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Review – The World Metrorail Congress 2017

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This annual two-day event attracts people from the world’s metro and other urban transport organisation, including a significant proportion of CEOs. It includes an exhibition, an open presentation section and four tracks (terrible pun) of ‘paid-for’ conference papers under the MetroRail, LightRail, RailPower and RailTel & CBTC labels – about 90 presentations or discussions in all with, sometimes, five going on simultaneously. As your writer can only be in one place at a time, this report is necessarily selective.

The organisers had organised activities that avoided a succession of prepared presentations (death by PowerPoint), and the plenary sessions avoided the usual keynote speeches. There were a number of very interesting presentations worthy of articles in their own right, but this article will be a whistle stop tour of the presentations that looked good on the agenda.

The first day started with Nicholas Owen, the BBC News presenter, leading keynote interviews. His first ‘victim’ was Mark Wild, London Underground’s managing director, who talked about the challenges of success. He emphasised the critical importance of “Keeping London Moving” (TfL’s mission) as London delivers some 25 per cent of the UK’s GDP and some 30 million road and rail journeys are made in London every day.

In 2016, the Underground network carried over five million people in a single day (up from a four million peak day in 2006). Mark emphasised the continuing improvement in passenger and worker safety, and also the success of Night Tube, which is outperforming forecasts. He said that the only way the railway keeps running well is through the efforts of the front-line staff who use their personalities to encourage customers to board and alight rapidly.

Looking forward, by the time this is published, the Underground will have introduced 36 trains per hour operation on the Victoria line. This is the template for all other lines by about 2030. More capacity will still be needed, which is why it is vital, Mark said, that Crossrail 2 is authorised to provide the capacity boost in about 2033 that the Elizabeth line will bring in 2019.

Nicholas also interviewed Lincoln Leung, CEO of the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR). MTR builds and operates railways and exploits the space above them to deliver commercial developments that help fund further expansion. Approximately 5.6 million customers a day use the Hong Kong network, and a similar number are carried across all MTR’s operations in China, Australia, Sweden and UK. The Hong Kong model has been extensively copied, particularly in China as urbanisation gathers pace.

MTR is often seen as an exemplar for reliable services with 99.9 per cent of its services on time. It is currently resignalling eight lines to deliver a 10 per cent capacity increase, and has ordered a fleet of 93 trains to replace the original Metro-Cammell units that were the first trains on MTR when it opened in 1979. Unusually amongst metro systems, it makes a profit and requires little or no subsidy.

Having set the scene, the seminar moved on to a smorgasbord of metro related topics. Here is a selection.

Emergency preparedness

“Putting safety first, how can metros be better prepared for emergency or disaster situations?” This was the subject of a round table discussion of about twelve people led by Wynton Haversham, head of the New York Subway.

Wynton opened the session by describing the work still going on to repair the damage caused by hurricane Sandy in 2012. He said that the most serious damage was not caused by the extreme rainfall but by the storm surge, with tunnels inundated by salt water. Whilst the water was pumped out and repairs were made to allow services to resume, much salt remained and this, accompanied by damp, continued to damage the infrastructure. They are now gradually closing the affected areas, one at a time, for more extensive repairs. Wynton also talked about the flood hardening changes made – moving active equipment from low points, raising equipment above floor level and insisting that cables that run though areas liable to flooding have no joints.

A delegate from Hong Kong observed that an important feature of flood protection for MTR is that all station entrances are covered and are above street level – passengers step up from the street a few steps before going down into the station.

Wynton also talked about the changes New York has made to its emergency plans. The philosophy is no longer to “carry on until it’s impossible to run anything”. Instead, Subway management now works closely with the meteorologists and, if a serious weather event is forecast, will develop a plan which might involve suspending operations.

As an example, in a snowstorm in 2016, the Subway successfully implemented tunnel-only operation which was put in place some eight hours before the storm was forecast to hit the city. This strategy minimised damage to the systems and allowed services on external lines to start more quickly once the storm had passed. Key to the success of these emergency plans was timely communication to customers about what would happen and why, involving all media and led by the State Governor.

The internet of things

Next was Kuldeep Gharatya from London Underground, talking about how the Internet of Things can transform infrastructure maintenance, although he was refreshingly honest in saying that these buzzwords are often over-hyped. Kuldeep showed an entertaining video, created using LU’s front line maintainers’ vision for the future of a control room and connected front-line staff using the data from embedded sensors and real time analytics to keep the system operating, only taking assets out of use at times that keep inconvenience to a minimum.

Kuldeep also illustrated the improvement in reliability that can be delivered by monitored systems. LU developed a system to monitor the track circuits (more than 300) on the Victoria line. Since the system has been in use, Lost Customer Hours have been reduced from 50,000 each year to zero. Also, quite unexpectedly, maintainers have been able to identify the development of track corrugation by analysis of voltage fluctuations in the track circuits.

