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The annual Stapleford trials

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The Stapleford Miniature Railway’s lawnmower had temporarily lost its magneto as it had been fitted to the University of Huddersfield’s Railway Challenge team’s locomotive. Thus, the team’s ingenuity in borrowing and adapting this magneto enabled its locomotive to be ready for the competition’s dynamic tests.

Unfortunately, this resourcefulness was not to be rewarded as, once the locomotive reached the trial site, its chain drive failed, and it had to be recovered by the miniature railway’s rescue locomotive. For the Huddersfield team, which had spent months preparing its locomotive and had the reputation of being previous winners to live up to, this was a bitter blow. Yet it was a good example of how the IMechE’s Railway Challenge reflects the reality of the full-sized railway and, although Huddersfield was unable to win the competition this time, the team still gained much from it.

The teams

As regular readers will know, the Railway Challenge is an annual competition in which teams of graduates and students design and build a 10¼-inch gauge locomotive to take part in various trials. Rail Engineer has been a firm supporter of the Railway Challenge since the first event was held back in 2012.

As shown in the table, a total of 15 teams have entered the challenge since its inception. It is interesting to note half of the challenges held since 2012 were won by new entrants – one judge suggested that this may be because new entrants pay closer attention to the competition’s rules and specification.

This year there were three teams of industry graduates, five university student teams and two joint industry/university teams. 119 took part in the challenge with team sizes ranging from five to 15. The largest team was from the University of Sheffield’s ‘Railway Challenge at Sheffield’ club which, unlike other university teams, is an extra-curricular activity.

Although twelve teams entered the competition, two teams dropped out some time before the competition weekend and the Siemens/Southampton University team was not present as its locomotive had suffered a power failure and could not be repaired in time. The team was, however, given credit for its design and innovation reports.

Of the nine locomotives present, seven took part in the dynamic trials. As well as Huddersfield University’s chain difficulties, the joint Bombardier/Derby University locomotive was also unable to take part due to brake problems. It was, however, given an opportunity to run over the three-kilometre miniature railway after the completion of the dynamic trials, although one bogie derailed on plain line track and the locomotive had to be recovered.

The locomotives

The locomotives were designed to a performance-based specification based on the challenges specified in the competition’s rules. As such, it is not surprising that there are some similarities between them. Of the nine locomotives present, seven had a single body with two four-wheeled bogies. The exceptions were Birmingham’s locomotive, which was mounted on two wheelsets, and Sheffield’s three-unit locomotive with each unit mounted on two wheelsets.

Five locomotives were powered by petrol generators. Of these four had generators of about three kilowatts with traction power supplemented by a battery whereas Huddersfield’s seven-kilowatt generator was the sole normal power source.

Birmingham and Aachen had hydrogen-powered/battery hybrid locomotives whilst Transport for London (TfL), Warwick and Bombardier/Derby had battery-powered locomotives. This was the first time that battery power had been allowed, as a change to the rules allowed for refuelling to be done within 120 seconds, which could include the replacement of energy storage assets.

The most important challenge, with twice the available marks of the others, is the energy storage challenge, during which teams have to recover energy while braking to a stand and then use that energy to propel their locomotives as far as possible. As shown in the table, for this challenge, six locomotives were fitted with supercapacitors whilst Aachen used its traction battery and Huddersfield had a unique axle-mounted coil spring energy recovery system.

Other than Ricardo, each team had previously entered a locomotive. Such teams are required to modify their locomotives to comply with changes to the rules as well as enhancing them to improve the previous year’s performance, as shown in the table.

Sheffield tackles the maintainability challenge.
Sheffield tackles the maintainability challenge.

The innovations

To encourage innovative thinking, each team had to submit a paper, in the format of an academic journal, which describes an innovative aspect of its locomotive design. The teams came up with a number of interesting innovations that are worth listing in detail.

Aachen’s locomotive was fitted with a sensor to detect objects and potentially simplify shunting by enabling an autonomous locomotive to follow its driver.

Huddersfield’s entry has a digital self-levelling suspension system, which uses an ultrasonic proximity sensor.

An innovation from Ricardo, a team which included three automotive graduates, was the use of a Controller Area Network (CAN) which is standard automotive practice. This has a serial communication protocol that eliminates the need for wiring harnesses, allows for easy addition of additional components and provides a standard coupling interface.

The Visual Wheel Condition Monitoring System (VWCM) fitted to SNC Lavalin’s locomotive uses a camera that is computer-controlled to capture a series of images of the entire wheel circumference at low speed (2.8km/h). VWCM has an image processing system to detect thermal cracks on the wheel tread.

TfL presented a proposal for a trainborne system that could measure adhesion at precise locations along train routes.

Warwick had considered the use of novel polymer traction gears for its locomotive. However, after a study, which included testing on a special rig, it was concluded that steel is the most wear-resistant gear material.

Ricardo's locomotive.
Ricardo’s locomotive.

