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How UK innovation could benefit the entire LRT industry

D144760 NET Line 3 Beeston Centre stop (c) Mike Haddon

UK Tram’s Paul Griffiths is 
pretty enthused right now. 
He and his colleagues have been evaluating which entries into the GBP3m (EUR3.75m) ‘Low Impact Light Rail’ competition to take forward; the aim is to support innovation and help bring it to practical deployment.

A key area of focus for the competition is trackform design and construction – something on which as a civil engineer working as Midland Metro Programme Director for promoter Centro, Griffiths is especially keen to see progress. The focus is on ways in which to reduce costs and make installation and maintenance easier.

Trackform, the Vice Chairman of UK Tram’s promoters group told the ninth UK Light Rail Conference in Nottingham in June, “is the biggest single cost element other than the vehicles… and therefore it needs to be a real focus for us in terms of trying to get the cost of schemes down.”

In that view, Griffiths is doing no more than echo the push given by the UK Government in its Green Light for Light Rail paper of 2011, which stressed that for more new schemes to thrive in the country, cheaper ways of delivering them must be found.

“Now, whilst ministers have changed [since then],” Griffiths told Nottingham delegates, “I suspect that this view would still apply… we need to get those costs down.”

Not only a UK concern

Of course, cost-saving and efficiency are not purely UK concerns – though there are specific ways of doing things in the UK that Griffiths believes may contribute to it being a particularly high-profile problem. Not least among those is the ‘heavy’ way in which the country calls for its light rail to be built: “Are we over specifying… as clients?” he asked the 280-strong audience of senior industry figures at the Light Rail Conference. “Do we ask for too much? And does the way we specify limit the freedom given to the designers and constructors as they build the systems?”

Observers of UK LRT development have also raised the issue of a risk-averse culture – where in a structure where multiple players are regularly involved in the delivery of the same scheme, the various parties are naturally unlikely to be motivated to take on the potential costs if something goes wrong. Yet does a temptation to ‘specify’ out risk 
end with the likely result of increased costs?

From the promoter’s point of view, Griffiths asked, “We can ask for a 30-year warranty, but is that pushing the envelope too far? Are we trying to get too much?”

High among UK promoters’ considerations is the perennial issue of under-highway utilities – of their replacement to get them away from the tramway formation, and of building track robust enough to help ensure telecommunications and electric lines, gas pipes and sewers are not disturbed at the risk of great cost and disruption later.

For street-running projects through major centres in the UK, utility relocation – and renewal of old structures that cannot stand up to the stresses of relocation – has become one of the biggest considerations and cost factors of all.

In the UK in recent years, taken together these factors have arguably helped to create a situation that encourages shying away from innovation rather than embracing it.

All of this is why Griffiths is so enthusiastic about what is now being done by UK Tram; what’s more, he believes the new ideas that end up being supported may well have uses far outside the country.

‘Low Impact Light Rail’ has GBP3m in support from the UK’s Technology Strategy Board; the scheme’s aim? To promote innovation in areas that will have the biggest impact in bringing costs down. This is intended as a very practical trial, not simply an academic exercise. “Part of what we’re trying to do is lead people,” says Griffiths.

“We don’t want to force people into solutions, we want to give them thought-through options.”

Supporting innovation

So, this year UK Tram has been inviting applications from people and organisations interested in developing their trackform ideas as well as those associated with energy and overhead line. These will then be evaluated somewhere Mr Griffiths thinks may be unique – a trials facility not created by a single manufacturer primarily for its own use, but by the collective will of the industry. Mr Griffiths believes the funding method may be a one-off too: “I’m not aware of anybody trying to progress things through funded programmes.”

Key to the plans is the former British Army depot at Long Marston in Warwickshire, which has an internal rail system connected to the national network – and which is already home to a presence from the railway industry grouping Rail Alliance.

Formerly a major military facility, Long Marston offers space to create a ‘live’ environment away from any operational system, either light or heavy. Installation of 750V dc overhead electrification is already planned, and Griffiths says the plan is to put in “100m stretches” of test applications.

“Long Marston is outside the Network Rail envelope,” explains Griffiths referring to the UK’s heavy rail infrastructure body, 
“so it is much easier.”

Schemes entered into the competition number among them a slab-based form of construction for street running, in which individual slabs effectively sit on a ‘ladder’ formation supporting track and sleepers with the slabs able to be lifted to provide easy access underneath. This, Mr Griffiths says, is potentially “an obvious solution to the utilities problem”.

A further proposal is for a system that 
could help integrate transport modes by allowing “Bus Rapid Transit and light rail 
on the same slab.”

Other track-related submissions 
include innovative methods of examining welds and of weld restoration; and methods for determining optimum rail wear. 
Also under consideration for further development are lightweight designs 
for overhead line equipment, onboard 
fuel cells and energy regeneration 
through vehicle vibration.

Where next?

Griffiths is confident that because of its nature, the UK scheme could bring forward real innovations that will find use not only in that country, but potentially around the world. This is a key driver for the Technology Strategy Board as funder of the scheme in developing a UK rail industry that can sell around the world – remember, of course, that Derby is already home to the largest cluster of rail-based businesses in the world.

Over the next few months UK Tram will finalise which schemes it intends to take forward, with feasibility work over the next few months and physical demonstration work next year. During 2015, therefore, “things will be tried out… and happening.”

Ultimately, the decisions will be made on a judgment of “what generates the biggest savings and the best value for money”.

Griffiths is optimistic about the project’s prospects: “I think there’s real innovation in there, but the really important bit is being able to convince people in the UK; that’s why it’s important as a demonstration.

“Success looks like at least one trackform that’s being used out there in, say, five years, and similarly a handful of the energy ideas coming through, but at least as important is persuading the industry that innovation isn’t a bad thing.”

D144760 NET Line 3 Beeston Centre stop (c) Mike Haddon

D144760 NET Line 3 Beeston Centre stop (c) Mike Haddon

Following use in cities such as Reims, Angers and Jerusalem, Alstom’s automated Appitrack tracklaying system is now being used in Nottingham.

D805-38. 25 Jun 2014

Tracklaying on Stephenson Street for the Birmingham City Centre Extension in June 2014
Credit: Tony Sullivan