Rail Industry Focus

01.09.12

Technology for the future

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2012

Kate Ashley reports on the latest technological developments at South West Trains.

Technology can transform the efficiency and reliability of rolling stock, and offer operators the chance to cut costs whilst improving passenger experience.

South West Trains has been collaborating with Siemens to update their trains with the latest technology to drive efficiency and cut costs. At a briefing event held at Waterloo station on July 4, the two companies described the progress that had been made so far and outlined future developments for the fleet.

This included the success of various maintenance and energy-saving improvements via RailBAM, the installation of variable stiffness bushes, regenerative braking and heating couplers.

RTM heard from SWT engineering director Christian Roth, Siemens’ manager of innovative technology Nicholas Kay and fleet director Steve Walker on the equipment that was bringing the trains up to date, to cope with increasing passenger numbers with increasing demands.

Meeting expectations

SWT’s engineering director Christian Roth summarised the reliability of the Desiro fleet, both Class 444 and 450 trains, saying that the performance figures showed “a very good story” over their ten years in service.

“We took the product we bought initially and made an even better product through cost reduction on the maintenance side, on energy consumption and for Network Rail as well. With the alliance going forward, there is definitely an opportunity to do more of that kind of thing,” he said.

He acknowledged that the last year has seen some punctuality issues arise from fatalities, cable theft and infrastructure problems, but added: “The fleet did behave and maintained a very strong, high reliability level, and long may it continue.”

A spokesperson for Siemens agreed that the trains had met their function – modern, reliable and safe rolling stock.

He said: “It’s a fleet of 172 trains, those trains run over 20 million miles every year. They’re now doing more than 50,000 miles per casualty. In terms of what was expected of them, we’ve delivered on that.

“The Class 444 fleet has an average of one three-minute delay every two days. The Class 450 fleet has had an average of just one delay every day of the period. That’s the kind of level of performance.”

But simply meeting those targets was not enough, he said, reiterating the importance of newer considerations like reduced energy consumption and increasing capacity to cope with the “fantastic expansion” seen on the railway.

They compared the responsibility of buying and running rolling stock as “a bit like buying a puppy; it’s not just for Christmas”.

Acoustic monitoring

Siemens’ manager of innovative technologies, Nicholas Kay, discussed the benefits of acoustic monitoring system RailBAM to move towards a more predictive approach to maintenance.

Emanating from Australia, the technology ‘listens’ to bearings as they pass the system to ascertain their condition. Implemented at two sites, Swaythling near Southampton and Mortlake, the intelligent system (pictured) can identify when a bearing is failing on any of SWT’s trains, and even before this point, as soon as a defect is detected.

RTM’s Dec/Jan 2012 edition looked into the technology in some detail with Christian Roth, after the monitoring system was rolled out to cover the whole SWT fleet.

Kay explained how RailBAM allowed bearings to be accurately checked for damage or potential wear: “It’s actually looking for a very specific frequency of distress; it’s discriminating between what’s defective [and what is not].”

So far, 8.4 million individual bearings have passed the equipment, of which 3.3 million are from the SWT fleet. This means that a “significant” proportion of data is available to target maintenance more effectively.

Analysis of that data has led to the prediction of over 60 bearing defects, which would have gone on to potentially fail, disrupting services and safety.

“We’ve been able to take those out not just days or hours before failure, we’re talking 100,000 miles before failure,” Kay said.

The use of the data could soon cascade to the other TOCs and FOCs operating over the route, he predicted.

Melting the ice

Following harsh weather in recent winters and problems coupling and uncoupling trains due to ice and snow build-up, Siemens has come up with a strategy to heat couplers and keep them clear.

With trains all over Europe, some of which operate in very cold temperatures, the company was well-placed to consider the best approach to protect couplers.

Following such advice, Siemens and SWT decided to use heating elements to avoid a repeat of winter disruption.

The heaters are temperature controlled and operate automatically depending on the external temperature. This works to reduce coupling operation failure and keep the coupler free of ice, excess snow and moisture.

Around three-quarters of the fleet has now been fitted with the technology. The rolling programme is due for completion in November, in preparation for any severely cold weather.

Damage at low-speed

The partnership has implemented track protection hardware to reduce wear on key points of the railway, namely the variable stiffness bush.

Whilst passenger comfort at speed is a key consideration for the operator, the original bogies used were found to cause an increase in rail wear in low-speed areas.

