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South Wales Metro: The transformation begins

Within the next few years, light rail services will reach the heart of Cardiff Bay. Image courtesy of TfW unless otherwise stated.

In the year since we last reported on the South Wales Metro programme (TAUT 968), a lot of progress has been made on what is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious rail transformation projects seen in the UK for decades.

There have been new vehicle orders, work has started on the new tram-train depot at Taffs Well, and thousands of hours have gone into ‘discovery’ projects across the Welsh rail network on the assets that will transfer from Network Rail (NR) to Welsh Government ownership.

All of this is set against a backdrop of the Welsh Government declaring a ‘climate emergency’ with concerns over how emissions and rising global temperatures will affect the country’s infrastructure.

A little background…

Transport for Wales (TfW) appointed KeolisAmey as the joint-venture Operator and Development Partner (ODP) in June 2018. Two distinct divisions have since emerged at the ODP, which has managed the Wales and Borders franchise under the brand name Transport for Wales Rail Services since Sunday 14 October 2018. The ‘OpCo’ has begun a programme of refurbishing rolling stock, ‘deep cleaning’ stations and introducing new ‘T’ branding. As Richard Briggs, TfW’s Core Valley Lines Senior Project Engineer, explains: “It’s about clear communication. While the future plans are exciting, we need to demonstrate the vision while also managing expectations that it won’t happen overnight.

“Initially we have to use the legacy fleets, albeit refurbished and rebranded, but by 2023 we will have a new fleet operating across the country with 50% of those vehicles built in Wales. That will add capacity, and the new electric units will provide zero-carbon services throughout the South Wales Metro network.”

Other initiatives such as enhancing the Delay/Repay system of refunds for delayed services are in place (reducing the claim time from 30 minutes to 15) and new railcard schemes have been rolled out to bring down the cost of rail travel for younger people.

On the other side, the ‘InfraCo’ has been busy preparing its masterplan for major infrastructure interventions. Mr Briggs continues: “On Sunday 14 October we took over the rail services from Arriva, but that weekend also saw Storm Callum so we had trains stranded on the Valley Lines due to flooding. Talk about a baptism by fire!”

Here it is worth revisiting the ‘Metro’ plans. Within a framework of devolved powers from the UK Government, significant sums were made available from the delayed Department for Transport and Network Rail Valley Lines electrification programme to support the various schemes, bolstered by European Regional Development Fund financing and topped up by the Welsh Government.

The South Wales Metro will include the current Valley Lines and services between Cardiff and Ebbw Vale to the north, Maesteg to the west and extending to the Severn Tunnel Junction in the east and beyond. The Central Metro refers to the sub-set of services from the northern towns of Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Radyr, Rhymney and Coryton, through Queen Street station to Cardiff Bay, Cardiff Central, Penarth, Barry Island and Bridgend. This incorporates the Cardiff City line and so will remove many requirements to change trains to cross the city.

Transferring the assets

This conversion involves the transfer of around 137km (85 miles) of route and other NR-owned assets known as the Core Valley Lines (CVL), a process that takes place in key stages; approval by the board of the national rail infrastructure manager was given in May 2018 and this is now with the UK Secretary of State for signature.

As Mr Briggs explains: “There has also been a lot of dialogue with the Office of Rail and Road [ORR] that includes safety authorisation licences and industrial arrangements, so if disputes do occur then we can discuss how we manage that. This also includes station, track access and connection agreements with NR and freight operators. That’s important as we still have freight trains going to Cwmbargoed Colliery and need to be able to manage the performance risks as these trains enter or leave our network.

“Once the InfraCo is ready and we have all the regulatory approvals in place with the ORR, there is a minimum 40-day notice period from pressing the button to go for it and transferring the assets from NR.”

Introducing a new vertically-integrated operator and infrastructure manager is a real innovation for the UK heavy rail industry, and one only made possible by devolution, as Mr Briggs describes: “It’s not new in light rail of course, but to prepare we have been looking at the assets we will be acquiring. We can’t get around everything in the time we have available, but we’ve undertaken 356 site visits and inspected 1270 assets, looking at track, signalling and stations across the network. In addition we’ve got a number of level crossings and as we are increasing the number of services we are looking at the risk assessments, so their risk profile may change.

“We also need to look at structures, earthworks and flooding risks as a lot of the CVL run alongside rivers such as the Taff, so we have to understand the long-term operating and maintenance costs of those assets. As we are looking at putting in dynamic passing loops to support the increased service pattern, we have to check where boundaries lay on the network and that there hasn’t been any encroachment onto railway property over the years.

