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Learning from others

It is always good to learn about new techniques and innovative rail technology. This month’s magazine has many such examples, as well as international insights from Edinburgh and Moscow.

Around 120 papers were presented at the recent engineering conference in Edinburgh, at which over half the participants were from outside the UK. Examples of the in-depth international technical papers included on asphalt track beds (USA), pre-packed concrete slab track renewal (Japan) and the longevity of masonry bridges (Australia). Many delegates felt it was worthwhile to fly half-way around the world to present their papers and learn from others present. This raises the question of what Britain’s railways can learn from such events.

Russian Railway’s biennial Expo 1520 provided another international learning opportunity. The conference programme included much about the fourth industrial revolution and plans to take advantage of it. Indeed, the event started with a demonstration of artificial intelligence in the form a self-driving train.

Presentations from Alstom included hydrogen trains whilst Siemens highlighted its Thameslink ATO overlay on ETCS level 2. Both companies have done much to modernise Russia’s trains. However, their contracts for the provision of new trains stipulate developing the Russian supply chain to produce high-value train components.

Clearly Russia’s rail industry has learnt much from Europe, yet what can be learnt from them? One answer may be track recording systems, which include ultrasonic inspections at 140km/h while Network Rail’s ultrasonic rail inspection challenge statement aspires to increase its current 50km/h inspection runs to 100km/h.

Another area is train control systems. Russian Railways has about 30,000 GPS-linked KLUB-U cab signalling systems in use and plans to introduce moving-block signalling by 2027. From a UK perspective, this large-scale deployment of the Russian ETCS equivalent is impressive. No doubt, this is supported by a strong guiding mind, which ensures that there is an effective systems approach across the wheel/rail interface.

Whilst the UK’s ETCS deployment is relatively modest, as Clive Kessell explains this month, Network Rail’s Signalling Innovations Group has progressed various worthwhile initiatives, many involving analytics and big data. In another feature, we describe how data management is fundamental to the success of Building Information Modelling (BIM) on London Underground’s Northern line extension. 

Advanced analytics is also being used in a new water events prediction application. As Paul Darlington describes, this should reduce the number of earthworks failures. An innovation that does not involve data analytics is the use of expanded polystyrene to build station platforms. Nigel Wordsworth describes the benefits of this technique and explains how it was developed.

Innovations for rail decarbonisation, and in particular hydrogen power, are a topical subject. Simon Meades reports how this is now being used to power, not trains, but on-site generators to reduce both CO2 emissions and noise levels. Another decarbonisation innovation is, we think, the world’s first use of solar power to directly supply a rail traction system. Stuart Marsh explains how this Riding Sunbeams initiative is powering the DC third rail around Aldershot.

Although electrification is the best way to decarbonise the railway, on today’s busy railway it must not fail. Peter Stanton has been considering the reliability issues associated with OLE headspans and reports on an initiative to convert them to portals.

Thickley Wood footbridge spans what was the historic Stockton and Darlington Railway at Shildon. As Bob Wright states in his report, the footbridge reflects the growth and decline of the coalfields around the area. As there was no longer a railway below much of the old seven-span bridge, its recent repair involved three spans being replaced by an embankment.

From the world’s first steam-hauled public railway to Europe’s newest high-speed railway, Keith Fender describes the 60-kilometre Danish high-speed line which opened earlier this year at a cost of €1.6 billion and will eventually operate at 250km/h. Whilst this might seem cheap for a high-speed line, it has only one station, few major structures and just one tunnel. Nevertheless, tunnels on high-speed railways can be problematic – as Grahame Taylor describes, they may require hoods and trains with long noses.

Graham Neil clearly thinks that it is important to learn as much as possible about the industry. As the new chairman of the IMechE Railway Division, he recently gave his address ‘All change and mind the gaps’, an unsurprising title as he is also TfL’s professional head for vehicles. In his report, Malcolm Dobell explains Graham’s concerns about the skills, Brexit, economics, technology and IMechE/railway gaps that need to be minded. 

Bridges for these gaps include the requirement for all in the industry to do their bit by encouraging young people to consider a railway career. Meanwhile, the Railway Division must work with industry to provide more relevant events to encourage learning and development.

One Railway Division event at which young engineers learn much is its annual Railway Challenge, on which we report this month. As it was won by a German team, while the Polish team’s locomotive won an award for engineering elegance, this event also proved to be another opportunity for international learning.

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://www.railengineer.co.uk

SPECIALIST AREAS
Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways


David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.

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