From Signalboxes to ROCs

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There is a new word in town – it’s “digital” – and you can use it for anything to make it sound big, clever, or a technological marvel.  Take the “digital railway” for instance, what is it?  This is what they said on their website in 2019:

“Digital Railway aims to deliver the benefits of digital signalling and train control more quickly than current plans, deploying proven technology in a way that maximises economic benefit to the UK.”

In 2021, this was changed slightly and now reads:

“What’s the Digital Railway programme?”

The rail industry’s plan to transform the rail network for passengers, business and freight operators by deploying modern signalling and train control technology to increase capacity, reduce delays, enhance safety and drive down costs.”

Now, a couple of short videos are posted on the opening page:

That said, hundreds of signalboxes are now on their way into history, and the UK has come a long way from mechanical, through electro-mechanical and electronic systems, and is changing at an even faster pace today.

Chris Grayling, the then Transport Secretary, stated in 2017 he was taking £5 million from the £450 million pot for the UK’s “Digital Railway”, to enable Network Rail to investigate options for making the Manchester to Leeds route “digital”.  But why Network Rail – implementing ETCS at even Level 1 will require work from the train operating companies and rolling stock owners to retrofit their locomotives and trains.  On top of which, some have already been fitted with what will become non-standard TPWS, and cab signalling/driver advisory systems, which would add to the cost, although today ETCS has been used on lines in mid-Wales, and under test on the Hertford loop.

Clearly Mr Grayling – and maybe even the “Digital Railway” web pages are highlighting what they might like to see, and there is still much work to be done.

York IECC Control Room – 20th Century signalling technology

Yes – I know about the WCML upgrade work – but, although it was included in the EU “TENS” programme – I can’t help but wonder if it will be fully complete without more private investment, or ideally perhaps state investment.  ETCS together with GSM-R telecoms was and remains an integral part of the ERTMS platform, which perhaps not surprisingly has progressed in fits and starts over the years.

I remember first writing about this over 20 years ago, and whilst yes, historians will say that automatic train control systems have been around on London Underground, the Great Western Railway (in steam days), and even British Railways in the 1950s, this is really about ETCS.  Back in the 1990s, as Solid State Interlocking and IECCs (Integrated Electronic Control Centres) began to arrive on BR, the old fixed block systems were gradually being phased out and replaced by the new technology, which today we are obliged to call the “digital railway”. 

Inside Three Bridges (London) ROC

Ironically perhaps the video on the Digital Railway website states that the UK needs a new signalling system designed for the 21st century – what a pity the UK didn’t invest sooner in the 20th century system that this Digital Railway will use.  Perhaps the one thing I would take issue with in their promotional video is that this nirvana will provide “better connections” – well only if you provide more stations and more trains on new or re-opened lines perhaps! 

A current version of the same video, and the “better connections” feature seen previously seems to be missing, and more attention focussed on the improved capacity, and CDAS (Connected Driver Advisory System) included.  

Automatic Train Operation (ATO) still features, the ‘autopilot’ for trains, along with real time train performance information gathering – oh yes – and being able to update passengers in real time about delays.  This latter presumes that stations have information displays on the platform – many still do not have this, and it seems to depend on the train operating company (TOC) to put these facilities in place.  But it is progress – albeit slow.

Still we do have the experience of the Cambrian Line ETCS at Level 2 to gather data from, analyses and provide that next step.  However, despite Mr Grayling’s proposition, Thameslink is next in line, along with Crossrail – and presumably Crossrail 2, which has replaced the planned work on the Transpennine electrification.  The Thameslink core will be receiving in addition, a system from Hitachi that allows automated route setting, and claims to minimise signaller involvement, but does not control the interlocking directly, but responds to status information, with sophisticated software used to set or amend the route.

In 2018, details were published of the ETCS rollout projects for the remainder of Control Period 5 (CP5), which took us up to the end of 2019, and these included:

From that list – intriguingly – the ETCS deployment on Crossrail has been described as a “Metro based” signalling system, which is apparently not compatible with mainline deployment.  So, here we have a “digital strategy” to deploy ETCS Level 2, but which is not being deployed in a strategic way.  This is what the strategy document actually said:

“The Crossrail core section utilises Metro based signalling that is not scalable from either a technology or procurement perspective for widespread mainline applications.”

Given that Crossrail is supposed to provide a cross London route for main line trains, why would you deploy such a system?  Does it provide full ETCS/ERTMS compatibility, and does calling is a “Metro based” system just mean that its name is the only thing that has changed?

More recently, the rollout of ETCS has been proposed to the East Coast Main Line, and in 2018, the “Digital Railway Strategy” indicated that this would be done in a ‘discrete’ manner, as and when signalling was due for renewal and/or replacement.   Is this just a piecemeal approach?  This is what was stated as the 2018 strategic approach to signalling:

So, further deployments were planned in line with funding through CP6 and CP7, and in late 2020 it was announced that £350 million was to be used to deploy “digital signalling” on the southern section of the East Coast Main Line.   This is the section from King’s Cross to just north of Peterborough, and will be migrated to ETCS level 2 with no lineside signals in a phased approach.  At the same time existing passenger and freight trains will be fitted with the new technology.   The major changes to the infrastructure and signalling systems, including the provision and deployment of ETCS, was set to be carried out by a partnership of Network Rail, WS Atkins and Siemens in a framework contract. 

With a new Transport Secretary in place – Grant Shapps replaced Chris Grayling in July 2019 – the development and rollout of the “digital railway” is still not a strategic plan, but based on business cases for the routes, and often only sections of the main routes.  Much of the national rail network’s main routes will not see ETCS in either Level 1 or Level 2 form until the next two control periods have passed – sometime in the next 10 years.  In fact, according to the Long Term Deployment Plan, most work on the infrastructure – based on a business case for the specific renewals, and retrofitting trains – will happen between 2028 and 2039.  Presumably that depends on funding being available, and whether or not the private train operating companies – passenger and freight – buy into this evolving strategy.

Goodbye to the Signalbox

With the reliance on in-cab signalling and in formation, lineside signals will gradually reduce in importance to the operation of the train, and as innovation and technical developments take place, the control of train movements will become ever more centralised.  That said, controlling traffic flow will still need to have multiple – if fewer – points of control, and changes to movements and/or direction can be implemented more rapidly with 21st century communications.  This will have perhaps its greatest impact on the lineside feature that is the signalbox.

The traditional signalbox – IECCs and SSI as well? – is being replaced by the ROC (Railway Operating Centre) – which although essentially a Network Rail facility, will be a shared facility with the private train operators’ staff working alongside Network Rail at 12 locations. 

So close to nationalisation surely?

Of the ROCs being rolled out by Network Rail, Manchester was first, and kitted out with the latest software and systems for train control, planning, and automated route setting, opened in July 2014 by Sir Richard Leese.  In the UK this is the Hitachi platform for train management, known as “Tranista”, which was developed initially for GE Transportation Systems, but works with both Alstom MCS and Siemens Westcad

Manchester ROC Entrance

Nice, but functional, and behind the walls lies the heart of the operation, computer systems and traffic management software.

I’m guessing they’re not necessarily using Windows!

This has been a long time coming. Back in 2002 I wrote this item for ‘Engineering‘ summarising some of the platforms available, and what was being used and proposed on the UK rail network – much has changed and developed with technology, but it makes an interesting review.

