The projects could support the business case for reopening disused lines and for low-cost light rail projects in smaller cities in Britain and elsewhere.
Kevin Smith visited WMG at the University of Warwick to learn more.
GETTING people out of their cars and onto public transport to combat pollution and ease congestion is a challenge facing cities all over the world, including the British city of Coventry.
Coventry was among the 28 British towns and cities identified by the government in 2017 as having NO₂ levels which are set to exceed legal limits in 2021. The city council has since embarked on a strategy to combat these high emissions with short-term measures to improve road, cycle and pedestrian connections approved in February.
The council is also looking further ahead at ways to enhance its public transport network. Light rail, as demonstrated in the neighbouring cities of Birmingham and Nottingham, is an effective way of doing this with both networks reporting steadily increasing traffic flows as well as economic uplift in the areas served.
However, funding for such a major undertaking is in limited supply, particularly for Coventry, which has a population of 350,000. Light rail projects are not cheap - the latest 11km extension of Birmingham’s Midland Metro from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill is costing £449.5m, or £40.9m per kilometre, an increase of over £100m from the initial cost estimate when the project began. Horror stories over cost increases experienced during the high-profile project in Edinburgh have also put some British cities off pursuing the technology.
Nevertheless, Coventry City Council believes it can get the same benefits at a much lower cost - around £10m per kilometre for an initial line. The first proposed route runs from Coventry station to University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire via Coventry city centre. Another proposed route would connect the station with the University of Warwick.
Ultimately the city council hopes to develop a network which links major residential, industrial and commercial areas across the city as well as with the future HS2 station at Birmingham Airport.
To get there, the city tasked WMG at the University of Warwick to develop a concept for a lower cost vehicle and track structure. The university subsequently published a feasibility study in late 2017, indicating that there was no reason why the costs could not be reduced, and WMG set about doing exactly this after it was awarded a research and development contract from the council in April 2018.
The city council hopes to develop a network which links major residential, industrial and commercial areas across the city.
The Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership is contributing £2.5m towards the first phase of the R&D project while the West Midlands Combined Authority is providing £12.2m. The Coventry project is now the second element of the Very Light Rail Vehicle (VLR) project underway at the university in cooperation with the Revolution VLR consortium of industry partners, Eversholt Rail, Cummins, RDM Group, Transcal Engineering and WMG.
A Very Light Rail Vehicle is defined as weighing less than 1 tonne/mᶾ with an axleload of around 4 tonnes. The rationale for developing such a vehicle is to reduce both the capital cost so it is more comparable with a road vehicle - a light rail vehicle typically comes in at £1-2m compared with £150,000-300,000 for a bus - and to reduce operating costs by cutting energy consumption.
Dr James Winnett, a senior research fellow in the VLR project, told IRJ during a visit to the WMG campus, that the project for Coventry is divided into four elements: the vehicle, which WMG is overseeing; the track structure, which WMG is working on in cooperation with Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council; the operations element, which is led by Transport for West Midlands; and development of the route, which Coventry City Council is leading.
The concept for the Coventry project is for an 11m-long battery-powered vehicle, which has capacity for 50 passengers, 20 seated and 30 standing. Removing the need for catenary is a significant cost saving while developing a single vehicle fits with the plan to run services at short headways to encourage a turn-up-and-go approach for the future service.
But with a large fleet required and drivers representing a significant cost burden, research is underway on developing autonomous operation with teams analysing various obstacle detection technologies already trialled or available.
Design of the demonstrator vehicle is now largely complete with manufacturing by RDM set to begin soon. The hope is to complete this in the autumn ahead of the start of testing early next year.
In addition, Winnett says a tender to identify a partner for the track research element of the project was recently completed. The research project will investigate and identify the optimal material to use for the trackform. However, with the project aiming to eliminate the need for utility diversion to save construction time and costs, the slabs will be designed for removal within 90 minutes to allow for straightforward access to utilities.
The forerunner to the Coventry scheme is Revolution, a project to develop a lightweight and low-cost hybrid vehicle for mainline applications, which also got underway in 2018. The developers are targeting regional and rural routes, including those that the government has earmarked for reopening under its strategy announced earlier this year.
Revolution is a follow on from a project launched in 2014 to develop a self-powered bogie which utilised an integral, hybrid propulsion system and kinetic energy recovery system. The project was part of Britain’s Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) Future Railway Enabling Innovation Team (EIT) initiative, which was funded by the Department for Transport (DfT).
Winnett says the project was a success and funding was sought to further the work by developing a demonstrator vehicle. However, rather than simply putting a lightweight structure onto the bogie, the partners felt that developing a powerpack solution was more appropriate.
Transport Design International is designing the vehicle and, as it was in the 2014 project, is the lead partner in the Revolution VLR Consortium. The consortium partners are matching the DfT’s £2.75m funding for the project and consist of:
- Coventry-based RDM, an automotive manufacturer, which is building the vehicle
- Prose, which is providing support with Finite Element Analysis
- Cummins, which is providing propulsion equipment
- Transcal Engineering, which is supplying metal fabrications
- Eversholt Rail, which is an investment partner, and
Avid, Britain, is also working as a subcontractor and is supporting WMG with testing the diesel powerpack and batteries. Wabtec has also supplied bogies for the vehicle.
