Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, explains how the UK’s railways can once again become the envy of the world
In the two centuries since George Stephenson, founder of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, built the Stockton-Darlington railway line, the British railway system has gone from the envy of the world to Europe’s basket case. The world’s oldest railway network is now less efficient than its European counterparts, forcing it to rely on roughly £5 billion in government subsidy every year just to stay afloat, while ticket prices continue to skyrocket.
The issues facing the nation’s railways are not being ignored by business either. In an Institution of Mechanical Engineers survey earlier this year, 67 per cent of the 1,000 UK manufacturers polled said the railways were inadequate for the development and growth of a modern manufacturing sector, making it by far the least popular part of the UK’s transport infrastructure.
Rolling stock development needs to be comparable with other transport modes. The automotive sector is one the main contributor to greenhouse gases and this has encouraged the introduction of the Euro emissions standards (now at Euro 5 and Euro 6), which has led manufacturers of the diesel engines to design more efficient engines in order to meet the legislation. European Non Road Mobile Machinery legislation will be introducing a similar legislative framework to other transport modes.
Despite this the nation’s trains are more popular in terms of sheer numbers than they have been in decades. The UK has more train services than Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Norway combined – an astonishing fact considering the UK’s relatively small area. Nevertheless the UK’s railways are still running close to capacity thanks to a 50 per cent rise in passenger numbers over the past decade.
Freight traffic has followed a similar pattern, rising 40 per cent over the same period. We now send more goods by rail than many of our European counterparts. The railway network is therefore acting as an ever more vital glue holding together the fragile UK economy.
There are causes for optimism. In the four years since the opening of the High Speed 1 line from London to the Channel Tunnel, it has become a key business and leisure link between the UK and the continent, accounting for 70 per cent of all traffic between London and Paris.
The High Speed 2 link now appears to have firm government commitment in the face of severe parliamentary and local pressure. It will bring economic and technological benefits over the coming decades that far outweigh the short-term costs, as well as easing the severe overcrowding issues swamping Britain’s passenger services. High Speed 2 also releases capacity on existing lines that can be used to expand freight services. Crossrail also represents a welcome investment in our creaking rail infrastructure.
The McNulty report
The McNulty report in May showed that the government is also open to large-scale reform. It is clear that the existing industry arrangements have produced a railway less efficient and more expensive than it should be. The McNulty report includes some welcome proposals. Engineering expenditure, difficulties with the introduction of innovative technologies and inconsistent messages to the engineering supply chain have all contributed to higher than necessary costs, and there are clear benefits to be gained from a more efficient railway and greater collaboration between Network Rail and train operators.
However, the report falls short of recommending a much-needed wholesale restructuring of the railways. It will remain to be seen whether the proposals will be enough to address the inefficiencies of the current system. The most important thing for the government to remember when enacting these reforms is that efficiency and cost-cutting are not the same thing. The former can lead to a faster, more reliable and, indeed, less costly service for all passengers and businesses while focusing purely on the latter could end up simply pricing, through higher fares, these same passengers and businesses off the railways altogether.
There is plenty more that can be done to bring our railways back to the top of the rankings. The rail network system has so many different components, from track to rolling stock to signalling to operations. A systems engineering framework has to be adopted to ensure that there is improvement in efficiency in all these diverse components.
This approach can monitor the whole-system utility of innovations and encourage improvements not only in the technological system but also in the policy design process. The key to these processes is delivering value for money and minimising the risks to rail industry stakeholders.
Targeted, intelligent investment into our crumbling and out-dated infrastructure should be near the top of any rail reformer’s list. We continue to adopt a belts and braces approach to asset repair which, though safe, is inefficient and less reliable than looking towards long-term improvements when parts of the network need maintenance.
Long-term asset degradation needs to be better understood. It is only by building a deep insight into where and when our tracks, our rolling stock or our signalling is likely to fail in the future that we can start to allocate scarce resources properly and ensure a reliable, safe rail system. This can only be achieved by improving asset management systems, for instance by introducing a detailed asset database linked to software systems.
Improving rolling stock
Relatively simple improvements can also be found in the design of the rolling stock. As train speeds rise with the introduction of high speed rail and innovations such as the West Coast Main Line’s tilting trains, aerodynamics will play a larger role. Reducing air resistance through better design could help reduce energy consumption and, consequently, costs. Composite materials, already being used for some railway vehicle bodies and interiors, could lead to greater efficiencies if rolled out on a wider scale, with the increased initial cost more than offset by lighter loads in the long term.
Suspension is another area in which improvements could be made. Almost all current railway vehicles use reliable suspensions that are entirely mechanical, using the elasticity of steel or rubber and energy dissipation to function. Swapping this for a more active suspension would improve ride quality and provide a more comfortable journey for passengers. An example of this is the Japanese E2 and E3 Shinkansen vehicles introduced in 2002 where a pneumatic actuator was installed in parallel with a secondary suspension damper. This led to reductions in accelerations of up to 9dB in the passenger compartment.
