Funding sought for new ultra light rail service in the West Midlands

(Above: Libary image of a proposed ultra light rail vehicle design, courtesy Revolution VLR Consortium, which is involved in the Dudley-Sandwell project)

A new ultra light rail service between Dudley and Sandwell could be opened within five years, alongside a new National Centre for Development of Very Light Rail Technology.

The new service could transport passengers from Dudley Port station in Tipton to the site of Dudley’s former station at the bottom of Castle Hill, close to Dudley Zoo and the Black Country Living Museum.

The scheme has been unveiled following a deal struck between Dudley Council and Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick, which wants to use it as a pilot to trial the next generation of very light rail vehicles. The group wants to open a National Centre For Development of Very Light Rail Technology at the new station. About 45 people would work at the site, overseeing the pilot service to Dudley Port and developing the technology.

The plan would see two new tracks laid down on a disused freight line from Dudley Port to the town. The first will be used for the passenger service, the second will be used by the group to develop the ultra light rail vehicles. Support is coming from Centro, the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority.

The Warwick Manufacturing Group won funding last year as part of the Revolution Very Light Rail (VLR) Consortium to develop ultra light rail vehicles.

The Revolution VLR Consortium is made up of TDI (Europe) Ltd (Transport Design International), Unipart Rail Ltd, Warwick Manufacturing Group centre HVM Catapult, Trelleborg PPL Ltd, Allectra Ltd and GKN Land Systems, and is exploring the future a low carbon, very-lightweight whole passenger railcar via a demonstrator. They won money under the Enabling Innovation Team’s (now FutureRailway) Radical Train competition.

As TDI explains: “Revolution VLR's hybrid propulsion technology will be combined with a self-powered bogie and modular, composite bodyshell design. The project intends to utilise off-the-shelf componentry to reduce manufacturing cost and improve reliability and maintainability. Another aspect of the research is to evaluate the application of existing, essentially ‘heavy rail’, safety standards to VLR railcars and produce a discussion paper for consideration by the Radical Train stakeholders.”

RTM talked to Martin Pemberton, CEO and president of TDI. He said: “We started in June, so we’re six months into the development programme. Most of the work to date has been centred around developing the drivetrain – it’s a series hybrid drivetrain built into the bogies, so it’s quite unique – and also a lightweight bodyshell, which we’re currently scheming out. The traction method will be clean diesel, driving electrically-driven bogies.

“It’s early days still, but we’re making good progress and we’re on schedule. The intention is to deliver a demonstrator vehicle within two years of the June 2014 start date.”

The ambitions of the new vehicle are not limited to Dudley. Pemberton said: “We’ve been talking to a number of people about other places it might operate: it’s got great potential, especially operating on smaller lines and branch lines, where heavier, more expensive trains would not be cost-effective.

“We really do hope that the Dudley opportunity will be the first demonstration of the technology. That’s what we’re working toward, and if we can get a successful operation running there, then that obviously opens up opportunities in lots of other places.”

Asked whether it could be in passenger operation within five years, he said: “It’s eminently possible. The technology we can do, we can manufacture things quickly, we do that a lot – it’s really having the political will to make it happen. We need the funding and for politicians to green-light it.

“There are other potential applications, particularly with [replacing] the ageing Pacer fleet.”

A traditional problem with developing new vehicles for the national network has been the standards, particularly on crashworthiness.

But Pemberton told us: “The easy win is the branch lines, because in terms of regulation, it’s easier when they’re operating on a segregated route. The minute you cross onto a main line, you’re into a different area of conformity. But we wouldn’t rule that out, and we’re working with the existing standards.

“In fact, we’re tasked with challenging some of them: the RSSB are a stakeholder in the project, that’s one of the things they’ve asked us to do. If we come to a point where, for example, the current crashworthiness requirements seem onerous for what we’re trying to achieve with a lightweight vehicle, then we’ve got to flag that up. That’s the intention.”

The Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) strategic economic plan earlier this year described the region’s hope of becoming “the UK Centre of Excellence for Light Rail Innovation…which, utilising opportunities for a demonstrator track, will create opportunities for skills and employment, and develop the capacity in the UK to build rather than import light rail vehicles.”

The new vehices being developed by Revolution VLR are a new and separate solution to the Stourbridge Shuttle, which has operated between Stourbridge Junction and Stourbridge town centre since 2009. RTM wrote about that service, and its operators’ quest to find new routes for the Class 139 Parry People Movers, here. Phil Evans, director of PMOL (Pre Metro Operations Ltd), which operates the Stourbridge Shuttle under contract with London Midland, told RTM: "We progress and continue to talk to those interested in using our innovative technology combined with an efficient method of work.

"We are heavily involved in the quoted Dudley proposal and we are in firm discussions with the local authority to be the operator of the line. We are also looking at Malaysian and African applications. Other potential UK use may include Oswestry-Gobowen and Stocksbridge-Deepcar. It is however disappointing that there is little interest yet in including similar proposals in future re-franchising bids, although with the current railcars our reliability in now above 99.7% and therefore there are considerable benefits accruing to the existing London Midland franchise. Old traditions die hard elsewhere."

Cllr Khurshid Ahmed, Dudley Council's cabinet member for transport, told The Express and Star that a business case was being written up to secure more funding for the Dudley-Sandwell project. Bids will be made to the government's Local Growth Fund and the European Union.

He said: "The passenger tram train service would be the jewel in the crown for the continued regeneration of Dudley. It would bring huge potential for the town, bringing in millions of new visitors who currently face difficulty getting to the town and its attractions. Thirty seven million people visit Birmingham each year, with 70% coming in on train – we need an easy link for those people into Dudley."

He added that the scheme is dependent on funding but that he is confident it will happen. Work could start next year, with opening of the passenger service planned within five years.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Lesf   03/12/2014 at 12:15

No doubt that the line needs to be reopened. Sandwell and Dudley have a population of over half a million, and the station of that name isn't in Dudley. But aren't we going round in circles? Centro got TWA powers to rebuild the line for light rail, against opposition from those who believed it should saved for heavy rail including freight. Those powers lapsed because they were not used. Then Centro decided it should be restored as a freight bypass of Birmingham. Joint use by freight and tram-trains would please everybody. Now we are sliding back to the notion of very light rail. The tram-train trial being carried out between Sheffield and Rotherham by DfT should provide the answers. So why is someone doing the same research at Dudley? We already know that the wheel profiles of tram and heavy rail are incompatible leading to unacceptable wear. The answer is a tram wheel compatible with heavy rail, and a tram track profile to suit. Then local trams and long distance freight can share the tracks, not to mention long distance passenger services when the line is reopened all the way from Stourbridge to Lichfield.

Someone   11/12/2017 at 19:27

How stupid! Another excuse form the council, this time to run some toy train around. If they put heavy rail back in, connections would be easier to the rest of the country and it could be an alternate freight route too. I quoted this from another article: Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, commented: “Our local rail network has a crucial role to play in making sure our region has the connectivity it needs to compete and prosper on a global stage. Replying on that quote: Why don't you reinstall the Earl of Dudley line then? Another thing is that most of the track bed is there (well, was) so all it may need is modifications. Surely lifting it is costing twice as much

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