“One of the things we’ve been dealing with is the variety of flora and fauna, so we’ve been out there treating invasive species like Japanese Knotweed so we are ready to start the construction works next year.”

Once the ‘go’ decision is given, Transport for Wales, Rail Services will take over all rail assets except for the FTN (Fixed Telecommunications Network) and GSM-R network which are expected to remain with NR. The InfraCo will be responsible for maintenance, faults, repair work and for proposing renewals on the CVL network. Operational control of the CVL will initially remain with NR, but will migrate to an integrated control centre at Taffs Well when this new facility is gradually brought online at the start of 2022 as each route is transformed. As well as integrating specialist services such as FTN and GSM-R, the intention is also to have on-track plants, recording equipment and access to the full suite of NR standards and IT systems.

But this process is also about people: “There are ongoing discussions as to whether existing staff will TUPE over to KeolisAmey or whether they will be retained by the public sector,” Mr Briggs explains, “and a major recruitment drive is ongoing
so we’re ready to go.”

Upgrades and improvements

A number of the former NR assets will require significant upgrades to enable the planned service enhancements, so there will be track remodelling, new signalling systems and what is termed ‘smart electrification’.

Mr Briggs explains some of the detail: “This involves over 60 permanently earthed sections that avoid the need to raise bridges to achieve 25kV ac electrification clearance and major-catenary free sections through Caerphilly Tunnel, where there is insufficient headroom, through Cardiff Central to minimise interfaces with NR electrification and to avoid listed buildings and canopies at Pontypridd station.

“In terms of civils interventions, there will be significant track doubling with the current concept design, including 17 track lowering projects, ten new footbridges, three new road bridges, one bridge jack, level crossing improvements and 13 new platforms. There will also be new stations to give rail access to currently disconnected communities (Crwys Road, Gabalfa and Loudoun Square). The existing heavy rail diesel depot at Canton will be upgraded for servicing the incoming Stadler FLIRT ‘tri-mode trains – as well as battery charging – and stabling points at Treherbert and Rhymney will be upgraded to service the new tram-train and tri-mode vehicles respectively.

Two stations are also being relocated. Plans are being made for Treforest Estate station to be moved further south from 2025, closer to the Coleg y Cymoedd campus and the new Department for Work and Pensions headquarters in Nantgarw that will house 1700 staff when it opens in 2021. A new infrastructure maintenance depot will also be located nearby; that site has already been cleared to make way for the new facility.

One of the biggest design challenges centres on accessibility improvements. Some stations have been addressed via the Government’s Access for All funding (a total of GBP800m (EUR880m) which has been committed to delivering accessible travel routes, including step-free access to rail stations across the UK by 2024) and this has been driven forward by NR at a number of Welsh stations. But there is more to do, Mr Briggs adds: “Across the network as many stations have been developed over time, this has resulted in a forest of platform furniture as equipment has been installed to meet Railway Group Standards. We want to improve the station environment as much as possible and as part of this process will be to rationalise lighting and CCTV columns, and improving waiting facilities.”

Smart electrification

As previously described, the Well-Being of Future Generations Act (Wales) of 2015 forms the foundation of the Welsh Government’s vision and offers vital context for its plans for sustainable transport. Based upon the seven tenets of prosperity, resilience, health, equality, cohesive communities, vibrant culture and global responsibility, this legislation has been lauded as a model for others to follow.

The new heavy rail vehicles will have modern low-emission diesel engines and the tri-mode variants will use these to charge the batteries which then drive the electric motors. This will enable TfW to provide cross-city services onto non-electrified NR routes while the 25kV traction equipment and onboard batteries will allow the Welsh Government to fulfil its vision for removing combustion-engined traction power from the CVL entirely.

To do this relies on innovative thinking to overcome complex infrastructure challenges related to the historic loading gauge and topography. Full electrification would be costly and time-consuming, with a huge number of ageing structures that would either need to be replaced or modified to meet NR standards. The introduction of ‘smart electrification’ is therefore core to the Metro plans.

Mr Briggs explains: “In the short-term, something a lot of people in Cardiff and the outer regions will be pleased about is that we are withdrawing the Pacers [diesel-powered railbuses built in the 1980s]. They are not compliant with Persons with Reduced Mobility legislation for one thing, so we are going to use Sprinters [more modern DMUs] in the interim and that fleet is being modified at the moment, including the fitting of accessible toilets and other passenger improvements.”