Such wear can be extremely expensive for Network Rail, which has to replace parts of the track, so SWT and Siemens worked together to develop a solution that would mitigate this effect.

The new variable stiffness bush features hydraulic fluid inside two rubber based reservoirs. When the train travels at low speed, the fluid is free to move through the bush, which reduces its stiffness. When the train is travelling at high speed, the way the reservoirs are joined means the fluid inside the bush can’t move and therefore it stiffens up.

This reduced wear at low speed whilst maintaining passenger comfort at high speeds, and is expected to save Network Rail around £5m over the year. The Class 444 fleet has already been fitted with these bushes and, following the Paralympic Games, the Class 450s will be fitted too.

Wasted energy

The trains’ electric braking element, when used at high speed, generates a huge amount of energy, which is then dissipated into the atmosphere and wasted.

The partnership sought to use this energy to power other trains on the network. Siemens’ fleet manager Steve Walker described how collaboration between Network Rail, SWT and Siemens led to the implementation of technology which converts this wasted energy back into usable energy via the third rail.

He said: “This has an immediate benefit. The track is receptive; other rolling stock on the same section of track will take their energy from the third rail. It allows us to take this energy and help those trains to save energy.”

Walker added that the technology could save 50 million kilowatts a year. In context, that amount of energy could supply 11,500 homes for over a year.

“Quite clearly that is good for our carbon footprint and it’s good for the country.

At least 5% of all the energy produced by this train during braking is benefitting other rolling stock on our railways. The system has been in about approximately 12-18 months now and it’s been working perfectly.”

Keeping passengers informed

Roth described a need to retain focus on reliability, and highlighted that customer information could benefit from further improvement.

“The information on the railway is not as good as it could be so there is a big programme across all the operators to improve information. If something goes wrong, tell the people what’s going wrong and what they can expect to happen. It’s just fundamental requirements, but we are not as good as we could be.”

On the topic of information technology, SWT has since introduced wi-fi on board the Class 444s. This will benefit both passengers and the company itself, as it can offer real-time monitoring of systems on the train.

The wi-fi will be available to passengers via a charging mechanism, probably through a type of pay-as-you-go tariff, Roth said.

He added: “The concept we are looking at would be adaptable to increase bandwidth by just adding more sim cards.”

Expanding Waterloo

Looking to the future, the partnership was considering what could be done to accommodate massive growth at one of the country’s busiest stations, Waterloo.

Roth said: “The train service designed for today’s volume will not be able to cope with that type of volume increase, because the trains are already really busy. The answer to that is very simple: we have to run longer trains and more trains into Waterloo.

“That is ultimately where we want to use all that technology. Technology is not there just for the sake of it, it has to have a purpose; [for example], to use wi-fi for traffic management and to be able to squeeze more pathways into Waterloo, use more platforms. There will be a big programme going forward but we have to get the products to the next level to cope with that.”

Later, Roth told RTM that just running more services “will not be enough to meet the demand”. He identified a combination of both more and longer services as necessary and said SWT was currently working on a plan to define how much longer the trains will have to be, adding: “It will take some time for us to know exactly what higher frequency we need.”

Walker told RTM that the trains must be updated in order to keep up with passengers’ expectations.

“We’ll carry on coming up with innovations to take a ten-year-old train and make it suitable for 2012. That will be a constant challenge.”

In terms of improving efficiency in the industry, Walker highlighted reducing the amount of electricity and wear on the track as key costs to tackle.

He said: “If we all work together and bring in technology that benefits the industry, not just one part of it, then there are definitely more and more savings to be found.”

Building alliances

Asked how the alliance is progressing, Roth said: “Great actually! It is good to see that by working closer together, actually we will get a much faster decision making process and the right decision at the right time. It’s very encouraging and I’m quite pleased that we did that. That should give the railway and passengers a benefit because we will be able to address problems more efficiently.”

Walker praised the alliance for formalising a partnership approach to their objectives and suggested that it could “fit in quite nicely” with many areas of the country, while other operators could consider a slightly less formal arrangement.

He said: “It’s building on a very firm foundation for people who trust each other, respect each other and want to work together for the good of the industry. They’re taking a long term view, not a short-term view.

“Wherever you are in the country, unless operators, infrastructure and rolling stock people work together, you will always end up with a sub-optimal performance. You might call it an alliance, or you might just have a contract or you might just have a normal relationship but they’ve got to work together.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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