Rail Industry Focus

01.07.13

Future Train

Source: Rail Technology Magazine June/July 2013

ATOC’s ‘Future Train’ conference brought together figures from across the rail industry with an interest in research, innovation and change to discuss the next steps for rail, and how to get there. Adam Hewitt reports.

ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies, gathered together engineers and professionals from across the rail industry for its ‘Future Train’ event on April 17, keen to assess the influence engineering has on the industry, and the opportunities and obstacles to innovation.

The event was chaired by former Tomorrow’s World presenter Kate Bellingham, patron of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and president of the Young Engineers.

ATOC chairman Tom Smith told attendees: “We’re living through a resurgence in the fortunes of the rail industry, with engineering at its heart in one way or another.”

He praised the huge contribution of engineering to the success of the railways over the last 20 years, and the ways in which it has enhanced the railways and the passenger experience.

Head of engineering at ATOC, Louise Shaw, outlined the post-1994 developments in rolling stock (with half of today’s fleet built since then), and described greater levels of comfort, flexibility, access, air conditioning and quieter trains, along with a great deal of extra capacity via more seats.

She praised the improved journey times and acceleration of rolling stock, and the quality of recent refurbishments, picking out Mark 4 coaches in particular. “Most people would not have a clue the Mark 4s were built so long ago – they seem new.”

She said that although TPWS, the train protection and warning system, was originally a sticking plaster, its effects on safety have been drastic enough that there is now not an economic case for implementing ERTMS just on the grounds of safety (although of course there is still a case in terms of capacity and train frequency and so on).

Shaw said: “The UK has probably the safest train fleet in the whole of Europe, possibly the world.”

She welcomed improvements in access for those with lower mobility, but said the national rail network still has a long way to go. But she said she “takes her hat off” to TfL and LUL for the progress they have made so far on step-free access in London.

Simon Iwnicki, the University of Huddersfield’s Professor of Railway Engineering, director of the Institute of Railway Research, and the academic chair of RRUKA, spoke about the need to invest in research and education, and highlighted why universities can help unlock innovation. This is because they tend to focus on science-driven, innovative though high-risk medium to long term technologies, while the private sector may be more business-driven, focusing on low-risk but practical technologies that will have a short to medium term impact.

He discussed some recent events put on by RRUKA, such as ‘The 24/7 Railway’, sponsored by Network Rail, and ‘The Half Cost Train’, sponsored by ATOC.

There was then a discussion of how the UK supply chain can manage obstacles to innovation, with Frazer Stirling, fleet planning and performance manager at Southern (who is leaving to become Go-Ahead’s head of fleet), Anthony Smith of Passenger Focus and David Clarke, director general of the Enabling Innovation Team all taking part.

Stirling said the main obstacles were the huge amount of data and the difficulty of marshalling it to practical uses. He said the industry was quite constrained by Victorian infrastructure – though noted that no such restriction exists inside trains themselves, where there have been big improvements in comfort and facilities.

He said engineering’s contribution will be about preventative maintenance, reducing the amount of possession time needed by Network Rail through greater collaboration, and also reducing dwell time for trains at stations to boost capacity.

Lessons can be learnt from metro systems on this, he said, while engineers also have a huge role in improving signalling systems to allow more trains to run more safely. The structure of the operator side of the industry – fixedterm franchises – might preclude long-term innovation, he said.

Clarke also spoke of misaligned incentives, saying: “It’s relatively rare for manufacturers to indulge in speculative design.”

Anyone with an innovation has to be completely confident of its commercial potential, which can be difficult in an industry with so many stakeholders, long timeframes and huge numbers of procedures. Changing this, he said, is one of the main missions of the EIT. The EIT itself ‘takes orders’ from the TSLG, though its staff are employed and hosted by the RSSB. It has £30m of funding to allocate, Clarke said – £60m once matched by industry.

He noted that there’s a contrast between the perception and the reality as regards the approvals process, saying people often think it is far more arduous than it really is.

“Where is the rail industry’s A380?” he asked. “The automotive and aerospace sectors are more vertically aligned – you can make your own investment decisions. But the A380 was a 20-year development project, and just because a new Ford Focus appears every three years doesn’t mean it only took that long to develop.

“We need more collaboration around the more radical innovations,” he said, again giving the example of the car industry, in which competitors are keen to collaborate when it will benefit all of them. He said they got together to decide on five areas to concentrate on (superefficient combustion engines, energy storage, lightweighting, intelligent transport systems, improved traction). “Once they have got a working capability, they will be straight back to competitive behaviour,” he said.

He said even once-in-a-lifetime projects like the potential replacement of third rail with overhead line traction is “only being looked at now because the switchgear is worn out… if we miss the chance with to replace it with OLE, we could be waiting another 60 or 70 years”. TSLG, the Technical Strategy Leadership Group, needs to “up its game” to help industry spot these opportunities, he said.

He explained more about the Rail Technical Strategy, and after watching a video demonstrating what it contains, said: “Nothing in there is technologically inconceivable – but it needs the will.”

In a Q&A session after the debate, Francis How, technical director of the Railway Industry Association, made the point that with the industry being half rolling stock and half infrastructure, it’s rare to find a project that changes both at once – instead, one is often constrained by the other. He approved of EIT being ‘challenge-led’, but asked: “What about some solutions to questions no-one thought of?”

Clarke said 10% of the EIT budget is allocated to those kinds of blue skies questions, as opposed to practical solutions to existing problems.

There was a discussion about the potential challenge to rail’s current resurgence from ‘automated cars’, and also about Thameslink stopping times over core sections – 45 seconds at King’s Cross was mentioned, which at least one audience member found implausible. Shaw said Berlin Hauptbahnhof was a good model – fast boarding, fast alighting, even with bikes and luggage, thanks to wide platforms, wide doors, and less dogma than the UK about opening doors as trains are slowing down. “Small incremental changes trim the seconds off,” she said.

More on Anthony Smith’s speech on the rolling stock passengers do and don’t like can be found here.

HS2’s head of specification and assurance, Andrew Coombes, spoke next, outlining the history of HS2 and the progress made so far. He described the evidence from European high-speed lines that have caused a big modal shift to rail, such as Paris-Brussels. When journey times went from 2h25 to 1h25, rail’s modal share jumped from 24% to 50%, car fell from 61% to 43%, and aviation’s share went from 7% to almost nothing.

HS2 itself, he said, is at the moment planned to be “relatively simple in technology terms – we don’t want to base the case on unproven technology”.

But that doesn’t stop it being a complex system when everything is considered: power, communications, noise mitigation, foundations and earthworks, structures, track, control systems and the train itself.

He said there was still “a world of debate” to come on operations, though suggested the trains were likely to have drivers.

He said there is a debate to come on standards, too – European TSI-compliant trains do not have low-noise pantographs or wells designed to minimise aerodynamic noise, he noted, whereas in Japan, with no such standards, the Shinkansen N700 for example does have such mitigation technology.

Coombes discussed the ‘whole journey’ model, with radically different perceived values of each part of the journey – passengers most want to be at their origin and destination, but value time on the train more than time in transit to and from it, and time changing trains or waiting at virtually nil.

Keeping this in mind can help when designing a high speed train system, he noted, rather than focusing just on the train itself. He listed some of the aspects of the ‘passenger experience’ on the 21st-century railway, such as high capacity at 18 trains per hour (up to 1,110 seats per train), intelligent ticketing, comfortable trains and easy access, with good connections and end-to-end journeys.

Shaw concluded the event by discussing the need for collaborative working to turn the Rail Technical Strategy into an active change programme for the industry, not a set of aspirations.

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