In the longer-term tri-mode FLIRT vehicles will transform comfort, reliability and accessibility on routes from Rhymney and Coryton to Penarth, Barry and Bridgend. Driven by 25kV OLE – supplemented by three battery modules and a tertiary diesel generator in the middle ‘power car’– these new vehicles ensure that in normal operating circumstances zero-carbon operation can be achieved on the CVL and beyond, providing additional resilience in the event of power outages on the overhead or Western Power’s distribution network. “As the diesel power pack is located in a separate car, passengers won’t feel the same level of vibration as in many existing underfloor units,” Mr Briggs adds. “This car is corridored so you can walk through from one section to another, and also allows for easy retrofitment to battery or fuel cell power in the future should the need arise.”

A mix of three- and four-car units will initially be provided.

A more traditional DEMU version will serve routes to Cheltenham, Ebbw Vale and Maesteg, although commonalities with the tri-mode variant support ease of maintenance at the existing heavy rail Canton depot on the western side of the River Taff in the capital.

Vehicle accessibility is something else that Mr Briggs is keen to highlight: “We always wanted to achieve light rail accessibility across the Metro so everyone can board without the need for assistance. This will be achieved on the FLIRT fleet through retractable ‘bridging steps’ of the kind seen widely across Europe and soon in the UK on Merseyrail and Greater Anglia heavy rail services. At some locations platform work or track amendment will also be required.

“For the fleet of Stadler Citylink LRVs on order, the most obvious thing when compared to the vehicles used in Sheffield is the high floor. This avoids the need to modify platforms across the network.”

The platform height on the CVL will be 915mm, compared to 425mm seen in South Yorkshire. The Citylink supplied to the UK  Pilot is itself based upon the design supplied to the German city of Chemnitz; the version for the South Wales Metro is more akin to the variant supplied to Mallorca, Spain.

To further reduce complexity – and cost – the fleet of 36 three-section LRVs are far more ‘off the shelf’: “KeolisAmey have currently only identified seven deviations against Railway Group Standards, while the Sheffield vehicle had 32. You can also see that the door and internal layouts are slightly different due to the longer end-to-end trips on South Wales Metro of just over 50 minutes,” Mr Briggs explains. The specification is also based upon the UK main line wheel profile to avoid the need to raise check rails on the Switches and Crossings (S&C) where routes are shared with freight traffic. There is the opportunity to modify the wheel profile on any units that operate on extended street-running sections in the future and new S&C are designed such that raised check rails can be easily added as the network expands.

Often running in double-consists (ten out of 23 services will be ‘doubles’ as well as those for major events at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium), the LRVs will follow heavy rail signalling with the installation of enhanced UK-specific Train Protection & Warning Systems, aside from the Cardiff Bay line and the short extension to Cardiff Bay where they will operate on traditional tramway line-of sight principles.

“The other key difference is in the traction package,” Mr Briggs adds. “Although the vehicles used on the South Yorkshire Pilot are dual-voltage, they only currently operate to the standard UK light rail voltage of 750V dc. Ours will run from 25kV ac overhead to align with current NR standards on the railway sections of the Metro but will also feature onboard energy storage [OESS] for the on-street sections.” This decision also takes account of the large numbers of steel sleepers on the Valley Lines; a 750V dc system would have been more complex to implement due to potential dc leakage.

The three-section LRVs will have a capacity for 252 passengers and operate through the permanently earthed and catenary-free sections from Ninian Park to Cardiff Queen Street on battery power, again providing resilience in the event of an overhead line  failure. This facility will be useful for future on-street extensions where 25kV ac overhead electrification would not be a safe option; the vehicle design also offers provision to retrofit further battery storage to extend the range if required. The batteries will recharge dynamically whenever the energy levels fall below a set value and the pantograph is connected to a live OLE supply; the transition between overhead and OESS will be managed dynamically via trackside beacons.

With connectivity of a digital nature also high on the agenda, a great deal of investment is being put into seamless Wi-Fi, both onboard and at stations. All new vehicles on order will also feature space for bicycle carriage as part of Transport for Wales’ drive to increase first- and last-mile sustainable travel.

A return to street-running

One of the most tantalising aspects is the return of street-running services to the Welsh capital after an absence of 70 years, as Mr Briggs explains: “Our schedules are very tight, but we expect to have the tram-train units operational by the end of 2022.”

In the future, passengers will be able to board an LRV in the Welsh Valleys and alight in the heart of the Bay at a new station across the road from the Wales Millennium Centre and the Senedd, the home of Welsh Government – with their entire journey powered by 100% renewable energy.

The existing Cardiff Bay station – despite being the sixth-busiest in Wales, seeing 1.3m passengers in 2017-18 – was built in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign as British monarch and hardly befits a 21st Century capital. Firstly, it is operated as a single-track shuttle service. Secondly, the station is around 300m from the heart of the Bay itself, a prosperous development area. Initially, the Cardiff Bay line will be dualled and electrified to a new temporary station near the existing site. Once the extension is built the route will be converted to tramway operating principles allowing the new stop at Loudoun Square to open with track crossings while the use of LRVs with OESS removes the need to extend the overhead lines over Hemmingway Road and into the terminus area.

