Future perfect – tram technology in Europe

2 October 2014

Barry Mansfield questions UKTram general manager James Hammett about what’s in store for tram technology in Europe and beyond to discover what lessons might be learned from the successes of the past.

Ambitious tram projects have seen a number of high-profile calamities in recent years. Utility clearance problems have caused delays; the most generous budgets have exploded, leaving executives red-faced and new operators have pooled intelligence on technology in order to avoid headline-grabbing disasters. The latest mishap was in Matto Grosso, Brazil, where completion of Cuiaba's $621-million light rail project was put back until December, five months too late for the football World Cup.

UKTram general manager James Hammett is on a mission to develop and trial new engineering methods that will quickly benefit operators, as they will be able to bypass the usual trial process. Plans to build a low-cost overhead power system, for example, are among the first four projects to secure financial backing from UKTram's £3 million-Low Impact Light Rail scheme. Another is Ynni Glan's project to use fuel cells, rather than traditional electrical supplies, as a power source on light railways. The third is WITT's energy-harvesting technology that aims to utilise the energy generated from vibrations in moving vehicles.

It is hoped that the latter will be able to drive on-vehicle and line-side equipment without requiring power supplies to be installed.

Finally, Alta Innovations has been working on tools to streamline overall energy requirements in order to reduce the cost and overall environmental impact of trams.

In the meantime, Hammett is looking forward to South Yorkshire's plan to install a 'tram-train' between Sheffield and Rotherham, scheduled to be running in 2015 and based on a concept from Karlsruhe, Germany.

Is it a train? Is it a tram?

These vehicles will operate on regular rails for most of the route, but will divert onto their own network when they reach city centres. This will reduce the length of track needed, slashing costs. Hammett hopes tram-trains will take off elsewhere; a proposal to adapt a freight line in the West Midlands could mix trams with heavier vehicles.

"The success of Manchester started from using an existing railway line," he points out. "They now have another complete system. Nottingham is tripling in size, Birmingham is moving into the centre. There is lots of growth in the current system."

One of the key objectives of UKTram is to reduce the need for overhead line and heavy trackform. "That's where a lot of the expense lies," says Hammett. "One of the obstacles in Edinburgh, which is difficult at the best of times, was utilities. We are different from our European counterparts in the way we deal with clearing them. Unfortunately, that makes the process a bit slower. It's a situation that is unique to the UK. Over here, if we want to move utilities, we have to pay so much to get it done."

Hammett is currently working on a document exploring how operators can work more effectively with the utility companies to avoid these setbacks. As for his involvement in driving new light rail technology, he admits that he is impressed with what he has observed in other parts of Europe and regrets that the UK has been "slow to adapt". The problem, he says, is that people don't want to take risks on new technology when proven tools are already available off the shelf. He references Bordeaux's use of pickup systems in the roads for the power.

"If the approach seen in Bordeaux had failed and overhead lines were the fallback, would you take the spending risk?" Hammett poses. "You can see why people are staying with tried and tested methods." But that's also why he wants to help innovators get to market: "We're giving them the opportunity to apply and get on with development. Everything will have to be properly road tested. We will show that it works. We recognise that light rail is popular, but not the cheapest. We'll do anything we can to keep costs down."

Clearing the lines

Hammett does not see the coming era of electric buses and greener fuels as a threat to his vision for trams. "We're also looking at energy recovery, storage, supercapacitors and batteries in light rail," he says. "We're interested in anything that can make trams run more efficiently. Trams are still far better at moving large numbers of people than a bus. You can get 73 people on a double-decker bus, but 200 on a tram. If you don't know a city, you can work out where the trams are from the tracks. With HS2's arrival, so many people will be going to and from the stations. How will they get there?"

"Trams are far better at moving large numbers of people than a bus. You can get 73 people on a double-decker bus, but 200 on a tram."

His favourite projects are "systems that push the boundaries with new technologies", such as Zaragoza, where supercapacitors are used to run the trams past the historic walls and the cathedral, and where there is no overhead line.

"It shows what you can achieve," he says. "In some cities they don't want overhead lines going by the town hall or public library. My background is in engineering, so I like to be braver in trialling new innovations to work around these sorts of demands." He says everything he learns from Yorkshire will be passed onto interested parties.

The importance of smart ticketing has also been demonstrated in the changing fortunes of Nottingham's tram system. By June 2013, tightening competition laws saw it lose a quarter of its passengers compared to 2008.

David Thornhill, from the Notts Campaign for Better Transport, and Phil Hewitt, chief executive of Tramlink Nottingham, say the new operators had to scrap Easyrider, Cityrider and Grouprider tickets in 2011; they both urged a "joined up" and "affordable" workaround in order to mesh better with other transport modes.

Hammett reckons pundits are so concerned with failure and controversy, that many positives - such as Manchester's 3b extension launch in May 2013, three months ahead of schedule - are often downplayed. "That was no mean feat and down to experience," he expands. "They've learned so much and it's a fine art to them now.

"This is where continental Europe has an edge, because many cities never got rid of their older networks. In the UK we started from scratch, in many cases." Another recent success story, in his view, is the new, 200-capacity Urbos 3 tram in Birmingham.

Russia One

Despite their old-fashioned image, trams are considered the transport mode of the future by the quickest-growing emerging nations. For instance, the dynamically styled prototype, Russia One (R1), which was revealed at the Innoprom 2014 industrial exhibition in July, is expected to be installed in Yekaterinburg and Omsk from 2017. The system was built by the Uraltransmash tram manufacturing subsidiary of defence and rolling stock supplier Uralvagonzavod, in partnership with design agency OKB Atom.

The two bogies are specially designed to handle poor track conditions. Composite materials make for a lightweight, modular body. In the cab itself, the driver enjoys a 180° view, with the 12° reverse-angle of the front enabling good visibility, reduced glare and lower solar gain. LED lighting is used inside and out, with the interior illumination adjusting to local conditions and time of day. Other features include air-conditioning, Glonass and GPS-based passenger information, Wi-Fi and even antibacterial handrails.

In the R1 concept, it is hoped that regenerated braking energy can be used to heat the entrance areas, in order to prevent icing. Additionally, battery power may allow the possibility of catenary-free operation.

James Hammett has been involved in the light rail industry for 22 years, 17 of which have been spent working in the field, at first with Seaton Tramway. As well as being UKTram’s general manager, he serves on the Heritage Tramways Committee (part of the Heritage Railway Association) and lives in Devon.

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