Higher speed trains will require power transmission systems of greater capacity to supply the additional energy needed. In the face of rising fuel prices and growing environmental concerns, devices and techniques to solve these problems and boost energy conversion and storage are being tested for future use.
These options include fuel cells (usually hydrogen), which convert chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Fuel cells are different from batteries as they require a constant source of fuel and oxygen to run, but they can produce electricity continually for as long as these inputs are supplied.
Alternatively the use of supercapacitors is being investigated. Supercapacitors store energy by means of a static charge (as opposed to an electrochemical reaction); a voltage differential applied on the positive and negative plates charges the capacitor, this charge is then released and used to power the train. The use of flywheels is another consideration as they store energy when torque is applied by the energy source, and then release this stored energy when the energy source is not applying torque to it which would power the train. All these options are in development and could become a regular fixture on the nation’s trains in the coming decades.
Britain’s rail track is also in need of an upgrade. Track structure in the UK has not changed significantly since rail’s early days, with steel rails supported on sleepers in turn supported by ballast. The Engineering and Physical Science Research Centre’s Track 21 project, bringing together academics from the Universities of Birmingham, Southampton and Nottingham as well as leading industry figures, is just one example of how British innovation and world-class engineering know-how could bring track design into the 21st century.
Aiming for a radical overhaul of track structure, Track 21 has commenced an in-depth study into foundations, ballast, sleepers and noise and vibrations to boost performance in every facet of track design. As professor William Powrie, Track 21's project leader, said upon the project's launch: "The railway industry is constantly making gradual improvements, but what we're doing is something different. We're interested in high-quality science. Working with our industry partners, we want to create the new knowledge that will inform not just incremental advances but a fundamental shift in the way the existing network is maintained and new lines are designed and built.
"The implications will be far-reaching: reduced costs, increased capacity and improved reliability would make an appreciable difference to all rail users."
Electrification has the potential to offer a major boost to the track network. Currently about 40 per cent (4,042miles of the UK's 10,106 miles) of the rail network is electrified. An upgrade to full electrification would be a lengthy and costly process, but would lead to a far more efficient network and bring about a massive decrease in carbon emissions once the UK's energy supply moves away from fossil fuels and towards low carbon sources.
An electric rail network would also make regenerative braking systems feasible, so a train applying its brakes can use its electric motor as a generator, recycling energy back into the system for other trains to use.
Stations and services
Station infrastructure and operations should improve in line with information and communications technology. Electronic ticketing, potentially via mobile phones, is not far away, while interfacing with other modes of transport to manage passenger flows will become easier as digital communications continue to advance.
Service frequency will improve as train speeds rise, however, there is still a need for investment in existing infrastructure to secure a decrease in average journey times. Rather than focusing on developing a number of short, fast stages, however, this investment needs to be targeted at smoothing out the overall speed profile and removing bottlenecks across the network – investment that has been sorely lacking in recent years.
One of the biggest financial issues railways face is the cost of rolling stock – now around £1,100,000 a car. This is never going to improve if we continue to put different trains on different lines in different countries. We need to progress towards standardisation and mass production and stop building bespoke vehicles.
But the big prize for transport is modal shift, and specifically a shift to railways. Whatever technology we embrace, be it better suspension, cleaner engines, more electrification or mobile ticketing, if we don’t increase the system’s capacity, we are always be chasing the lesser rewards.
A skilled workforce
In terms of the workforce, Britain's skilled railway engineers have a world-class reputation, however, as more of these engineers come towards the end of their careers we are seeing fewer and fewer young graduates and technicians coming up through the education system to take their place. We are beginning to see progress – the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering is now up and running and universities such as Manchester, Sheffield Hallam and Birmingham are introducing focused railway engineering degrees, however, there is still more to be done to encourage the next generation of engineers into the profession.
The much-touted apprenticeships scheme needs to offer real incentives to businesses to offset the high cost of taking on young workers, whether these be cash grants or tax breaks. Industry and government, as well as institutions such as ourselves, need to work together to ensure the engineering profession is properly promoted as an interesting, diverse and financially rewarding career path in our schools through good careers advice.
A quick, efficient and less costly rail network has the potential to take many thousands more passengers away from their carbon-heavy cars and planes and onto a 21st century network that is fit for purpose. An electrified network that leads, rather than follows, technological trends could put the UK back at the forefront of the global resurgence in rail travel, while a root and branch drive for efficiency across every facet of the network will ensure that a reliable, profitable railway can thrive in this country.
The government needs to deliver a strategic vision on the UK transport infrastructure for the future to ensure that we are not left behind the rest of Europe.
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