This short extension and new rolling stock will also allow for a transformation in services. To better cater for the new developments and thriving nightlife, a 20% increase in Sunday services and eventually a 40% increase across the timetable is planned, starting earlier and running later all week round.

This could be the springboard for further light rail operation in the capital, Mr Briggs explains: “We’ve also been looking at the wider area and thinking about the future with new stations and extensions to the network. One of the most interesting is the potential for a direct link from Cardiff Central down to Cardiff Bay. For that we would need to go on-street through Callaghan Square and one of the options is to use tram-trains on a reserved rapid transit corridor so you would no longer need to change at Cardiff Queen Street.

There’s also the possibility of further routes to the south and east, using a combination of street-running and repurposing freight lines to Cardiff Parkway, the Porth Teigr redevelopment site, which includes the BBC studios at Cardiff Dock where Doctor Who is filmed. These could be operated with OESS, removing the need for physical electrification and using overhead charging facilities of the kind seen in many European cities, such as Seville, and soon in the UK’s West Midlands.

TfW has identified further routes within the wider city region for investigation, as well as potentially further into the Valleys. Mr Briggs continues: “There are longer-term opportunities such as the disused Hirwaun branch which will become a Welsh Government asset. Although closed to passengers in 1963, the line reaches the north end of the Cynon Valley and until recently was used by freight traffic to the Tower Colliery site and is now close to the strategic Heads of the Valley road. The infrastructure is there, so with the required funding and political will that could be
re-opened using tram-train vehicles.

“We have a real legacy from the mining industry of old routes that serve a range of corridors in and around the capital, so we have the opportunity to reuse a lot of the old infrastructure and reopen them if the demand is there. A really exciting one is the north-west corridor, potentially using a former rail alignment through the major Plasdwr Garden City Development to cross the M4 motorway at Junction 33. From here it could continue  to new housing developments proposed at Creigiau and then onto Llantrisant, connecting to the South Wales Main Line at Pontyclun.”

A model depot

“Taffs Well will be the heart of our network,” Mr Briggs says of the new depot and control centre, located on a ten-acre (4ha) site around 10km (6.5 miles) north of Cardiff.

“It is probably one of the best settings for a new depot in the UK, sat in the valley bottom in the shadow of Garth Hill and Castell Coch. It will offer a three-road, six-berth shed with your typical lifting equipment, a three-storey office space and a separate wheel lathe facility. We will have two track connection points, one that takes you to the centre of Cardiff and two tracks to launch services up into the valleys at the start of the day. The main challenge is the construction of new rail routes underneath Cardiff Road, which provides access to the village and an industrial estate, but this is nothing that can’t be overcome by the expertise we have in our supply chain.”

Planning permission was obtained in 2017 and last year ground, ecology and environmental surveys were carried out. Visits were also undertaken to a number of UK light rail depots in January 2019 to take in current best practice and lessons learnt. Detailed design is nearing completion, adhering to the highest environmental standards, and a detailed planning submission has been made.

Mr Briggs concluded: “The key thing is that the depot and control centre are on the critical path because of the timescale we are working to to secure European funding. A lot of progress has been made and Alun Griffiths was recently appointed as the ECI [Early Contract Involvement] contractor. The extant buildings have been demolished and the site is now being cleared ready for the new buildings.”

As there will be a doubling of services on most lines from 2022-23, the scope is there at Taffs Well to not only support the fleet on order, but to accommodate additional vehicles to cover the first tranche of future extensions as well.

Demonstrating its own commitment to travel into the Valleys rather than just to the Welsh capital, the headquarters of Transport for Wales and the ODP will be co-located in the heart of the valleys in Pontypridd and Keolis UK will relocate its own headquarters to South Wales by the end of the year. The operator’s global rail division, currently based in Paris, will follow in 2020. Amey is also to open a new design hub in Wales and TfW engineering advisor Mott MacDonald has just opened a new Welsh headquarters in Callaghan Square.

On the back of Wales & Borders and South Wales Metro there is genuine improvement in urban transit and job creation starting to occur within the Cardiff Capital Region, which were key aims of the project.   

This article is based upon elements of South Wales Metro: The start of a new journey, presented at the UK Light Rail Conference in July 2019. With grateful thanks to Richard Briggs, Core Valley Lines Senior Project Engineer, and the team at Transport for Wales for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

Article appeared originally in TAUT 982 (October 2019).