WMG has developed twin diesel-electric hybrid power-packs with lithium titanate energy storage for regenerative braking and zero-emission departures from stations. The group has identified a body structure that uses multiple materials, is lightweight and modular to reduce manufacturing costs and has a target market price of less than £1m.
“This is exactly what we are doing here when considering the mechanical performance, the economic performance, and the carbon emissions over the lifetime of a vehicle”Dr James Winnett, senior reserach fellow in the VLR project
Winnett says WMG’s element of the project has considered methods used in the automotive sector and how they might be applied in a railway setting. The development process has involved testing at all stages. An engine generator that was on test at the facility has been shipped to RDM to see how it performs under a reasonable duty cycle. A battery remains on test at the facility and is due to be shipped shortly.
The vehicle itself will be approximately 18m long with capacity for 56 standing and 60 seated passengers. Components have been chosen to minimise costs where possible - for example two seats weigh just 20kg but are certified for use on the railway. However, Winnett says throughout the development process, the team has emphasised using the “right material in the right place.”
“This is exactly what we are doing here when considering the mechanical performance, the economic performance, and the carbon emissions over the lifetime of a vehicle,” Winnett says. “We have done some initial work in the automotive sector on shifting to carbon fibre but over the course of the lifetime of a vehicle you don’t get much of a benefit from moving from steel. Whereas if you have a longer lifetime you start to repay that deficit.”
“We call ourselves material agnostic,” Winnett continues. “To an extent, I don’t mind what material is used, whether it is high-strength steel or aluminium as long as it does the right job, considering the mechanical performance for single and lifetime loading, which is key, along with lifetime carbon cost.”
Much of the development is now complete and Winnett says the materials used are fairly-well defined. Safety remains the top priority but in coming up with solutions, Winnett says the partners have tried to think outside of the box to develop a concept that delivers the fundamentals but doesn’t necessarily stick to established standards.
“I remember when we started with Revolution, the emphasis was very much on being radical,” Winnett says. “In a way that was nice because we could play and think about what could be done differently. But now, knowing this needs to go through the approvals process and the different stages of that, we have not stepped back massively, there is still quite a bit of innovation in there, but it has taken a slightly different route.”
With manufacturing underway, the goal is for trials with the Revolution vehicle to begin in the autumn, more than likely at the nearby Long Marston site. These will be combined with a series of off-vehicle tests, the programme for which has already been finalised.
Testing of the vehicle could also take place at the new Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre (VLRNIC) under development at Castle Hill in Dudley, which has been earmarked for testing both the Coventry vehicle and the track structure.
The £28m VLR Innovation Centre project is funded by Local Enterprise Partnership and European Research and Development Funding and is located at the site of the former station in Dudley. As well as an innovation and administration centre, line testing will take place on the 2km Castle Hill - Cinder Bank line which runs via the 700m Dudley Tunnel. The link was closed to passenger traffic in the 1960s but remained in service as a freight route between Stourbridge and Walsall.
Work will involve relaying a single line test track. A second 350m test track incorporating a 15m radius curve is planned specifically to support the development of the Coventry vehicle and track structure.
The Midland Metro extension to Brierley Hill is set to serve the area and work is underway on a £4.33m retaining wall, which was due to be completed by the end of this month. Initial testing could start in summer 2021.
“We aren’t involved in commercialisation, that is the role of the industry, we are just here to bridge that gap.”Dr James Winnett
Inevitably once the tests are completed, and presuming that they prove successful, attention will shift to commercialisation of the vehicles. Winnett says that with a couple of years work, he does not think it is beyond the realms of possibility that something akin to the Revolution vehicle could enter operation. Coventry City Council is also set to lead the push for a commercial application of the light rail vehicle.
While changes to the materials and systems used in the demonstrator are now unlikely, they could still occur at the manufacturing and commercialisation stage. Winnett says WMG is working with RSSB as well as the Office of Rail and Road to understand what is required to get the vehicle through a possible approvals process. In addition, WMG is looking at how it might introduce some economies of scale into potential manufacturing processes, again looking at methods used in the automotive sector.
“At WMG we look at bringing things closer to market,” Winnett says. “We aren’t involved in commercialisation, that is the role of the industry, we are just here to bridge that gap, and as it moves closer to commercialisation, our input is less.”
With old lines set to reopen and demand from smaller cities for sustainable and attractive public transport solutions, the potential is significant. And if the concepts prove their worth, the chances are that this innovation from central Britain might have appeal among the industry heavyweights as they tap into this demand.
“I don’t see a reason why this couldn’t be taken forward by one of the big players,” Winnett says. “Whether they want to - whether they see the market - I don’t know. That comes down to how it is sold to them. Also, it comes down to whether the consortium wants them to be involved moving forward. If RDM see themselves as a rail OEM, they might want to keep this in-house.”