HomeIndustry NewsA little sand in the right place works wonders

A little sand in the right place works wonders

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Part 3, Operational Trials

In November 2017 (issue 157), Rail Engineer reported on trials undertaken at the Rail Innovation and Development Centre, Melton of multiple variable rate sanders fitted to a GWR class 387 EMU, with the expectation that service brake performance would be significantly improved in poor adhesion conditions.

Then, in May 2018 (issue 163), Rail Engineer reported on a seminar held by RSSB to present the results of those tests. They reported that 6% G deceleration could be achieved, even in very poor adhesion conditions. At the end of that seminar, RSSB appealed to members to volunteer to help them take the project forward.

Rolling forward to October 2019, at the invitation of RSSB’s Aaron Barrett and Paul Gray, Rail Engineer arrived at Redditch station – one end of the Birmingham Cross-City line – to witness further tests that were carried out over several Sundays in October 2019 and to learn what had happened since 2017/8.

West Midlands Trains, the operator trading though the West Midlands Railway and London NorthWestern Railway brands, had volunteered to work with RSSB as they were particularly keen to improve the reliability of the Cross-City line, where, as operations director Mark Steward explained, there are significant leaf fall problems from trees on third-party property. WMT routinely implements an autumn timetable, which slows the trains and harms punctuality.

Since Autumn 2018, enhanced adhesion performance data has been collated and analysed on the Cross-City Line, including additional train traction/braking monitoring equipment on Class 323 units. Although this has provided further insight into the effectiveness of the various low-adhesion treatments, only limited results were obtained as the drivers drove mostly in step 1, the lowest brake rate, and provoked little WSP (wheel-slide protection) activity.

Undaunted, two units have been equipped with variable rate sanders, a) to replace the fixed rate sanders dispensing on the third axle in the direction of travel and b) additionally to apply sand under the seventh axle of these three-car units. A further change since the original tests is that sander operation is now automatic in response to the train WSP equipment.

The Class 323 train that was used for the trials.

Test set up

The purpose of the test was two-fold. Firstly, to ensure that the performance of the improved sanders on the Class 323 was at least as good as that on the previous trial, and secondly, but most importantly, to enable WMT drivers and health and safety representatives to experience how the system works and to be able to use higher brake rates, steps 2 and 3, with confidence.

Arrangements were quite similar to those for the 2017 tests, except for the site and the rolling stock. Despite a very strong desire not to disrupt passenger services, all concerned saw the benefit of demonstrating the system to drivers who would operate the trains on infrastructure that they drive every day – hence the Redditch site.

The paper tape that was laid on the track to replicate fallen leaves.

In summary, paper tape was applied onto the running rails over a length of approximately 750 metres. The tape was wetted with train-mounted water sprays to provide the low adhesion conditions, and the train was then run over the tape for two out-and-back moves to bed the tape in.

Then several runs were carried out, braking from 55mph without sanding to condition the rails before a step 1 brake was used to demonstrate slide at a low brake rate and thus poor adhesion. Finally braking runs with sand in steps 2 and 3 were demonstrated.

One of the safety control measures was to lower the pantograph before entering the paper tape zone and not raise it again until the train had coasted off the tape. This measure ensured that there were no adverse effects from possible poor traction return paths whilst on the paper tape; a lesson learned from the 2017 tests.

Another precaution was the provision of a temporary additional compressed air tank. This provided a reserve of compressed air whilst the pantograph was down and the compressor out of action.

To illustrate the effect of the enhanced sanding, a step 3 brake with no sand only managed to reduce speed from 55 miles/hour to 40 miles/hour by the end of the paper tape (a speed reduction of 15 miles/hour over the 750 metres travelled).

Once the enhanced sanders were activated for a repeat test, the brake application was so successful that the brakes had to be released early because there was barely enough momentum left to coast to the end of the paper tape so that the pantograph could be raised again. Your author was in conversation with Parvaiz Elahi, the ASLEF health and safety representative, during the step 3 test with sand and we were both suitably impressed.

ASLEF representative Parvaiz Elahi (left) discusses the trials with DB ESG’s Andrew Lightoller.

A further innovation was the method of controlling the possession. Network Rail’s operational sponsor and organiser of the tests, Dominic Mottram, said this is a comparatively unusual Signal Protection Zone, where both incursion into and out of the possession is controlled solely by signals held at danger. Whilst SPZs are not a new concept to the railway, the success and positive reaction to their implementation for this project has already attracted attention from other parts of Network Rail.

Dominic added that this project was a team approach with Network Rail, RSSB, West Midlands Trains, DB ESG, Ricardo Rail playing leading roles and with a very important stakeholder in the form of the West Midlands Rail Executive.


What follows are the impressions from the day; RSSB will publish formal results in due course.