-oOo-

Useful Links:

Network Rail Links

The Gauge War – It’s Over!

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A recent announcement in the press about high-speed trains that are fitted with bogies that can automatically adjust to a change of gauge seems a remarkable achievement. 

Whilst there have always been different track gauges in many countries around the world, the challenge of running a train from A to B on one gauge, and B to C on a different gauge has usually involved people, or goods, changing from one coach or wagon to another – and sometimes different stations.

Automatically changing the space between the wheels as the train runs entirely from A through to C, when the tracks are different gauges – wow, that’s new – well, relatively.

This is the automatic gauge changing train for international services unveiled on October 21, and manufactured by CRRC (Changchun Railway Vehicles).  Derived from the existing CHR400-BF trains of the ‘Fuxing Hao’ China Standard EMU family, this latest 212 metre long trainset is intended to operate between China dn Russia.  Automatically changing gauges along the way.
This is the automatic gauge changing train for international services unveiled on October 21, and manufactured by CRRC (Changchun Railway Vehicles).  Derived from the existing CHR400-BF trains of the ‘Fuxing Hao’ China Standard EMU family, this latest 212 metre long trainset is intended to operate between China dn Russia. 
Automatically changing gauges along the way.

Back in 1880s, Brunel’s ‘Broad Gauge’ advocates were at war with supporters of Stephenson’s ‘Narrow Gauge’, and although this did not necessarily result in literal pitched battles between teams of ‘navvies’, the contractors building the lines were occasionally at loggerheads.  One flashpoint was in Gloucestershire on a route from Stratford-upon-Avon to Chipping Campden, where, having been forced to build a 1-mile long tunnel near Mickleton, and just to the north-west of Campden.  The ‘battle’ involved some 3,000 men, and the Riot Act was read on two occasions, over two days, and Brunel and Marchant both agreed to arbitration.  However, the railway company who had appointed Brunel as engineer paid off Marchant and his contractors and completed the tunnel the work themselves.  Unsurprisingly the legacy of the disturbances caused concern from all the locals of Chipping Campden, and events even reached the pages of the ‘Illustrated London News’.

Replica of GWR Broad Gauge (7′) Gooch “Alma” or “Iron Duke” Class 4-2-2 “Iron Duke” with wood clad boiler and firebox at the Great Western Society’s Didcot Railway Centre.   Photo: By Hugh Llewelyn CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74608818

The gauge war – waged on both the technology and economic front was partially settled in 1846, and followed from an Act of Parliament, with the exciting title “An Act for regulating the Gauge of Railways”.  The reason this was only partially settled, was of course because it made clear that it was illegal to build any new railway that was not to the standard gauge of 4ft 8 ½ins and 5ft 3ins in Ireland.  BUT, the exception was Brunel’s 7ft gauge Great Western Railway – oh and various acts of Parliament already passed or in progress relating to various extensions, branches and other lines in the South West, parts of Wales, etc. 

Nice, clear and straightforward!  The same act also included a clause that prevented any railway gauge to be altered after 1846, used for “the Conveyance of Passengers”.  Fascinating, but clearly problematic, and the system of two gauges in England led to the duplication of passenger and goods station facilities in some locations, and the Act also required the GWR to include a third rail where the standard and 7ft gauge lines met.

Gauge disparity around the world has always caused difficulty, and perhaps nowhere more evidently than in Australia, where the various states began railway projects, with different contractors, and engineers leading to long term operational problems.  The vast majority of railways are built and operate on the standard gauge – 1435mm – but there are still those differences, whether it is in Spain, India, Switzerland or Russia.  In fact, the railways in Russia are built to the Irish standard 5ft 3in gauge, and that’s where the latest techniques and technology to achieve more seamless international train operations with China are being deployed on high-speed services.

The Change of Gauge Made Simple

Back in 2003, an interesting story appeared in the Japanese journal “Railway Technology Avalanche” describing “Gauge-changeable EMUs”.  It was stated that these were developed for through-operation between 1,435-mm gauge and narrow-gauge 1,067-mm gauge lines, and the 3-car test train was fitted with two types of bogie, where the back to back distance could be changed on the move.  Amongst the attributes needed were the capability to change the gauge while running, the inclusion of traction motors, high-speed running stability, and the ability to operate on routes with sharp curves.

The two types of bogie tested included one where the traction motors were essentially fixed to the wheel centre, which could be moved laterally along the fixed, non-rotating axle.  This was achieved by track mounted rails that provided support to the axleboxes, which in turn supported the vehicle body – a locking pin through the axlebox allowed the wheelset to be released and slid along the axle.   The second design adopted a single piece wheel and axle arrangement, with a Cardan shaft drive from the body mounted traction motor. With this design, a stopper in a groove in the axlebox fixed the wheels at that gauge, and during gauge-changing operation the stopper was raised by an arm mounted at ground level, with the wheelset then free to slide laterally to the new track gauge.

Class S/121 EMU for Spain includes the CAF designed ‘BRAVA’ system on the bogies, which allows change of gauge without stopping – perfect for international services between Spain, France, Italy, and other European networks.  In operation since 2009.

Each of these approaches required significant changes to the vehicle running gear, and track mounted rails and arms to complete the transition between rail gauges, but none resulted in any production series build of these EMUs.  

But, this was not the first application of such novel technology – that honour fell to Spain, where in 1969, the ‘Talgo’ system first appeared.  In Spain, the principal track gauge selected was 5 ft 5 2132 in – commonly known as the Iberian Gauge.  However, in the 1980s, all new high-speed lines – and especially those on international routes were constructed to standard gauge, which made cross border services to France much more straightforward.  The Talgo principle was well established in Spain though, and using the ‘Vevey Axle’ provided these unique, articulated trains with the ability to change gauge without stopping, and of course to cross borders.  The system also provides for much higher speeds today, and tilting technology is embedded in the design, and Talgo technology has been developed in recent years and now operates in Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, and even the USA.

This is what the CAF designed ‘BRAVA’ system looks like in action:

Very impressive.

Spain continues to operate an extensive fleet of gauge-changing trainsets between 1435 mm and 1668 mm gauges, but they are limited to a maximum of 250 km/h.  So, the development of ‘gauge changing’ trains has progressed quite a bit in recent years, but less so perhaps on really high-speed fixed formation sets, for standard gauge routes, except for the CAF built Class 120 and 121 for Spain. 

Another view of the latest derivative of the CHR400-BF trains of the ‘Fuxing Hao’ China Standard EMU family, showing the track mounted infrastructure and a wheelset used on these latest high-speed trains.

The most recent addition to the high-speed gauge changing without stopping club is China, where, in October 2020 the state-owned rolling stock manufacturer CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles, displayed a prototype gauge-changing high-speed train intended for international operation.  At 212 m long, the new train is a development of the company’s CHR400-BF design, and intended for international operation between China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, at speeds of up to 400km/hr.  On top of this, the train is planned to work from different voltages, and with operational temperatures varying from +50C to -50C.

Interestingly, one of the first proposals for a variable gauge wheelset was put forward for the GWR at the end of its ‘Broad Gauge’ era, in 1886, by one John Fowler.  Six years later, the ‘Battle of the Gauges’ in Britain was over, and standard gauge was king.  As we know, the rest of the world continued to follow a variety of gauges, but perhaps that problem at frontiers, or between different railway companies has finally been laid to rest with these latest gauge-changing trains.