The specification

Locomotives are built to a technical specification that also specifies the requirement for systems assurance and a design report, which must include a compliance matrix against technical requirements and as-constructed drawings. This report must also contain performance, structural and wheel-unloading calculations.

The requirement is to produce a locomotive that can operate for three hours without refuelling at five kilometres an hour hauling a 400kg load up a two per cent gradient. It must also be able to haul and start a trailing load of 1,800kg on a two per cent gradient. As far as possible, the specification is performance-based to encourage innovation by giving the teams the discretion to determine the configuration of the locomotive and its motive power.

The prescriptive technical requirements are generally those that enable the locomotive to run on the Stapleford Miniature Railway, for example loading gauge, axle weight and type of coupler.

Aachen's entry.
Aachen’s entry.

The rules

The competition rules cover general requirements and the challenge specifications. General rules include eligibility (an engineering student or graduate of no more than two years or a current or passed out apprentice of no more than two years) and safety requirements which includes the requirement for a team safety supervisor, risk assessments and method statements.

Before competing in the track-based challenges, the locomotives have to pass scrutineering, to confirm that they are built to specification with the required supporting documentation. This requires the locomotive to pass 31 different checks to enable it to collect the following different coloured stickers, as follows: evidence of reliability (1), calculations and safety documentation (6), user guide (1), inspection of markings (3), physical inspection (6), demonstration of performance (10) and demonstration of indications (4).

There are nine challenges of which six are track-based (energy recovery, traction, ride comfort, noise, maintainability and reliability) and three are presentations (design, business case and innovation). The maximum points for each challenge is 150, except for the energy storage challenge for which 300 points are available. This gives a maximum possible score of 1,500.

In this way, teams must consider all performance aspects of their locomotives as well as try to persuade the judges to buy their machines in the business case challenge that, unlike the other challenges, provides a commercial focus. One judge commented that, although some teams understandably focus on the difficult engineering aspects of their locomotives during their business presentation, in the real world there’s no point in building it if they can’t sell it.

A new requirement in this year’s competition was for the business case presentation to be supported by an A0 poster. To encourage audience participation, spectators were given the opportunity to vote for the best poster, although this was an unscored aspect of the competition.

The railway

The Stapleford Miniature Railway (SMR) dates from 1958 when the second Lord Gretton purchased, second hand, two 4-4-2 steam locomotives and 2,000 feet of 10¼-inch gauge track as an additional family attraction for his stately home and grounds, which were open to the public. The following year, the Haven station was built as the line was extended to the lakeside.

The line was so popular that an additional locomotive was soon acquired in the form of a replica Warship diesel locomotive powered by a Ford petrol engine, which entered service in 1962 and acts as the rescue locomotive during the Railway Challenge.

Further attractions were added in the 1960s in the form of two large-scale passenger-carrying model liners on the lake as well as a lion reserve and zoo. In the 1970s the balloon loop from the Haven was built.

Lord Gretton’s death in 1982 saw the railway closed to the public at the end of that season and put into storage. After the untimely death of the third Lord Gretton, Lady Jenny Gretton agreed to allow a small group of enthusiasts, including those who had previously operated the railway, to look at the feasibility of restoring it. In this way, the Friends of the Stapleford Miniature Railway (FSMR) was formed in 1992.

The group had much to do to make the locomotives serviceable again and restore the line, including rebuilding the tunnel under the drive to the house, before the railway could re-open in 1995 as a private railway with a limited number of open days each year.

The railway is an ideal location for the Railway Challenge as it is not normally open to the public and its three kilometres of track, with a balloon loop and a 1 in 80 gradient, are ideal for the locomotive trials. It also has plenty of hard standing at the station for work on locomotives and much open space for contestants to camp out. The competition is also dependant on the unstinting efforts of the FSMR’s volunteers who operate the railway and provide the rescue locomotive and steam-hauled spectator trains.

Working on TfL's locomotive.
Working on TfL’s locomotive.

The organisation

It needs 26 people to organise and run the Railway Challenge, 23 of whom are volunteers. These are a team of eight scrutineers, twelve judges and three controllers.

Sandra Balthazaar is the IMechE staff member responsible for the event. As well as dealing with the logistics of the event, she and her small team work to attract entries and the essential sponsorship to fund the event. This year’s sponsors were Network Rail, RSSB, Young Rail Professionals, Eversholt, Angel, Porterbrook and Beacon Rail Leasing.

The Railway Challenge Steering Group is led by Professor Simon Iwnicki, who conceived the idea of the competition in 2011. This coordinates the work of other groups including the rules and development committees.

The competition takes place over three days. The programme broadly devotes day one to scrutineering while day two is taken up with test runs, presentation challenges and the maintainability challenge, in which teams compete to remove and replace a wheelset in the shortest possible time.

Day three is the dynamic track challenges and the spectator day. This requires a detailed operational plan that has two locomotives undergoing different trials at the same time at the test area by the lake. Into this timetable are fitted a series of steam-hauled spectator trains from the station to and from the Haven, and the movements of the rescue locomotive, all under the control of the SMR signalling system as the FSMR control all movements, which are made at the request of the dedicated Railway Division’s controller.

