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June 05, 2009

Technology pushes rail's boundaries

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TWO important events in the railway calendar are scheduled this month: the International Association of Public Transport's (UITP) world congress in Vienna, Austria, and the International Heavy Haul Association's (IHHA) conference in Shanghai, China.
These events provide an excellent opportunity for specialists in their field to exchange information designed to solve some of the problems and challenges they face and push forward railway knowledge.
You may be wondering what two conferences at opposite ends of the railway spectrum taking place on opposite sides of the world have in common. On the face of it, not much, but look a little more deeply and you soon start to see similarities, an overlap of technologies, and an increasing amount of innovation.
Heavy-haul railways operate at the limit of railway engineering and operations, and a huge amount of effort goes into pushing these boundaries still further.
Our article on Brazilian heavy-haul freight is an excellent illustration of this. Vale's metre-gauge Vitória a Minas Railway plans to increase axleloads from 24.5 to 34.5 tonnes to enable the trailing weight of a 320-wagon train to be increased by 40% to 44,160 tonnes, obviating the need to lay additional track.
Not only does this demonstrate a willingness to push boundaries, but it also shows that metre-gauge track is no barrier to hauling heavy loads, something which other narrow-gauge railways around the world would do well to consider.
Many of the technical advances that have been achieved in areas such as the crucial wheel-rail interface have benefited conventional railways as well. Examples include a deeper understanding of rail metallurgy, wear and faults, wheelset and bogie design and performance, and coupler design.
Usually, technical advances trickle down from heavy-haul, but this changed recently when Rio Tinto decided to automate most of its 1300km heavy-haul railway in Australia. Although the project has been postponed because of the world economic crisis, it would have entailed the installation of an automatic train operation (ATO) system developed for use on metros. Many heavy-haul railways, like metro lines, are dedicated point-to-point operations and are therefore well-suited to automation and the benefits this brings in terms of flexibility and staff savings.
One of the peculiarities of technical advances, at least in the railway industry, is that there is often a very long gap between the initial development of a new technology and its application. ATO is not new, whereas driverless operation has only become acceptable fairly recently.
London Underground's Victoria Line, which opened in 1967, had ATO from the outset, but with the drivers operating the doors. The installation of platform screen doors on underground stations helped to make driverless operation acceptable, while at the same time transforming the travel experience for passengers.
Now, all new metro lines should be driverless because the operation is far more flexible without drivers. Employees are more gainfully deployed helping passengers on trains or in stations.
This month we report on another technical advance - catenary-free light rail - which is in itself not that new, but is only now starting to be implemented. The need for catenary can be obviated either by using some form of ground power supply which is only activated as the LRV moves over it, or by using battery power.
The benefit is the ability to avoid erecting catenary in architecturally or environmentally-sensitive areas. However, the high capital cost of such systems will hamper their widespread deployment until ways can be found to simplify the technology and its installation.
Rail may be a very old mode of transport, but it has clearly demonstrated its ability to change, adopt new technology, and push the boundaries, whether it is heavy-haul freight, high-speed, or rapid transit.
This is one of the reasons why the rail industry has such a bright future. But the industry must not fall into the trap of becoming complacent, because competing modes are also advancing rapidly, so rail must continue to drive forward.

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