-oOo-

Useful Links & Further Reading:

HS2 – We’re Off – Officially

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This was the main transport story on the 4th September on numerous news outlets – well after the Covid-19 quarantine issues for travellers. What does it actually mean – work has been underway for some time in site clearances, groundworks in preparation to build a dedicated line for passengers from London to Birmingham.

This is what HS2 stated on its website at what was deemed the official launch day:

“HS2 Ltd has today (4 September 2020) announced the formal start of construction on the project, highlighting the large number of jobs the project will be recruiting for in the coming months and years.

So, this controversial project continues to progress, and the objections and protests continue, but will HS2 achieve its objective? Again, according to the company’s own website, this what they are seeking to achieve:

Yes, I know it is only Phase 1, and the remaining sections will take the high speed links to Manchester, Leeds, etc. But – that’s still a long way off, as indeed is the completion of the 140 miles from London, near Euston & Paddington, to Birmingham Curzon Street. Yesterday too, Solihull gave consent to the building of the Birmingham Interchange Station, with its ‘peoplemover’ link to the NEC. Wonder if that’ll be “Maglev Revisited”? (See: Worlds First Commercial Maglev System)

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Leaves on the Line : Wrong Kind of Snow

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These have been the sorts of headlines that have greeted rail travellers from the mid-Autumn to early Spring, every year on Britain’s railways, and back in the days when it was just British Rail, the target for complaints and abuse was just one organisation. Today, and coming in the next 8 weeks perhaps, the same problems will doubtless occur, and delays, cancellations and complaints, along with tempers no doubt, will rise.

But, are we any further forward? The answer is yes and no – obviously!

Recently, a research paper was published identifying the tannin in leaves that mixed with the damp conditions at the railhead, and in Network Rail’s words – are “the black ice of the railway”. This in certainty will reduce friction between rail and wheel, and loss of traction. The problem, is how to remove it, and increase the adhesion levels.

This was how the media ‘broke’ the story at the end of July.

Guardian headline

Back in steam days it was, to some degree, rather more straightforward perhaps, mixing steam and sand directed at the interface ahead of the wheels as they made contact with the rail was a simple option – not infallible, but an option. Of course, that process continues to this day, as the ‘standard’ method – but improvements were and are essential.

In 2018 the University of Sheffield offered a possible solution to the leaves on the line question with an innovative idea using “dry ice”, in a trial, funded by a grant from Arriva Rail North, which led to further trials on a number of passenger lines during autumn 2019.  Working together with a Sheffield business – Ice Tech Technologies – the process was tested on little used freight lines, in sidings at depots, and later, at other locations. This is a video showing the basic elements of the process:

Fascinating, but perhaps still some way to go.

The CO2 used, is a by-product of other industrial processes, and unlike the conventional railhead cleaning and sanding, does not leave a residue on the rail head. The track cleaning trains do not have to carry 1000s of litres of water, and longer distances can be treated.

Overall the process is intended to provide improved traction and braking control.

At the heart of the challenge posed by leaves, is that layer of ‘black ice’, which in autumn and winter causes so much passenger misery and operational problems. Now, back in Sheffield, the university’s renowned skills and knowledge have identified the cause – and the answer seems to be ‘tannin’, which is present in the leaves falling from the lineside trees every year. These large molecules seems to be the key ingredient that leads to the formation of the compacted layer on the surface of the rail, providing that unwanted reduction in friction at the rail-wheel interface, in turn leading to traction and braking.

Network_Rail_plant_at_Dereham

Network Rail Windhoff Multi-Purpose Vehicle DR98910/60 at Dereham in May 2008.      Photo: DiverScout at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6802613

The railway environment provides many challenges in actually running changes as environmental conditions change over the year, but in Britain, winter especially has been the cause of many train cancellations and delays. Nowadays, the operation of trains and signalling systems are ever more dependent on security of communication – be that signalling centre to train, or track to train – and the on-board systems and traction drives are equally prone to the impact of our changeable weather.

Back in the 1980s, there was a famous, and often-repeated phrase used by a British Rail spokesman to respond to a journalist’s question about snow, train delays and cancellations. That remark: “the wrong kind of snow” was as historic as the BBC weatherman’s observation that a hurricane was not going to happen – and then it did, and Sevenoaks became Oneoak!

The “Wrong Kind of Snow” remark prompted me to write an article in Electrical Review looking at how the UK, dealt with extreme weather conditions, and compared these to how our near neighbours, in continental Europe managed these events. The full feature is as shown below – click on the image to read in full.

Wrong Kind of Snow3

Let’s hope these discoveries abojut tannins and the new techniques for keeping the rail head clean will work to better effect, and reduce the impact of leaves on the line in the coming months.

-oOo-

Useful Links & Further reading:

Ice Tech Technologies Ltd

Rail Innovation & Technology Centre (RITC) at the University of Sheffield

Wellington to Paekakariki

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The Wellington Suburban Electrification

Well, not strictly suburban, but the second major electrification on New Zealand’s railway lines that involved English Electric; this time on the main line linking the capital, Wellington, with Auckland, 400 miles away to the north. This was the first stage in electrifying the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT), across some of the world’s most spectacular, and challenging terrain.

ED102 nlnzimage copy

This is an image of the first of the class built in New Zealand – No. 102 is seen here in 1938 ex-works, without the skirt applied to the very first of the class, built in Preston.                               Photo Courtesy: Ref: APG-0320-1/2-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22545501

 

English Electric were pioneers of electric traction, and were especially successful around the world, notably of course in former British colonies, whether India, Australia, and of course, New Zealand.  In the 1930s, increasing traffic around Wellington, and the success of the Arthur’s Pass project almost a decade earlier, the North Island electrification work led to an order for tnew main line electric locomotives.  These were the first heavyweight (my italics) locos in service on the route from Wellington to Paekakariki, which later became the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT).

At the same time, the fortmer Dick, Kerr Works of English Electric received an order for multiple units to provide faster, more efficient suburban passenger services.

EE Railcar nlnzimage copy 2

One of the “DM” series of multiple units, supplied by English Electric, here seen at Khandallah Station, on the opening day of the service – 4th July 1938.                                   Photo Courtesy: Ref: APG-1483-1/4-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23252719

The locomotives introduced a number of new, novel features, even by the emerging ‘new technology’ of the day, and yet oddly, their wheel arrangement was initially described as that of a steam loco – i.e. a 2-8-4 – but later a 1-Do-2.  It’s hard to know which sounds more compex.

The locos had a long life, and although only two survived to be preserved as static exhibits, they marked at least the start of electric traction progress in New Zealand.  The Preston company received further orders from ‘down under’ after the Second World War too, with a Bo-Bo-Bo design in the 1950s, as the “Ew” class, and as late as the 1980s English Electric – as GEC Traction – were still supplying electrical equipment.

Hopefully the overview of this design will whet your appetite further.

Please click on the image below:

Wellington Cover

 

The earlier project is described here: “Over The Southern Alps via Arthur’s Pass”

Useful Links:

 

 

Rails from Cumbria To The World

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Railpower June 1989 CoverExactly 30 years ago, British Steel Corporation received a £12 million order from India, to supply Grade A wear- resistant rails for the modernisation of a number of high-density urban and high speed inter-urban routes.  The rails would account for around 20% of BSC’s Workington Rolling Mill’s output in a year.  The contract was won against international competition, particularly from companies in Western Europe, Japan and Canada.  In 1989 Workington was one of the world’s leading producers of high quality, wear-resistant rail products.