The results

As everyone gathered in the marquee for the announcement of the results, it was not clear who would be the overall winner despite the scoreboard showing how each locomotive had fared in its track-based challenges.

Master of ceremonies for the prize giving ceremony was head judge Bill Reeve, who considered that the event had “without doubt been the best challenge so far”. He announced that SNC Lavalin had won the traction, ride comfort, innovation and design challenges. TfL had won the noise and business case challenges.

Ricardo had won the energy storage challenge and that, “with an amazing performance”, Sheffield had won the maintainability challenge as well as getting most votes for its business case poster. Ricardo, SNC Lavalin and FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences had completed all the challenges without any reliability issues and so were joint-winners of the reliability challenge.

Bill also advised that the judges wished to commend the Bombardier/Derby and Huddersfield teams which had shown “sheer bloody determination” to fix the problems on their locomotives. He also mentioned that the judges look out for teamwork and support and had particularly noted the support that Ricardo and FH Aachen had given to others.

Immediate past-president of the Institution, Carolyn Griffiths, presented the overall winner’s cup, but before doing so she stressed how the IMechE’s Railway Division had been a great support throughout her career. She recommended that anyone starting a career in railway engineering should become involved with the Division where they will find someone to support them.

She felt that the Railway Challenge was an example of this. The Railway Division had organised a fabulous event that helped young engineers make the transition from learning to doing with a demanding project and gave them the opportunity to learn from each other. Carolyn stressed that there were absolutely no losers in the competition and that all the railway engineers present would have been proud to have built the locomotives entered.

She then announced the overall results in reverse order until it became clear that first-time entrants Ricardo was the overall winner.

2017 Swedish Challenge winner.
2017 Swedish Challenge winner.

The Swedish Challenge

The IMechE’s Railway Division is to be congratulated in organising its Railway Challenge which is starting to attract worldwide interest. It is a unique event that replicates many of the challenges which replicate the issues faced by the real railway. Yet it is not the only event that challenges students to build an award-winning railway vehicle.

An electric battery-powered rail vehicle challenge has been held at Delsbo in Sweden since 2010. This requires students to build a passenger-carrying standard gauge rail vehicle of the highest possible energy efficiency.

Last year’s winner was the University of Dalarna with a team that built a 100kg railcar powered by a 500 watt motor that carried five people. It consumed 0.76 watt hours per passenger kilometre over the three kilometre course which took twenty minutes to complete. During this time, the motor was only used for 110 seconds.

The Railway Challenge team has considered whether its competition could include an energy efficiency challenge. However, whilst it is relatively straightforward to measure the energy consumption of battery powered locomotives, precisely measuring energy consumption over a short distance for the variety of traction encouraged by the Railway Challenge is a different matter.

The future

Sandra Balthazaar advises that the competition is attracting international interest with groups from Australia, Pakistan and Thailand considering how they can establish their own Railway Challenge. Indeed, this year’s event had a delegation from Thailand present to see how this could be done.

Also present at this year’s event was a team from Poland which wishes to enter next year. A team from Egypt had intended to enter this year’s event, and Rail Engineer understands that Network Rail is also likely to enter a locomotive next year. With such interest, and increasing awareness of the event in the UK, Simon Iwnicki is confident that, in a few years’ time the event will have thirty or so entries.

Yet this year, it took most of Sunday for seven locomotives to complete their trials. With smart operating, the most that the Stapleford Railway could put through the trials in one day is fourteen locomotives. Like the real railway, the Railway Challenge suffers from a lack of capacity.

This problem has been considered by the competition’s development committee, which has developed a plan to enable 30 locomotives to enter the competition. This plan, which has been discussed and agreed in principle with FMSR and the current Lord Gretton, involves building an additional chord at the balloon loop junction, some double-tracking and a turntable, with sidings and hard standing, to accommodate additional locomotives at the station. Surveying for this additional track is to start this summer.

The rules committee has almost finalised the rules and specification for the 2019 competition, which could include two additional challenges – an auto-stop trial that will require the locomotive to come to a stand a precise distance from a marker and a track damage trial to measure the locomotive’s impact on the track.

Whatever the future holds for the Railway Challenge, it is certain to continue to support the development of over a hundred young engineers each year and show them the support that is available from the IMechE’s Railway Division. Equally importantly, it is hoped that it will attract much-needed budding young talent to the railway industry.

It is good to see industry support for the competition with Bombardier, Ricardo, Siemens and SNC Lavalin entering the competition. In addition, there is its sponsorship from Network Rail, RSSB, Eversholt, Angel, Porterbrook and Beacon Rail Leasing, with other companies sponsoring individual teams.

However, much more could be done, and Rail Engineer looks forward to seeing some new teams lined up when it attends the 2019 Railway Challenge.

Read more: Rail Engineer August 2018 – Infrastructure focus


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.



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