He concluded with a video of a collaboration between LU and Google to deliver a wayfinding app for visually impaired people using smart phones and Bluetooth sensors.

Collision avoidance

Torsten Grunweld of Knorr-Bremse talked about the development of collision avoidance systems for tramways. This is taking advantage of similar developments in the automotive sector, particularly for the development of autonomous vehicles.

Trams, of course, benefit (or suffer) from being on a fixed guideway. The tram needs to have a system that looks ahead and to the sides, and Knorr-Bremse’s system uses radar and cameras as sensors with analytics to turn the sensor data into information.

It is also helpful to know the location and direction of travel to avoid false operation of collision-avoidance-related emergency brake applications. For example, there might be an obstruction directly in front of the tram and the collision-avoidance system would kick in unless it knew that the tram was about to turn right!

Torsten also outlined how GPS, together with route knowledge, could be used to impose speed restrictions.


Rob Paris of Crossrail gave a very fast tour showing how Crossrail put sustainability at its heart. Sustainability and environmental issues were extensively covered in the Act of Parliament that authorised the project. Rob explained that Crossrail had organised delivery of the sustainability objectives by embedding them with the teams or contracts best able to deliver them (such as the HR department for apprentices).

He said that management had sought to set targets based on good practice, but found few established norms. Undaunted, they set targets they hoped to achieve and, where it was inappropriate to set targets, they still measured performance so as to set benchmarks for the future. A couple of good results; 98 per cent of excavated material has had beneficial re-use (for example, by creating the wetlands at Wallasea Island) and the new Class 345 trains weigh only 319 tonnes compared with the ambitious target set of 350 tonnes.

Finally, Crossrail has been determined to leave behind lessons learned for others to learn from their work and has set up a web site: learninglegacy.crossrail.co.uk.

More frequent, faster services use more energy?

The London Underground Victoria line upgrade has delivered a more frequent, and faster service. One might believe this would lead to an increase in energy consumption, right? One would be wrong, as Simon Chung from London Underground explained.

As background, LU spends around £100 million each year on energy, 80-90 per cent of which is used for traction energy. In general, LU’s tunnels are rather warm and it is important not to cause them to become warmer. Simon explained that not much can be done about the increase in customer numbers (each person radiating about 140W), but electricity consumption can be managed. He added that each kWh of energy costs LU about 7.5p, but it costs about 20p to remove the heat caused by that unit of energy from the tunnel. For the Victoria line, where the requirement was a) to increase from 27 trains per hour to 36tph and b) reduce the time taken for a round trip, could this be done without increasing energy consumption. Simon outlined the various changes, which were modelled and optimised on a system basis:

  • The train (higher acceleration rate, regenerative braking);
  • The power supply system (uprated substations, low loss conductor rails, creating one electrical section, removing voltage/current caps in regenerative braking);
  • The control system (coasting – which, incidentally, can be switched out if necessary to allow marginally late trains to catch up).

Simon explained that the substation upgrades were necessary to deliver higher peak current which, in turn, enabled the higher acceleration rate but didn’t necessarily lead to increased energy use. In fact, the 30 per cent improvement in capacity has been delivered with a 16 per cent reduction in energy. The biggest contributor was regenerative braking.


Day 2 saw a presentation by Andy Bryne, head of public policy from Uber. Andy acknowledged that Uber is often seen as a disruptive presence but he said their mission is “to work with cities to help people live together”. He highlighted that far too much land is used for car parking – 16 per cent in London – and that the average car is idle for 95 per cent of the time.

Uber regards its main competitors as private car owners, despite what London’s black cab drivers may think. Andy described Uber’s work in London. He said that 33 per cent of journeys were to or from a tube or mainline station outside of zone 2. There has been a significant change in use since Night Tube started. There has been a 20 per cent drop in central London pick ups on those nights, but some outer London locations (such as Woodford, Newbury Park and North Acton) have seen a 300 per cent increase in pick-ups as people use the tube to get out of London and use Uber for the last mile. Total journeys numbers have increased. Peak times for travel are 10pm to 3am when, perhaps, customers have had a drink or two and feel safer in a cab.

Andy moved on the vast amount of data that Uber collects about journeys. This is made available to others (anonymised of course) to help cities understand who travels where and even to validate or vary traffic-light phasing. He also mentioned innovative ways of reducing traffic on the roads. Uber has introduced cab sharing (Uber Pool), which benefits both passengers (lower fare) and cab driver (higher fee), and has entered into partnerships with some cities to reduce private car use – for example pegging the Uber fare at the same rate as car park rates.