As part of the United Steel Companies of Sheffield – and later British Steel – Workington ceased making new steel, but operated primarily as a rolling mill, taking in steel ingots from other United Steel sites, and rolling into various sections. BSC Track Products coverFrom 1974, the Moss Bay site began to specialise in permanent way products – such as rails and fish-plates. Continued investment, together with their acquired know-how, ensured that they became the largest British producer of these products.  Whilst further south, in Barrow-in-Furness, the plant that had been the world’s pioneering supplier of steel railway rails, by volume, the works concentrated on even more innovative steelmaking ideas.

In fact, the Workington plant had taken over rail production after the end of World War II, from nearby Barrow-in-Furness, where the world’s largest integrated steel and iron works once stood.  Barrow was the major supplier of railway rails to the world, and only lost that position following the post war economic challenges, and steel industry restructuring in the UK.  Workington took on the mantle and remained one of the world’s leading suppliers until its final closure only 13 or so years ago.

Barrow Steelworks Rail bank

Barrow steelworks rail bank around 1900

Like Barrow, Workington was an innovator in steelmaking technology, and despite the dramatic decline of the industry in the 1980s, was deploying technological innovation, with new techniques and processes until its final demise. In British Steel days, the business had been successful in the world market for wear-resistant high-grade steels, and consolidated this lead with a £7 million investment programme at Workington in 1987, just a couple of years before landing the Indian order.

The modernization at Workington included the world’s first mill-hardened rail production unit at a cost of nearly £4 million, alongside this another £1 million was invested in the second stage of a computerised automated inspection system, to provide ever closer control of dimensional tolerances on finished rail products.

Workington rail bank

Workington rail bank – 1980s

In addition, in 1987, Track Products won a multi-million pound, three-year contract to meet all British Rail’s requirements for rails until 1990. Under the contract, Workington was committed to supplying some 150,000 tonnes of rail to BR.  At the time this was stated to be about ¼ of the capacity of the Workington plant, and with British Rail as the site’s biggest single customer. The collaboration in research effort between British Rail and BSC Track Products on developing rail steel technology maintained the northwest’s reputation for innovation, and was an important factor in generating export sales, from Southend to Singapore.

Workington’s rolling mills had been producing some 1/4 million tonnes of rail, fishplates, baseplates and steel sleepers annually during the mid to late 1980s, and from that total, Workington was actually exporting 50 to 60% of total output.  The West Cumbria (Cumberland) site produced rails from feedstock of 330 x 254mm cross section blooms supplied from other BSC Works, mostly the Lackenby Works on Teeside.  Barrow had also supplied Workington with steel until it took on, developed, and perfected the now commonplace continuous casting process.

Homg Kong MRT

Workington supplied rails for the Hong Kong and numerous other metro systems.

The role of the BSC Track Products mill in the overall manufacturing process was just that – the supplier – and (at least in the 1980s) British Steel had little part in the design, and virtually none at all with the installation.  The greater part of the output was for replacement and/or maintenance purposes, they had been supplying small quantities of the specialist ‘conductor rails’ at home and for some overseas metro systems.

Other exports to – for example – African countries were rare, and even countries such as Nigeria, with sufficient wealth to promote rail expansion proved to be slow to implement projects, leaving British Steel Track Products in a difficult position.  So, the order from India in 1989 was certainly a great, if brief success for the UK steel industry as a whole.

RIA Journal extract June 1989

BSC Track Products map

 

Today, there is nothing left of the steelworks or rolling mills in England’s North West, where it had once led the world, in both the quality and quantity of global rail exports.

 

 

-oOo-

Further reading and useful links:

  1. Barrow Hematite Steel Co (Grace’s Guide)
  2. Barrow Hematite Steel Company (Wikipedia)
  3. Workington Steelworks 2003 shortly before closure – Showing Rail Rolling Process
  4. Steel Rail Rolling Line at Workington (Corus video)

 

 

The Digital Railway – Still On Time?

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Back in the 1990s, Railtrack, and subsequently Network Rail, was charged with implementing the Europe wide signalling and train control system – ERTMS. This included the emerging ETCS (Electronic Train Control System), which was intended to remove the use of optical, lineside signals completely, and use track to train communications through a system of track mounted transmitters/receivers.

But is there more to this digital railway business than simply providing a better train control, management and signalling system?

The UK is still years behind our European neighbours in implementing the ERTMS platforms – although to be fair Railtrack/Network Rail have rolled out the halfway house of Train Protection & Warning System (TPWS), and today the core routes are at the entry level for ETCS. Today’s push for the “Digital Railway” has a lot of chatter, and media speak around improving performance and capacity for economic and commercial growth, but on the technology front, there seems to be some way to go – still.

Back in the late 1990s, the TPWS platform was supposed to have a 15-year lifespan, so is now beyond its final years of scheduled life, alongside the upgraded conventional signalling systems. By 2001 we were implementing systems that conformed to ETCS Level 3, with the Alstom TCS (Train Control System), for the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line (WCML).

There were plans to fit ETCS cab equipment in new stock, but following revisions to Control Period 5 with the ‘Hendy Review’ funding was cut, and the delays in deploying the system could be said to be pushing the UK further behind.

In 2015, the Rail Delivery Group published its 3rd annual “Long Term Passenger Rolling Stock Strategy”, where it stated that:

“During CP5 and CP6, the European Train Control System (ETCS) will be fitted to many fleets
 in preparation for the operation of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).”

2015 Rolling Stock StrategyScreenshot 2019-11-21 at 10.51.37

Originally, it was considered that the modular nature of ETCS would be attractive to introduce the technology at Level 1 on secondary routes, interfacing to the existing IECC (Integrated Electronic Control Centres providing automated route setting, amongst other functions), and SSI (Solid State Interlocking) technology. This ability to upgrade in a phased manner was and is important to the UK and other rail networks, with open communications interfaces allowing integrated working across Europe.

But has the signalling and train control system finally been implemented to the optimistic plans of 2001, when the WCML upgrade was completed?

Perhaps not, since back in 2010, the Department for Transport (DfT)was working with outside advisers to try and determine the risks and benefits of adopting – at a future date – possible adoption of the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS/ETCS) Level 3. This report came to the obvious conclusion that it was necessary, desirable, cost effective and efficient – but that was almost a decade ago.

Towards the end of 2016, and although the Rail Delivery Group, and Network Rail’s initiative for a cross-industry Digital Railway programme was progressing, the Transport Committee in its 7th Report (Rail technology: signalling and traffic management) showed that there was still much discussion on the topic:

Their conclusion:

We conclude that improvements to signalling and traffic management technology are needed to deliver a world-class rail network in the UK. In principle we support the idea that the deployment of the European Train Control System (ETCS), Traffic Management software and Driver Advisory systems should be accelerated but this should be subject to careful consideration of the Digital Railway business case, clarity about funding, and a clear understanding of how this programme would affect existing plans for work on enhancements and renewals. In particular, Network Rail’s Digital Railway business case should include a full cost/benefit analysis of all potential systems for a particular route, and consult upon it, before finalising its Digital Railway strategy. 

So, the UK’s rail network, its technology and industry does still appear to have some way to go – despite the fitting of ETCS Level 3 technology to the latest rolling stock, and plans for trials on various routes.

