Rail proudly highlight several impressive statistics. First, that standard CET systems require emptying 185 times a year, whereas Cleartrak requires only 4 to 8 times – a reduction of over 95%.

Second, half a billion litres of water are required every year to operate the 10,000 toilets currently onboard trains on the GB network – Cleartrak would reduce this water consumption by 85%, according to the company. This would also have lightweighting benefits. And on costs and time savings, they note that currently, CET systems require half a million working hours per year to service. GBR-Rail say Cleartrak would reduce it substantially – likely to less than around 50,000 to 100,000.
Importantly, Natalie highlighted that it could also mean fewer services are likely to be cancelled, as happens if accessible toilet storage tanks become full and are locked out of use. She also stressed the “massive” biodiversity benefit of removing sewage from the already overstretched sewage network.

We need to remove the bureaucracy. The industry is very set in its ways, with real inertia to change. 
Tim Brown, Chief Executive of GBR-Rail

What's next?

GBR-Rail are currently trialling with Chiltern Railways. The team are also working with UKRRIN to develop a model for rolling stock designers, to show what you can get from your fleet with Cleartrak through a digital twin. And looking ahead, Natalie stressed that operators and ROSCOs have been engaged and forthcoming, adding that they are keen to explore international export opportunities, saying “this is not just a UK product, it is a global solution”.
But there is still more to do. Tim stressed the challenges that small companies can experience in rolling out new products. He noted that a lot in the industry is quite cyclical, and that it can take a long time, with significant obstacles to get a new product to market. 

He also highlighted that they have really felt the effects of the pandemic, particularly as it has delayed progress by roughly six months. They’ve further had difficulty getting components and materials, such as silicon chip based digital sensors – Tim added: “Previously, the maximum lead time for components was 4-6 weeks, whereas it is now 14-16 weeks.” 

We concluded by asking Tim and Natalie the one thing they would change about the industry. Tim did not mince his words: “We need to remove the bureaucracy. The industry is very set in its ways, with real inertia to change.” And Natalie warned that the UK needs to learn from some of the good things that are going on in Europe.

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