HomeEditor's ViewEditorial: Learning from Light Rail

Editorial: Learning from Light Rail

Listen to this article

Britain’s nine light rail systems record almost 300 million journeys each year. Their high capacity provides urban connectivity that drives economic growth as shown by the Docklands Light Railway has shown. Manchester’s Metrolink was also the catalyst for MediaCity in Salford. Unlike buses, trams attract motorists from cars and so further reduce congestion and emissions.

Over the last 70 years, Britain has invested 40 per cent less on transport than the rest of Europe. So, whilst France and Germany have respectively 28 and 57 light rail systems, Britain has nine. Another is planned for Leeds, which is Europe’s largest city without light rail. It is expected that this will have end-to-end battery operation and might have autonomous working in segregated areas.

Trams are certainly popular, but not necessarily when they are being built. In Edinburgh, the tram was a toxic subject before its completion, with significant prolonged disruption from the delayed project. Furthermore, its significant cost overrun resulted in the scheme being cut back. Yet, soon after it opened, city councillors felt able to propose completing the original project by extending the tram to Newhaven. We describe the progress of this work, which incorporates lessons from the original project

The Edinburgh tram inquiry into what happened was set up in 2014, has cost £11 million and has now taken longer than the tram project itself. Ironically, it has yet to report. Nevertheless, documents on the inquiry website show what went wrong and, as we show, record quite shocking procurement deficiencies.

Another current tram project is extending the West Midlands Metro. Mark Phillips reports that this will introduce the UK’s first battery-powered trams and support regeneration by connecting key developments. This includes the £24 million Very Light Rail (VLR) National Innovation Centre at Dudley, which is expected to open in 2022. 

Although trams offer significant benefits, at around £40 million per kilometre, they need a ridership of 3,000 passengers an hour to be cost effective. Warwick Manufacturing Group considers that a VLR system can be provided at a quarter of this cost. This would use battery-powered lightweight vehicles with a four-tonne axle weight, and a novel track less than 300mm deep, to minimise utility diversions. With a single, 50-seat vehicle, this could carry 750 passengers an hour and might be the answer for smaller cities.

The Coventry VLR system was one of many light rail innovations presented over a five-day period during an online event staged by the Railway Industry Association. Clive Kessell and Malcolm Dobell report on these initiatives, many of which are potentially applicable to heavy rail such as: quick install slab track, lightweight OLE, object detection, Sheffield’s tram-train and passenger information systems.

Helen Davis’s article is also about providing information. This explains how Siemens Mobility’s Digital Station Manager (DSM) enables operators to manage station capacity. 

A vast amount of information of a different sort was required for the refurbishment of Bristol Temple Meads station. Bob Wright’s feature details this work and explains how a BIM survey collected this data using 3D LiDAR scans.  

Replacing a major sewer added to the complexity of the work outside Kings Cross station over Christmas, as Collin Carr describes in an article that also explains how passengers will benefit from this work. This was just one of the 1,700 possessions that delivered £137 million of engineering work over the Christmas period despite strict Covid precautions. Nigel Wordsworth’s article describes much of this work.

The challenges of building Exeter’s new train depot between the river and the station were space and ground conditions. Grahame Taylor explains how these were overcome to provide a new facility for GWR’s new trains. 

Lots of new trains, in fact 665 coaches, are the subject of our article on Greater Anglia’s new Aventra trains that are part of a unique programme to replace the company’s entire fleet. We explain why ordering long 10 or 12-car multiple units is a bad idea. 

Scotland’s hydrogen train will be a not-so-new Class 314 unit. For traction engineers, hydrogen trains are like Marmite, you love them or hate them. Some consider that they cannot be part of the future rail traction mix, due to their low efficiency and fuel storage constraints. Yet, as we explain, there is a bigger picture. 

However, if rail freight is to benefit from such high-powered electric haulage, further electrification is required which Government seems reluctant to authorise. Yet, as we describe, much is being done to reduce costs with cost-efficient electrification being the focus of specific collaborations between universities and industry

Whilst it is good to learn of railway engineering developments from on-line events and magazines such as Rail Engineer, we all miss useful informal get togethers. Until these can resume, the IMechE Railway Division has made its popular Annual Luncheon an innovative, interactive on-line event. Do join me there. 

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

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.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.