That said, the limited trials using Class 155 multiple units and departmental Class 37 diesels in Wales, on the Cambrian line paved the way for the application of ETCS level 2 on the Thameslink route, with GTR Class 700 trains. The trains began operating in August 2016, with a train running from St Pancras to Blackfriars, and having the ATO software overlay installed to allow automated operations. According to some reports this meant the driver would be responsible for supervising operations via instructions and guidance from in-cab screens, as opposed to controlling the train in a more conventional manner.

Currently, under the Control Period (CP) plans for the East Coast and ex-GWR main lines, ETCS will be introduced in phases – but it will take between 2024 and 2049 to complete the work. This is what is on the current plans:

  • CP6 (by 2024) – KX to Crews Hill and Hatfield
  • CP7 (by 2029) – Sandy to Peterborough; Grantham to Retford and Plymouth to Totnes
  • CP8 (by 2034) – Peterborough to Grantham; York (North) to Northallerton; Ferryhill to Alnmouth, and Paddington to Slough and Heathrow; Totnes to Exeter
  • CP9 (by 2039) – Retford to York (North); Northallerton to Ferryhill; Alnmouth to Berwick, along with Wootton Bassett to Exeter via Bristol, and Pewsey to Cogload Junction
  • CP10 (by 2044) – Didcot area (Cholsey to Wantage Road); Didcot to Oxford and Honeybourne
  • CP11 (by 2049) – Reading area (Slough to Cholsey); Wantage Road to Wootton Bassett; Reading to Pewsey

But no work will be undertaken on the ECML for Control Periods 10 and 11 – well at least that’s the current position, I think.

Thameslink trains now operate with ETCS Level2, with ATO in the central section, which puts that route at the forefront of implementing ATO with ERTMS, operating the new Class 700 Siemens “Desiro City” multiple units. These were procured under a PFI arrangement from 2013, from a consortium of Cross London Trains Ltd, which included Siemens Project Ventures GmbH, Innisfree Ltd., and 3i Infrastructure Ltd., and the trains began operating in 2016.  They were either 8 or 12-car units, and were later supplemented with an order for another 25 6-car trains – the Class 717 units, that would be used on the Great Northern line. In the end these new trains replaced no fewer than 6 older designs, from the Class 319 to Class 466.

Currently the only other ETCS Level 2 equipped and – well almost operational – trains are the Class 345 9-car trains for the Crossrail line. These actually began running in June 2017, and used at the outer ends, on the Great Eastern and Great Western main lines, as ETCS implementation is completed. In the Crossrail case, the trains are based on Bombardier’s “Aventra” design, but, unlike Thameslink, they are equipped for 25kV a.c. operation only, with no 3rd rail contact shoe. The Crossrail trains also carry equipment that allow them to use the TPWS warning system devised as a ‘halfway house’ towards ETCS in the 1990s.

Back in 2018, the DfT produced an 8-page implementation plan/technical spec for interoperability – the Control, Command System (CCS), under the slogan “Moving Britain Ahead”. On Page 4 of that document it states that the “Class B System”, which is the old “Halfway House” platform of TPWS from the late 1990s is supported by an industry wide spec. It also states that migration to ETCS will be on a “business led” basis, and implies that the “Class B System” will continue to be used in the UK.

“This specification defines all the required functionality and performance in a way which does not constrain the market to any particular supplier.” 


When ETCS was being promoted in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and when it was to be rolled out on the West Coast Main Line, in a phased manner, there were still multiple suppliers of ETCS equipment – whether for Level 1, 2 or 3. Not sure that still holds, but certainly the technology has progressed – perhaps the primary objection to speeding up its rollout is the rolling stock problem, and retrofitting to the large fleet of older vehicles. It’s great that it has been implemented for Thameslink, and there are still plans to implement – but TPWS was only intended to have a 15 year lifespan in 1999.

Following a review in 1999 of Railtrack’s West Coast upgrade, the approach to implementing train control through an ETCS platform was not progressed in the original manner, and it was recommended a more piecemeal approach, as an overlay to existing systems was taken. That is one of the ways in which ETCS can be implemented, with no need for a ‘big bang’ approach, and all that that would involve both technically, operationally, and S&T and driver training.

So, you might say, the UK’s “Digital Railway” is getting there, to misquote an old British Rail advertising slogan – but it will be sometime yet, before that objective is realised. In truth, some of us may not even be here to see that…… ah well.

-oOo-

TPWS

TPWS Feature coverClick on the image opposite, which will take you to a short feature written in 2001 about the implementation of TPWS – the UK’s initial step towards a full ERTMS/ATP train control system.

 

 

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HS2 Hits the Buffers

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So now we know – too costly, and at least another 5 to 7 years to go before Birmingham is reached.  Controversial from the beginning, and 10 years in the making – a bit like Crossrail – the cost has seemingly outweighed the benefits.  It was begun in 2009, and yet now seems to be at an end, due to the ever increasing budget overspends.  HS1 – the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) was also very much delayed, and the connection to the Chunnel was initially at an embarrassingly low speed, until the train emerged on the French side of the Channel.  The UK it seems, is still waiting to catch up with the rest of Europe when it comes to high-speed, high-tech trains.

What surprises me, and perhaps many others, is that we have had the technology – be it, power control electronics, signalling systems, infrastructure technology – for over 30 years, and the last high-speed main line (excluding HS1) was completed in 1990.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, British Railways managed to electrify the West Coast Main Line (WCML) from London to Manchester and Liverpool, and then to Birmingham – completed by 1967.  This was at a time when the technology and techniques were new, novel, untried and untested on a UK main line, and complete in just 8 years – 2 years LESS than it has taken work on the single route from London to Birmingham for HS2 to even begin construction.  On top of that, the west coast route was electrified to Glasgow by 1974 – just 15 years after work began.

OK, maybe I am comparing apples and oranges in some areas, and the WCML was not an entirely new railway, but maybe that is offset by the fact that in the 1960s, the technology was brand new, and the railway was much more complex than it is today.

According to the latest report – before the latest delays were announced – the new high-speed railway would not reach Crewe (where no interchange station was planned) until 2031, and Manchester Piccadilly by 2035.  That’s a full 26 years after HS2 Ltd was set up, and 22 years after the Act of Parliament gave it the go-ahead, and now if the 5-year delay is included, that means Crewe by 2036 and Manchester by 2040.

It seems it’s not just money that is affected by inflation, but major infrastructure project time lines – what took 15 years in the 1960s/70s, takes around 40 years in the 21st Century!  Oh, yes, and there’s the cost spiral too from around £55 billion in 2015 to £88 billion in 204? – an increase of 60%.

Back in 2014 HS2 Ltd submitted its case for the new route as both an engine for growth and rebalancing Britain – the report was quite thorough, but with little by way of reference to the environment as a whole.  Of course, it was not possible 5 years ago to see the growth in importance of climate change – although it was possible to estimate a significant growth in the UK population by 2040.  Maybe HS2 Ltd was not aware of the connection between the two.

HS2 Key Principles 2014

But one of the key principles mentioned in the document, and an aspect of the project that is not being addressed is transport integration.  HS2 is about separation, and it is not a network of rail routes – it is just a number of new links between centres of population, with almost no attention paid to freight transport.

It goes on to suggest that the Crewe hub, with links to Liverpool, will be “transformative” for businesses.  What it does not say is how, or even take account of current information systems technology where business travel is being rendered unnecessary.

