VLR: The next generation

Source: RTM June/July 2018

Olivia Brown, business development officer at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) in the University of Warwick, updates us on the latest developments of three key Very Light Rail (VLR) projects.

Climate change concerns have been the subject of extensive media coverage and it  is widely accepted that human-activity carbon emissions are a strong driver of global warming and climate change.

As a result, there is a strong drive towards low-carbon mobility – the primary focus of research and development projects within the WMG centre High Value Manufacturing Catapult at the University of Warwick.

Running alongside the need for low-carbon mobility is the need to reduce the number of motor vehicles on UK roads. In the UK, in the year ending March 2017, the DfT’s provisional road traffic estimates show that motor vehicle traffic has reached a record high of  324.3  billion  vehicle  miles.  This is 1.7% higher than the previous year and 3.2% higher than the pre-recession peak level in 2007.

This ever-growing use of motor vehicles needs to be addressed through the provision of more efficient and environmentally-friendly public transport, particularly in and around urban centres with high levels of congestion. In addition, rural and suburban communities around the country want more efficient, better-connected public transport services for their local areas, which do not rely solely on conventional road-going solutions such as buses.

There is also a need within the UK rail industry for vehicles that are lighter, more energy-efficient, and cheaper to purchase and operate. Light rail systems (metro/tram) have become increasingly popular over recent years, but there are significant barriers to their further implementation, both in terms of the high cost of vehicles and infrastructure (which are driven by current rail safety standards) as well as requirements to remove utilities from under road-based track alignments.

This is where VLR comes in, offering the very latest in rail innovation. This emerging sector is exploiting technology from the automotive sector to deliver the next generation of rail travel within the UK.

VLR vehicles offer many advantages over traditional rail systems:

  • They are cost-effective: Using appropriate automotive technology and manufacturing approaches, the vehicles are cheaper to manufacture and operate. The lower axle weights (less than one tonne per linear metre) allow the use of less substantial track structures that can be designed for lower maintenance costs;
  • They are highly energy-efficient: Hybrid, or all-electric self-powered vehicles, with energy recovery and storage systems as standard, address the need for low-carbon and low-emissions mobility;
  • They are geared to the needs to communities:

VLR enables the connectivity of non-electrified suburban and rural areas and provides opportunities to

revitalise unprofitable branch lines and reopen previously closed ‘Beeching’ lines. Ultimately, the vision is that VLR will be part of a ‘hub-to-home’ concept – a solution enabling travellers to use public transport for a frictionless door-to-door journey;

  • They support the UK manufacturing industry: VLR offers a significant opportunity for UK companies to develop new solutions, enabling the growth of a new industry supplying UK and international rail schemes.

WMG, an academic department of the University of Warwick, is currently involved in three VLR projects.

VLR National Innovation Centre (NIC)

Building work is about to begin on a new centre of excellence for railway research and development, based at Castle Hill in Dudley. The site is that of the former Dudley rail station, which ceased passenger services in the 1960s. The initial focus will be on development and testing of VLR systems, but ultimately the focus will shift to a more holistic, multimodal, ‘hub-to-home’ concept to public transport solutions.

The three-storey VLRNIC will enable:

  • Test and evaluation track for prototype vehicle and infrastructure trials;
  • A workshop for the assembly of prototype vehicles and systems;
  • A resident R&D team with research labs and offices;
  • Coordination of strategic initiatives;
  • Conference and exhibition facilities;
  • Meeting rooms and a networking area;
  • Courses for next-generation light rail technical specialists;
  • Incubator units for SME companies engaged in VLR.

The £28m centre is being funded by the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership (£19.5m), European Regional Development Funds (£5.35m) and the West Midlands Combined Authority (£3.15m).

Nick Mallinson, programme manager at WMG, created the vision and has been instrumental in garnering support for the centre and in taking it towards fruition, in partnership with Dudley council. He said: “WMG has a track record of driving disruptive innovation in transport, and VLR can benefit significantly from technology advances in the automotive sector.”

Revolution VLR

Revolution VLR is an 18-metre-long, bi-directional railcar which will accommodate 56 seated and 60 standing passengers. In keeping with the requirements of VLR, the vehicle will use lightweight materials and a modular structure, as well as offer zero-emissions acceleration from stops at stations, with regenerative braking and a hybrid propulsion system.

The vehicle will initially run on existing (segregated) railway lines, with heavy rail interoperability a key consideration for the future.

Phase 2 of the project, which kicked off earlier this year, involves the production of a demonstrator vehicle which will be ready for testing at the VLRNIC in Dudley towards the end of 2019. The project is being delivered by a Transport Design International (TDI)-led consortium, with partners from the automotive and rail sectors including Eversholt Rail, Cummins, Prose, RDM Group, the RSSB, Transcal and WMG. The DfT is investing over £3m in the project through the RSSB.

Coventry VLR

The City of Coventry is to implement an innovative VLR transport system with the aim of easing traffic congestion within the city. The Coventry vehicle will be designed using the same VLR principles, but will be smaller, carrying 20 seated passengers and a maximum of 70 including standees.

Shuttles will run on a specifically designed novel-track solution that can be embedded into existing roads. Unlike traditional tram systems, there will be no need for overhead cables, nor a need to move utilities. The intention is that the track will not extend beyond the top level of the road system and that sections of track can be removed as and when access to utilities is required. The ultimate aim is to deliver an autonomous, timetable-less system much like the service provided by the London Underground.

The prototype vehicle will be tested at the VLRNIC in Dudley before a permanent tracked route is installed across Coventry and a fleet of vehicles manufactured.

The  Local  Growth   Fund  has  contributed £2.46m towards Phase 1 of the  research and design of the prototype. The project is being managed by WMG in collaboration with Coventry City Council and Transport for West Midlands. TDI has won the tender to design and construct the prototype vehicle.


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