The press demand for more innovation & in the rail industry may be welcomed by many, but those who shout loudest
rarely know what is entailed. Innovation takes many forms and often much effort and energy is expended into what turns out to be nothing more than a pipedream.
To bring some realism to the topic, the recent IET annual railway lecture invited Adrian Shooter to give his views on innovation with some practical
examples of past success and failure. Adrian will be known to many, having masterminded both the transformation of the Chiltern Railways franchise and the conversion of ex-LU District line stock into a low cost DMU. He is essentially a railway mechanical engineer with a long career history in both engineering and operational rail management.
So what is innovation?
Adrian’s definition is “the process of turning an idea or invention into a good service that creates value and for which customers will pay”. In other words, it has got to have a practical application and a commercially successful end result.
Some examples from the past indicate both good and bad innovative ideas:
- Brunel’s atmospheric railway from Exeter to Newton Abbott would never have succeeded, even without the problem of sealing the air pipe, as the power available from a vacuum tube would never have been great enough to propel a train of any length or weight over the South Devon gradients.
- The LNWR Webb chain brake system for trains, whilst innovative to a degree, immediately became a woefully inadequate technology once the Westinghouse air brake system had been invented.
- The development of diesel traction in the USA to compete against the steam monopolies of Baldwin and Alco was the idea of Charles F Kettering who, as an electrical engineer in the 1930s, used a sales technique to promote diesel-electric traction which was so successful that steam had been all but ousted within ten years.
- The Fell diesel mechanical 2-D-2 locomotive which ran briefly on BR in the 1950s, whilst having four engines capable of 2000hp, had weaknesses in the power train that severely restricted its output power.
- The APT, whilst potentially a fine train with many new features that have been adopted today, had serious weakness in its wheels and axle design that could have caused potentially catastrophic failures.
- The HST 125, designed in parallel with the APT for non-electrified routes, employed simple principles to bring a new standard for UK passenger travel. It is still in service today after nearly 40 years and likely to continue on some routes even after the forthcoming IEP is established in service.
- The massive growth in station car park requirements, and the hassle of paying parking charges at a booking office, led to the development of on-site payment machines that migrated to the design of automated rail ticket machines.
Some Chiltern Railways’ examples
Adrian’s experience as to what makes a railway successful was put to good use in the Chiltern’s franchise. As well as turning the business from a limited outer suburban service into a successful main line operation linking London with Birmingham and now Oxford, many smaller innovative projects were introduced to give improved customer service with anticipated commercial benefits.
- Warwick Parkway was something of a gamble with many predicting it would be a disaster. However, being three minutes from the motorway and with a half-hourly service to London, it was expected to attract good business. On the opening day with a near empty 500-space car park, even Adrian admitted to having reservations. Now, some 10 years later, the car park has 1,500 spaces and even those are sometimes not enough.
- Birmingham Moor Street, a neglected edifice that was only saved from demolition by a last ditch listing, is now a centrepiece of Birmingham’s expanded shopping district. With its restored and expanded Victorian buildings in GWR style, it has created its own sense of place and compares very favourably against the ugly concrete structure that is the re-opened Snow Hill station just up the line.
- Not so successful was the provision of Taxi Buses to pick up travellers around the town of Bicester for conveyance to the station at a nominal £2 fare. This initiative was eventually abandoned after four years due to insufficient patronage.
- Making stations more attractive is a strong Chilterns theme and Leamington Spa is one such where the gardens are now an attraction in their own right and a definite inducement to travel.
- The 165/166 DMUs inherited by Chiltern, whilst high density and well suited to shortish commuter journeys, were not really suitable for longer intercity use. Something a bit more comfortable was needed and hence the development of the Class 168, a kind of train Boeing 737. Based upon the engineering of the existing units, these have more space and at seat facilities including power sockets for Wi-Fi. More difficult was whether to include first class, which was only likely to have decent loadings in the peak hours. The decision was taken therefore to have a one class train but with much greater leg room, tested by Adrian himself who is well over six feet tall.
- Even the 168 fleet was insufficient to handle the growing number of travellers, which demanded ever-longer trains. Noticing the ex-Virgin Mark 3 coaches stored at a Warwickshire site was the catalyst for the introduction of a loco-hauled fleet. Heavily refurbished and with the doors converted to power operation, these coaches are arguably the most comfortable to have run on UK rails. With a Class 67 (later replaced by a more powerful Class 68) locomotive at one end and a Class 82 DVT at the other to enable push-pull working, the trains have proved very popular with the Chiltern’s clientele and even offer a ‘business class’ coach to cater for at seat service of refreshments.
Although this well publicised project to convert redundant London Underground D stock into a low cost DMU for secondary and rural lines has yet to reach fruition, it is well on the way to becoming a reality. The prototype train now has interim certification, which allows it to be tested on the main line.
The existing aluminium bodies are very strong and in good condition, and the bogies are only around 10 years old. Most electrical equipment has been replaced except for the Westcode braking system. Flexible layouts for different purposes are envisaged and indeed the test train demonstrates some of these.
The 750V DC power basis is maintained, but the real innovation comes with the concept of quick-change modular packs. The diesel, alternator and motor packs are designed to be exchanged in 10 minutes while the bogies can be replaced away from a depot location.
Although designed as a DMU, it is envisaged that the unit could be fitted with shoe gear to run on DC third-rail electrified lines or with a battery module in place of the diesel engines. This latter would cater for routes where the electric traction supply is discontinuous. It would even be possible to equip the train with a pantograph and 25kV transformer, thus making it a truly universal product. That however is something for the future.
Trial operation in passenger service is expected to begin in 2017 on the Coventry-Nuneaton line and, if successful, who knows where future deployment might be. 228 coaches are available so potentially this could be a big fleet.
The UK railway has the best safety record in Europe. How has this come about? Safety legislation has helped: HSAWA (Health and Safety At Work Act), Electricity at Work and others, but ALARP (As Low as Reasonably Practical) has been a big factor.
Nearly twenty years ago, the SPAD (Signals Passed at Danger) situation was becoming a big problem with a number of multiple fatality accidents taking place. The prediction was that it would all be resolved once ERTMS/ETCS – a project first demonstrated 28 years ago – was implemented, but this has turned out to be over-optimistic. It would be difficult to invent the number of ways that it has gone wrong in the intervening period. Designed as a political concept to both improve safety and increase capacity, only now is it reaching any sign of maturity.
Observers of train protection systems in Japan noted a system that was much better than AWS and could be provided at a fraction of the cost than that projected for ETCS. So was born TPWS (train protection and warning system), a system that enabled the speed of trains to be measured when approaching adverse signals. If that was too high, braking would be initiated automatically that the driver could not override.
One big plus of TPWS is that fitting it to existing train fleets could be accomplished by using the same space envelope, power supply and wiring as AWS, thus significantly reducing the cost of retro fitting which is such a problem for ETCS. It is not perfect: it is only provided at high risk signals, it cannot adequately cope with very high speeds, it is not fail safe in the classic definition, it does nothing to improve capacity, but it has made a step change to safety performance.
In his talk, Adrian Shooter conclusively demonstrated that innovation needs a degree of pragmatism to be of value. The sometime wacky ideas that originate from academia and elsewhere, whilst eye catching in their novelty, rarely make it to reality. Good practical expertise and experience in both engineering and business are the bedrock of successful innovation. This should be a lesson to us all.