Transformative for business

Fascinating statement here, where it states that having the link to Manchester will make it easier to work in both London and Manchester, with a 60 minute reduction in journey time.  In 2014, the authors of this report were clearly unaware of the ability of people to work on trains, whether by using the on-board WiFi, or any of the various sophisticated ‘telepresence’ systems, that allow people to be present in meetings from different locations.

The element of the rail infrastructure that demands much more attention is the East-West routes to link Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle – NOT a link from London to Birmingham.  This diagram in the 2014 HS2 document shows the right place to start:

East West & North South

Still, all that seems to be behind us now, with the Government review likely to be underway soon, progress of this project has now followed the pattern of most UK train journeys in the 21st Century – delayed or cancelled.

Useful Links:

Alstom Proposed HS2 Train Design

-oOo-

 

High Altitude Steam

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In  1871,  the first mountain railway  in  Europe using the rack and pinion system,  the Vitznau Rigi Bahn (VRB) was opened, and not surprisingly perhaps, it  was in Switzerland. It was not the first mountain railway, since just 3 years ealier, the Mont Cenis Railway, linking France and Italy was opened, using the unique ‘Fell System’.  The new railway climbed from  Vitznau  on the shores of Lake Lucerne to  the  summit  of Mount  Rigi – the ‘Queen of Mountains’ – some 6,000 feet above sea level. Apart from its position as the first rack railway in Europe, the Vitznau Rigi Bahn (VRB) is unusual, in being built to the 4ft 8 1/2ins gauge, where most other railways in Switzerland are built to the metre gauge, or less. Of course, it  was not possible to climb the mountain by conventional means, and the first  steam locomotives also saw the introduction of  the  “Rig­genbach” cog wheel, or rack railway system. With this, a toothed rack  was placed in the centre of the two running rails, and  the cogwheels  on  the locomotives engaged tooth by tooth  with  this rack, to enable the train to maintain a grip.

Other rack systems had  been developed, all more or less dervived from Blenkinsop’s toothed wheel locomotive design for the Middleton Colliery near Leeds. Blenkinsop’s rails had a toothed rack cast on the outside of the running rails, to allow a pinion on the engine’s wheels to engage, and provide the essential grip for traction. The system was patented in 1811, but apart from mineral and colliery lines, by the 1830s it was proven that adhesion only locomotives were the best fit for a conventional railway. The only exception was of course where to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, some very steep graients and sharp curves were needed.

Other systems to provide extra adhesion or braking force, such as the ‘Fell System’, adopted  for  the Rimutaka line in New Zealand, where additional wheels, driven by auxiliary steam engines, and pressed horizontally against a central rail were used. Back in central  Switzerland, as the expansion in the use of true rack and pinion railways grew, a near neighbour of Mount Rigi – Mount Pilatus –  needed to adopt an entirely different system. So, in  addition to the first, and oldest mountain  railway in Europe, the Lucerne area also boasts the world’s steepest rack railway.

Vitznaurhof & Rigi 1989-1

Classic view from the station at “Rigi Kulm”, looking down over Lake Lucerne, with a train making its way down to Vitznau. (c) Rodger Bradley

In this case, climbing over 7,000 feet, to the  summit of  Mount  Pilatus, where the three miles long Pilatusbahn was opened  in 1889, nearly twenty years after the Vitznau Rigi  Bahn (VRB). On Pilatus, the Lochner rack system was used, where  the teeth on the central rack projected sideways, and the cog  wheels on the vehicles engaged on either side of this rack, to give even greater  grip. Pilatusbahn was still steam hauled until about the time of the First World War, when  the vertical boilered  steam railcars  were superseded by electric vehicles.

The  Riggenbach Rack system, and the Vitznau Rigi  Bahn (VRB) hold a particularly special place in railway development in Switzerland and Europe. To this day, the “Queen of Mountains” – Rigi  – continues to see steam locomotives hauling people to  one of the most famous Alpine summits. A famous visitor, one Mark Twain, likened his experience on the Rigi to sliding down the balusters of a staircase!

En-route, the line climbs through lush Alpine  meadows, on quite severe gradients to an intermediate junction station  at Rigi Kaltbad – over 4,400 feet above sea level  –  to its ultimate destination Rigi Kulm. There are some six  interme­diate stops possible, although some of these are halts only,  and on request, or for other technical, or operational reasons. From the  summit, on a clear day it is possible to see for many  miles around, with superb views across Lake Lucerne, towards the  ‘Roof of Europe’ and the Bernese Oberland. Nowadays, steam traction on the VRB terminates at Rigi Kaltbad, and the journey behind one of the  two  steam  locomotives – Nos. 16 or 17  –  takes  about  45 minutes, according to the timetables.

The  early motive power used on the Vitznau  Rigi  Bahn (VRB)  was composed of vertical boilered steam  locomotives,  and not  the ‘kneeling cow’ variety more commonplace in later  years. In  fact, the very first of this type, was also the first  to  be built  by SLM (Schweizerische Lokomotiv and Maschinenfabrik),  in 1873, and carried works number 1. This locomotive was taken  out of  normal service in 1937, and for a time was on display at  the station  in  Vitznau, and eventually found a home  in  the  Swiss Railway Museum in Luzern.

In fact, VRB locomotive No.7, as  pre­served,  is  the third oldest steam locomotive  in  the  national collection, behind “Limmat” and “Genf”, which were built for more conventional  railways  in Switzerland. VRB No.7 has a  pair  of outside cylinders, carried either side of the central boiler,  on what  could  be  described as an 0-4-0  wheel  arrangement.  The driver’s position is immediately behind the vertical boiler, with a  small fenced platform to the front. With a cab roof as  well, for  1873,  No.7 was a fairly advanced  design, even considering  the comforts  of the crew! Not surprisingly perhaps, it is  far  too valuable  to be used in regular service today.  However,  during the  VRB’s 125th anniversary year 1996, No.7 was used  for special  excursions from May onwards. It is now a quarter of acentury older, and this historic railway continues to draw many thousands of visitors every year. Those special excursions are still possible today, in 2019.

Rigi_vertical_boiler

The oldest vertical boilered steam locomotive in the world – No. 7 is seen here at the summit stations ” Rigi Kulm”. Built by SLM in 1873.                        Photo: Audrius Meskauskas – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7157010

Switzerland was amongst the very first countries in the world to adopt electric traction, and its unusual mountain  rail­ways  were in almost every aspect pioneers of this form of  trac­tion. On the Rigi though, steam traction and the Riggenbach rack system  are  still in action today, with  two  more  conventional locomotives, also built by SLM. The 0-4-2 locomotives Nos. 16  & 17  are at work every year on the Rigi, normally one Sunday  each month.  Both  are now ‘getting on’ a bit, having been  built  in 1923, they are perhaps well into pensionable age. As the  photo­graph shows, the construction of the locomotive is almost conven­tional, with a horizontal boiler, rear cab, and a pair of  inside cylinders  carried  under the smokebox. The coupled  wheels  are separated by a jackshaft, which connects both the outside wheels, and  the cog wheels connecting with the Riggenbach rack,  in  the centre of the tracks. As the train climbs upwards of course, the boiler  becomes  parallel, rather than tipped  forward,  ensuring that the water level is horizontal. These are fascinating  loco­motives  to watch in action, as the inside cylinders  drive  onto the  centrally  placed jackshaft, which transfers  power  to  the coupling  rods, and finally, the wheels. The diminutive  locomo­tives  –  only 7 metres, or just under 23 feet long –  wease  and struggle  to the top of the mountain.