Mark Steward of West Midlands Trains told Rail Engineer that the test objective – building driver confidence when driving relatively normally on contaminated track – had been delivered. He said that the next step is to introduce the two units into passenger service. Mark was aiming to use experienced drivers on these modified units, and to compare their performance with the performance of the trains in front and behind using ‘big data’ analysis techniques to assess performance in service.

He added that, as this is an experiment, he recognises that there will be a risk of station over-runs when driving this way, and will manage that risk appropriately, both for safety of the railway and for driver competence management, such that drivers will not be penalised if they are driving modified units on contaminated track using the techniques tested.

He added that he had not been prepared to authorise the trial unless he was confident it was safe and his visit was partly to gain that confidence.

Drivers, their representatives, and their managers were most impressed with the system. If this autumn’s service trial is successful, it is to be hoped that the system will be fitted to many more trains over the next few years.

Thanks to Paul Gray (RSSB), Mark Steward (West Midlands Trains), Dominic Mottram (Network Rail), Andrew Lightoller (DB ESG) and Liam Purcell (Ricardo Rail) for their assistance with this article.

Malcolm Dobell BTech CEng FIMechE
Malcolm Dobell BTech CEng FIMechEhttp://therailengineer.com
SPECIALIST AREAS Rolling stock, depots, systems integration, fleet operations. Malcolm Dobell worked for the whole of his 45-year career with London Underground. He entered the Apprentice Training Centre in Acton Works in 1969 as an engineering trainee, taking a thin sandwich course at Brunel University, graduating with an honours degree in 1973. He then worked as part of the team supervising the designs of all the various items of auxiliary equipment for new trains, which gave him experience in a broad range of disciplines. Later, he became project manager for the Jubilee Line’s first fleet of new trains (displaced when the extension came along), and then helped set up the train refurbishment programme of the 90s, before being appointed Professional Head of Rolling stock in 1997. Malcolm retired as Head of Train Systems Engineering in 2014 following a career during which he had a role in the design of all the passenger trains currently in service - even the oldest - and, particularly, bringing the upgraded Victoria line (rolling stock and signalling) into service. He is a non-executive director of CPC Systems, a systems engineering company that helps train operators improve their performance. A former IMechE Railway Division Chairman and a current board member, he also helps to organise and judge the annual Railway Challenge and is the chair of trustees for a multi academy trust in Milton Keynes.


  1. On a related matter, I found it very depressing on Radio 4’s PM programme of Tuesday 12th November when a female passenger said the problems were all “nonsense”, citing the fact that Austrian railways do not have such problems.
    Personally I suspect that it helps that Austria has predominantly evergreen trees and also different types of deciduous trees, the latter of which may make the rails less slippery, but I may be wrong.
    Assuming one has not been done already, perhaps you could write an article on what happens in other countries where the same or similar problem occurs?
    (Please note that I am writing on a personal basis and not on behalf of my employer)

  2. Such a great shame that the designers, manufactures and installers of the Advanced Sander System where ignored by Rail Engineer and the author.
    AB Hoses & Fittings Ltd (ABH) are industry leaders in advanced automatic sander systems but seem to be conveniently ignored when it comes to copy being provided for print.
    The addition of a KB advert deliberately gives the wrong impression of the origin of the sanders.

    AB Hoses Advanced Automatic Sanders are fitted to Class 323, 220 / 221 Voyager and even Network Rail Stoneblowers.
    ABH support and have derivatives of their systems fitted to Class 465/466, 319, 357.

    While bodies like the Rail Forum try to encourage SME’s to get involved in the Rail Industry it is disappointing that Rail Engineer cannot follow suit.

    • David
      Any report in Rail Engineer is only as good as the information we are given. In this instance, writer Malcolm Dobell was shown around the system but the involvement of AB Hoses was never mentioned, either by RSSB or by contractor Ricardo Rail. In addition, AB Hoses representative Mick Milhinch, who was on the train, didn’t make himself known to Malcolm – perhaps he wasn’t aware who Malcolm was. In any case, Malcolm came away from his inspection without any knowledge of AB Hoses’ input, so he therefore couldn’t have been expected to include that company in his article.
      Both Ricardo and RSSB have since told Rail Engineer that they are ’embarassed’ that AB Hoses’ part in the new system wasn’t mentioned, but that was unfortunately only after the article was published.
      Incidentally, AB Hoses’ Malcolm Pratt has had several approaches from Rail Engineer and Rail Media in the past about working together, but has never responded positively.
      So, in short, this comes down to an involved company not making sure its input is promoted. If there was any shortcoming from Rail Engineer then I can only apologise. But we can’t report on facts we don’t know about.

  3. Should you not test sander systems at 125 mph, on falling gradients. The coefficient of static friction decreases with speed and the normal reaction will be less proportionate to the gradient. Will sand distribution be the same at higher speed regards turbulence at the sand exit nozzle?


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