Bi-mode trains

11,000 miles away in New Zealand, Auckland is, like many cities, seeing unprecedented growth – far in excess of forecasts. David Warburton, Auckland Transport’s chief executive, explained that the city is gradually electrifying its suburban rail system, which will be generally carbon-free as over 85 per cent of New Zealand’s electricity is from hydro or wind. The challenge is the pace of development in the city suburbs beyond the area covers by electrification.

Since electrification was authorised, further service extensions have been identified, and options considered have included extension of electrification (not ruled out in the future), diesel haulage beyond electrification or some sort of bi-mode. In the event, Auckland has decided to buy 25kV/battery electric trains and they are in the final stages of negotiating a contract with CAF for the supply of the trains where the batteries will be fitted on trailer cars. The batteries are expected to have a life of almost eight years, will be charged from the 25kV supply and transitions from one mode to the other will be by trackside beacons.

Sydney Trains

Moving a tiny bit closer to home, Sydney Trains experienced 12 per cent growth last year. Two presentations outlined how the city aims to respond to a massively growing market.

Howard Collins, Sydney Trains Chief Executive, gave an overview of the challenges faced in dealing with backlogs of work together with upgrading the lines to cope with the growing demand. Sydney is largely operated by double-deck trains and, whilst they have impressive capacity, Howard said that dwell times in the Central Business District (CBD) stations, where there is a metro-style, largely underground loop, are a major constraint on throughput.

The city suffers from extremes of weather – the hottest day on record was in January 2017 (45.8ºC), whereas rainfall in March 2017 was over 1,000mm with nearly half of it falling in just three days, so assets have to be particularly resilient.

Pasquale Labouze, Sydney Trains executive director operating systems, took up the theme of how the existing system will be modernised to cope with increasing demand. It is currently a mixed traffic railway with inner suburban, outer suburban, regional and freight all sharing the same tracks. The aim is to segregate freight from the passenger trains wherever possible, to simplify track layouts, and to simplify the service pattern to facilitate more reliable and robust timetables.

As an example, Pasquale mentioned, in passing, that many of the terminal ends at Sydney Central station retain the ability to run a locomotive round the train, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of trains have been multiple units for many years. This is just one of the categories of track simplifications that are planned.

For increased capacity, Sydney is proposing to equip the network with ETCS Level 2 and ATO in the CBD (central business district) area. This will be preceded by ETCS Level 1 ‘limited supervision’, to bring ATP to the railway, a response to a serious accident at Waterfall in 2003. This will involve fitting 8,000 passive and a smaller number of active balises, and fitting on board ETCS equipment to all the trains. On-board fitment has already started and trackside deployment is due to start in late spring 2017.

Once this has been completed, work will start on upgrading the on-board equipment for Level 2 and work on the track side equipment is due to start in 2021. Operation with cab signalling is due to start in 2022 and with ATO in 2024. Pasquale explained that there are various options being considered to interface ETCS to the national freight Advanced Train Management System that is being standardised for controlling freight trains in the middle of nowhere using 3G/4G telecoms and GPS.

The exhibition

There were 24 stands covering a wide range of railway suppliers from Hyperloop to the Very Light Rail (VLR) vehicle being developed by a consortium of Prose, Transport Design International, Unipart Rail and Warwick Manufacturing Group, with some component suppliers, trade organisations and railway journals. Other exhibitors included Bombardier, Hitachi, Ansaldo STS, Thales, Siemens, TfL and Perpetuum.

Here just two are highlighted: Hyperloop (hardly Metro) uses a near vacuum tube to allow trains propelled by Linear induction motors to reach speed in excess of 700km/h – a public trial is forecasted in 2017. The VLR vehicle uses a diesel – battery – electric power bogie. Based on the model shown, all elements of the power system apart from the fuel tank, are on the bogie. The bogies will be fitted to a very light body. The tare mass is forecast to be 18 tonnes, with a capacity of 100 persons. This means a gross mass of approximately 25.5 tonnes and an axle load of just under 6.5 tonnes.

And finally…

Throughout the conference, there was a great deal of emphasis on the importance of delivering more capacity though effective use of staff, assets and systems – and one of the key ways of doing so is to minimise dwell time. One of the presentations highlighted the importance of encouraging passengers to co-operate. It included a photograph of a passenger-facing poster. Its text is quoted below:


“First, – when one gets out, another can get in. Second, – those that would get in before block the way of those that would get out. So to secure room and save seconds there can be no other rule.


“There are four, five or six cars to a train. There are two gates to a car and sometimes three. Two passengers cannot get though the same gate at the same time, but they can get though different gates at the same time. Even boarding means quicker boarding.”

You might think that the language is a little odd but it’s the reference to gates that gives the game away that this poster is at least 100 years old. It shows clearly that some challenges never go away!


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