Luzern -8

No.16 making ready for the ascent from Vitznau. The experience of riding to the summit of the “Queen of Mountains” being propelled by one of these is truly amazing.                             (c) Rodger Bradley

Today  the  VRB’s main motive power is  electric,  with multiple units climbing to the summit and back every day, in only 30  minutes. The electric railcars reach Rigi Kaltbad in a  mere 18  minutes. Once at Rigi Kaltbad, the VRB is joined by  another line,  rising from the opposite side of the mountain –  the  Arth Goldau Bahn. The ARB too has its unique characteristics, includ­ing some of the oldest working electric railcars in  Switzerland. One  of these dates back to 1899, and is one of the oldest  vehi­cles  specially designed to transport winter sports  enthusiasts. The  ARB  route from Arth Goldau to Rigi Kulm includes  five  in­termediate  halts  in the long climb, and takes around 30  to  35 minutes for the journey.

There have been upgrades and changes in rolling stock over the years, but steam traction is still available – even down to the oldest vertical boilered loco – No.7 – and the infrastructure has been renewed in places. In the autumn of 2017, the plan to buy new rolling stock was progressed, not by simply replacing the older stock with newer designs, but by procuring new, up to date vehicles with the latest ideas and technology.

The main project “Zielkonzept Betrieb” underway is to enhance the operating environment to take account of the complexity, and interchangeability, of running services with such a variety of stock. The infrastructure changes have included renewing catenary sections and replacing all rectifier stations along the line, and a new control system. The new trains, which are scheduled to be in service This procurement project is planned to see the first vehicle of the newest generation on the rails in time to celebrate the 150th anniversary in 2021.

The new two-car trains will feature more passenger space, barrier free access, and of course, state of the art technology. That technology will include regenerative braking, where instead of burning the braking energy through banks of resistors, on descent the trains will simply feed the energy back into the supply network. A neat, sustainable solution, and in a sense perhaps, the downhill trains will power the uphill operations.

 

New 2-car sets

Planned new railcars for the VRB.

Central Switzerland still boasts more than one regular­ly  steam worked mountain railway, including  the  800mm gauge Brienz-Rothorn Bahn,  which also uses the Riggenbach rack system. The  BRB  was steam hauled until the 1960s, and in fact,  it  was the  last all steam hauled rack railway in Switzerland.  The BRB celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2017, and continues to attract thousands of visitors every year. In later years, the BRB’s fleet  of  steam locomotives was supplemented  by  modern  diesel railcars  (the railway has not been electrified), which now  work regularly  at  off-peak periods, in turn with the  steam  locomo­tives. There are no less than seven steam locomotives stored at Brienz,  and they are used to provide the main services  on  this railway to the top of the Rothorn.   The BRB starts from the base of the mountain, at Brienz, and climbs to the summit, some  2,252 metres, or nearly 7,400 feet above sea level.

BRB 1

Classic BRB locomotive about to set off from the station at Brienz – still carrying the bulk of traffic up until the 1990s.   (c) Rodger Bradley

New BRB steam loco No12

One of the then new SLM built steam locomotives, with the latest steam technology, and coupled to a new passenger car.

In 1992, the BRB, together with Austria’s Schafbergbahn ordered new steam locomotives from SLM – some 40 years after the last steam rack locomotives were built. The new locomotives took account of the latest ideas and technology available for the new locomotives, which have now been operating on the BRB for almost 30 years!

Given the Swiss reputation for reliability, and  acces­sibility,  it is a pleasure to be able to reach easily,  and  see these  fascinating  steam  locomotives still  in  use.  For  the Vitznau Rigi Bahn, now approaching its 150th birthday in 2021, the sight of some of the oldest Riggenbach locomotive in operation will be a memorable occasion.

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Electric Traction Revolution?

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60 years ago on the 27th Nov
ember this year, Britain’s pioneer 25Kv a.c. electric locomotive was officially handed over to British Railways. Then numbered E3001, it
was to be the first of a long series of successful 
locomotive designs for the West Coast Main
Line (WCML). Within this series there have
 come to be seven basic designs, and a number of sub-divisions of the classes ALl to AL7. Although the last of these was never actually
 introduced under the old title of AL7, but
 designated Class 87 with the new “TOPS”
 locomotive codes, the family likeness remains
 very strong despite the detail alterations to the appearance of the latest type.

gec092

87005 – the final design of the 1st generation electric traction for British Rail, provided the motive power for the completion of the 400+ miles of route from London to Glasgow in 1974.

The choice of 25kV a.c. electrification to be used on B.R. was the subject of exhaustive investigation and comparative examination with other arrangements. Indeed, as there was no a.c. overhead
 main line contact system in regular operation, B.R. decided in 1951
 to convert the Lancaster-Morecambe-
Heysham section to 50 cycle, 6,600 volt, to
 evaluate the potential. The only alternative to 
an untried a.c. system was the l500v d.c. arrangements favoured by the former LNER for its Manchester-Sheffield-Wath and Liverpool St.-Shenfield lines.

However, by the time of the announcement in 1955 of B.R.’s multi-million pound modernisation and re-equipment programme, a not inconsiderable degree of experience of operation of an a.c. system had been acquired. It was perhaps the potential of the system, using 25,000V from the National Grid, rendering it economically superior to the d.c. system that finally won the day.

The decision was announced on 6th March 1956, that 25Kv a.c. would be the system of electrification used by British Railways on the WCML between London (Euston), Manchester and Liverpool, and additionally on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), between London (King’s Cross) and York and Leeds. The optimism generated through the Modernisation Plan for the electrification of two main routes was relatively short lived however. By 1959, it was seen that this would not be possible within the time limits proposed in the 1956 White Paper, and consequently a re-appraisal of the Modernisation Plan provided for the introduction of diesel
 traction “without prejudice to eventual electrification” on the main line where this was to be deferred. Another factor in this re-evaluation was the enthusiasm with which the private car, road building, and the removal of some restrictions on licensing of road haulage, and goods transport.

Another interesting statistic is the total route mileage electrified in Britain. There is a Wikipedia entry that states: “In 2006, 40%—3,062 miles (4,928 km) of the British rail network was electrified, ….”   But, in a BR publication (“Railway Electrification – A Discussion Paper”), dated May 1978, the route mileage electrified was 2,341 miles, or 21% of the total network.

So, does that mean that between 1978 and 2006, the increase in the electrified network was only 721 miles, and the 2006 total route mileage was just over 7,600 miles, but 38 years earlier the route mileage was 11,100 miles. A reduction in the size of the network of 3,500 miles, and at the same time adding just under 400 miles to the electrified main lines with the East Coast Main Line project – delayed from 1956.

There was of course a Department of Transport / BRB report on the subject of main line electrification in 1981, which offered a number of options to expand the network. From the perspective of the 25kV a.c. schemes, the final report’s “Option II’ – the ECML, Midland Main Line, Glasgow to Edinburgh, and Edinburgh to Carstairs was the option followed.   This was described in the report’s accompanying table as a “modest” expansion of the network. Ironically the recently completed electrification from Preston to Blackpool was included in the “Base Case”, and for completion in 1984 – a mere 35-year delay for that particular line. Slightly less of a delay was incurred by the Western Region (now GWR) main line out of Paddington. That scheme was included in the more advanced “Option III” ‘Medium Case’ for completion by 1996 to Bristol, and by 2002 to Plymouth – ah well, some of it got completed, but all has been hampered by the tragedy of privatisation.

