Rail Industry Focus


Trials and tribulations of tram-train

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 15

Simon Coulthard, head of tram-train projects at Network Rail; Peter Cushing, Metrolink director at Transport for Greater Manchester; Dave Haskins, project director of New Generation Transport at Metro; and Tim Kendall, an independent consultant, talk about the problems faced by the Sheffield to Rotherham tram-train pilot.

Members of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority’s transport committee have spoken out about their “disappointment” with the delays to the £60m tram-train project pilot between Sheffield and Rotherham.

The two-year trial, being delivered by Network Rail, the DfT and South Yorkshire Supertram Ltd, will test the feasibility of operating a single vehicle type on both the heavy rail network and on the light rail system. It was originally due to be operating services from 2015 – but has been pushed back until early 2017.

A paper presented to the city region’s transport committee by David Young, interim director general at South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, noted that Network Rail, responsible for delivering the heavy rail modifications required, experienced programme delays in 2014-15 and is still “getting to grips with some of heavy rail modifications, including power, track modifications, approvals and testing and commissioning”.

Speaking to delegates at the UK Light Rail Conference in June, Simon Coulthard, head of tram-train projects at Network Rail, admitted that the infrastructure picture “isn’t positive”.

Sealing the design has taken longer than envisaged and revised plans to see tram-trains running in 2016 have been pushed back. “We now envisage finishing our design and implementation works towards the autumn of next year and, subject to the fine detail, we would expect customer services to commence in early 2017,” he said.

Coulthard noted that the team is “learning lessons the hard way” and still doesn’t quite understand “why we’ve had three goes at traction power modelling and each time the model has given us different answers about what the traction power system should be”.

However, he was confident that the design would be complete “very shortly”.  During the last 12 months, Coulthard added that the team has “completely” re-designed the connection between the two networks which will be “far more efficient than originally planned” but this has required a Transport and Works Act Order (TWAO).

Consultation on the TWAO for the connection between the heavy and light rail systems at Meadowhall South took place early in Q4 2014-15 with no significant objections received. A decision from the secretary of state is expected shortly.

Tim Kendall, an independent consultant who recently retired from the DfT, where he was technical lead for the tram-train pilot, said that for future projects: “We shouldn’t experience the same issues in learning because we should have learned them by now.

“However, we have to make changes and understand how the risks are going to be mitigated.  So, we’ve got to learn how we do it efficiently, cheaply and safely. That is the type of learning we are trying to get out of this. We may need to spend a bit more money at this point, but when it goes to other systems they’ll just be able to pick up the handbook.”

He did note, though, that it is imperative the learning gets shared across the industry.

Peter Cushing, Metrolink director at Transport for Greater Manchester, added that from an outside perspective the project “seems to be getting mired in technicalities”.

He said TfGM has identified routes in the area that would lend themselves to tram-train and his concern is that “we seem to be taking an awful long time in taking advantage of it”.

Tram-trains have been running for years elsewhere in Europe, notable in Karlsruhe and Kassel in Germany. But things haven’t been straightforward in the UK, partly because of the standards in place. There are often criticisms from those in light rail that anything involving people from heavy rail will start to mean ‘over-engineering’ and an obsession with standards.

But Coulthard believes the 2017 date will be met, and added that the first vehicle is now complete and is being tested at Vossloh España’s plant near Valencia. It is due to arrive in the UK in November.

The second unit is now in production, which will be delivered in early 2016, and then the five other vehicles will be delivered throughout next year.

Rather surprisingly, Coulthard said: “I have never been of the opinion that any future tram-train scheme has to wait until we’ve finished and it has run for x number of years.”

However, David Haskins, project director of New Generation Transport at Metro in West Yorkshire, said it is not a trivial decision to start moving into tram-train, and some certainty has to be there. “It is very easy to say ‘let’s get going on it now before anything has concluded’,” he said. “There is, potentially, money available to develop tram-train in the Leeds area, but I wouldn’t dare put anything in front of the politicians until there is some certainty.”


John Gilbert   03/08/2015 at 21:13

Is it REALLY necessary when linking the Tramtrain line to Sheffield's tram system, for the poor trams to have to grind their way around not one but TWO ninety-degree curves? Where on earth is the necessary will and imagination to plan and execute a smoother transition? The present plan is ridiculous!

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