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.
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
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
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.