87034 - William Shakespeare at Carlisle

Penultimate days of British Rail operations, with the classic motive power for the West Coast Main Line, here seen at Carlisle in the late 1980s.

 

 

Today we are still waiting on the possibilities of the HS2 / HS3 developments, and have pressed ahead in the last 10 years or so with the Paddington to South Wales, Midland Main Line, Glasgow to Edinburgh central belt, and a number of smaller connecting lines. These latter have mainly been around big cities; Manchester, Leeds, etc., with additional links to Blackpool, and specialist lines such as that connecting London with Heathrow Airport, or the Crossrail projects.

Looking back at the 1978 BR discussion paper, the current routes and electrified network was covered then by Options B and C for the Inter City Routes strategy. Had the strategy been implemented back then as Option C – the electrified network would have reached 5,300 miles, some 2,200 more than was achieved by 2006. However, the real issues that delayed the strategy was the lack of will to invest, and the mounting subsidies paid to BR during the later 1970s and 1980s.

So this was Richard Marsh’s plan in 1978:

InterCity Route Miles Strategy


In the nearly 40 years since, some work has been done, but the UK’s once extensive railway industry – both private and BR’s own workshops – has largely disappeared, and any achievements have been wholly dependent on the success of imported technology. One of the most telling observations in the 1978 discussion paper was in the concluding paragraphs, where the BRB stated:

“A railway system needs to be provided which enables our successors to run an economic transport system in the year 2000 and beyond If railway electrification is to be part of that, as now seems probable, a start needs to be made now. If the country has available the capital for regeneration of industry and preparation for the energy conditions of the next century, it would require only a very small proportion of this investment to convert the main public bulk transportation system to electric power.”

In that same booklet, it was pointed out that the UK was well behind in the proportion of its network that was electrified, coming 17th out of 21 countries, from Norway to Belgium and Japan.

Table A1

Today we are still waiting on the possibilities of the HS2 / HS3 developments, and have pressed ahead in the last 10 years or so with the Paddington to South Wales, Midland Main Line, Glasgow to Edinburgh central belt, and a number of smaller connecting lines. These latter have mainly been around big cities; Manchester, Leeds, etc., with additional links to Blackpool, and specialist lines such as that connecting London with Heathrow Airport, or the Crossrail projects.

By 2016/17 that position had changed, and the UK had slipped 3 places to 20th, or second from bottom, and yet the % of the network now electrified had risen to 33%.

Country Network Length Electrified length % Electrified
 Switzerland 5,196 5,196 100%
 Luxembourg 275 275 100%
Sweden 10,874 8,976 83%
 Belgium 3,602 2,960 82%
Italy 16,788 13,106 78%
 Netherlands 3,055 2,314 76%
Japan 27,311 20,534 75%
 Bulgaria 4,030 2,880 71%
 Austria 5,527 3,826 69%
 Norway 3,895 2,622 67%
 Portugal 2,546 1,633 64%
Poland 19,209 11,874 62%
Spain 15,949 9,699 61%
France 29,273 15,687 54%
Germany 38,594 20,500 53%
Russia 85,500 43,700 51%
 Slovakia 3,626 1,587 44%
 Hungary 7,945 2,889 36%
 Czech Republic 9,567 3,237 34%
United Kingdom 16,320 5,357 33%
Romania 10,774 3,292 31%

Source of table: (Wikipedia) List_of_countries_by_rail_transport_network_size

So according to this latest table, another 5,120 miles of route have been electrified in the UK since 1978. By far the longest route to receive its 25kV a.c. overhead contact system was the East Coast Main Line, from London (Kings Cross) to Edinburgh, which was completed in 1991 – so that was another 400 miles. After that, there was a plan to electrify the route from London (St Pancras) to Sheffield – although that’s only reached as far north as Leicestershire, before being controversially abandoned. The completion of the Channel Tunnel was the driver to construct a high-speed link between the tunnel and London (Waterloo), and with minor extensions added a further 100 miles by the time HS1 was opened in 2003.

The Western Region main line, or after privatisation, the GWR main line from London (Paddington) to Bristol and South Wales has only been completed in the last couple of years – but only as far as Bristol Parkway. The piecemeal, stop-start nature of progress on electrification of main lines since the mid 1990s has spectacularly affected interoperability across the whole network. The latest trains on the old Western Region main line to Bristol are hybrids, and have to operate as diesel trains in the non-electrified sections, obviously at lower speeds. The plan to electrify the main line to South Devon, Plymouth and possibly Penzance is not even on the horizon in the 21st Century.

The additional 4,000+ miles that have been electrified since 1978 includes the completion of the Edinburgh to Glasgow corridor, and the link to the West Coast Main Line at Carstairs, together with numerous other ad-hoc changes and extensions. This activity included work to extend the overhead out of London (Liverpool Street) into East Anglia; Cambridge and Kings Lynn.

In 1981, the Government published a final report advocating the case for main line electrification, and in a couple of key points made a recommendation that more, and not less electrification at a faster rate would offer best value for money. These are two of the key paragraphs that make those points:

Para 13 - 1981 DoT ReviewPara 14 - 1981 DoT Review

So how did we do? Well, not so good really.

Currently, in 2019, Crossrail – which links in to the GWR main line west of London – is still not complete, and the plans for a route between Oxford and Cambridge, and a north-south Crossrail2 are still only on the drawing board. The very latest activity on the London (Euston) to Birmingham – HS2 – is looking more likely to be cancelled than progressed, whilst the demand for increased electrification between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and beyond is growing by the day. The so-called Northern Powerhouse Rail is clearly an essential need, to link the economic centres in the North of England, which, between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds/Bradford, and Tyneside/Wearside has a population of well over 7 million.

In February 2019, “The Engineer” carried out a poll of its readers to see what form of motive power would be 1st choice to replace the diesel trains – all of which will be gone by 2040. In the poll some 43% of respondents advocated full electrification.

Another 29% were in favour of batteries+hydrogen power, with another 12% advocating pure hydrogen powered trains.

If the recent progress of electrification is anything to go by, I doubt if any of these will progress very far, and we will, as usual be subject to the same uncertain, start-stop process that we have seen for the past 20 years. But, electrification is, and remains the only sustainable option – both in energy cost, and environmental impact.

So, 60 years on from the handover at Sandbach in Cheshire, in November 1959, we have come so far, but there is still a long way to go. The ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ proposals include some aspects of planned 25kV electrification from the 1950s, 1960s, and late 1970s, and the line from Manchester to Leeds is more than 40 years late. There has been very limited activity on rail, and especially electrification work over the past 20 years, and today’s ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ ideas are not a fitting reflection of the work completed in 1959.

Northern Powerhouse Rail Map

The lines shown on this map in light green are for new electrified routes, and the connection from Manchester to Leeds was identified as needing electrification almost 40 years ago – and it is still pending!

Useful Links:

 

Azuma_and_HST_at_Leeds_station_(geograph_6187255)

One of the new generation Azuma high-speed trains alongside one of the remaining IC125 (HST) sets at Leeds Station. By Stephen Craven, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79978602 

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