Tram-train trial

As Sh­effield’s tram-train trial be­gins, TOM INGALL trav­els on board one of the new ve­hi­cles and talks to prin­ci­pal fig­ures about the his­tory of the project and what hap­pens next

Rail (UK) - - Contents - RAIL pho­tog­ra­phy: TOM INGALL

With the Sh­effield tram-train trial un­der way, RAIL trav­els on a spe­cial pre­view run to dis­cover what hap­pens now….

In the end, the dead­line was met. The in­vited great and good may have needed their coats in the cool Oc­to­ber sun, but (at least ac­cord­ing to Greenwich) it was still (just) Bri­tish Sum­mer Time. Sum­mer 2018 was the promised date for the UK’s pi­lot tram-train ser­vice to carry its first pas­sen­gers. As the cer­e­monies were duly com­pleted on Oc­to­ber 25, there must have been some re­lief among the part­ners to have fi­nally hit a tar­get.

Other dead­lines have come and long gone. Like­wise, bud­gets have been spec­tac­u­larly un­der­es­ti­mated and ben­e­fit:cost ra­tios have col­lapsed. The scheme’s very ex­is­tence has twice been re­viewed, its pi­lot sta­tus and the po­ten­tial to learn les­sons sav­ing it from can­cel­la­tion. This has been a dif­fi­cult ges­ta­tion and de­liv­ery.

Then, aw­fully, on the open­ing day, Tram 399204 was in­volved in a col­li­sion with a lorry on the tram-only sec­tion of the net­work. For­tu­nately, while the ser­vice was busy, only three peo­ple re­ceived mi­nor in­juries with one be­ing taken to hospi­tal. With the whole area around the crash site closed and an ac­ci­dent on the M1, the north side of Sh­effield grid­locked. It was no­body’s idea of the per­fect launch.

I was for­tu­nate enough to be on board one of the new trams for one of the fi­nal ‘ghost’ runs - a ser­vice op­er­at­ing as nor­mal with­out pas­sen­gers. The tram-trains have been run­ning for some time to add ex­tra ca­pac­ity to the Su­per­tram net­work, but this was the first time I’d stepped in­side one since see­ing the first come off the pro­duc­tion line at the Voss­loh (now Stadler) plant in Va­len­cia.

The first im­pres­sion re­mains ex­cel­lent - light, airy, and a per­fectly level in­ter­face be­tween plat­form edge and tram floor. They are nim­ble, ac­cel­er­at­ing and brak­ing ef­fi­ciently - per­fect for a ve­hi­cle that will make fre­quent stops and run longer dis­tances at main line speeds. In to­tal, seven have been de­liv­ered.

“It’s been a long time com­ing, but we’re glad it’s here,” says Steve Ed­wards, from the South York­shire Pas­sen­ger Trans­port Ex­ec­u­tive. Along with Net­work Rail, the Depart­ment for Trans­port and Stage­coach (which holds the Su­per­tram fran­chise un­til 2024), SYPTE is a prin­ci­pal project part­ner.

“The chal­lenges the project has met have been well-doc­u­mented. It’s the first time the tech­nol­ogy has been used in the UK. There are dif­fer­ences be­tween the tram and rail net­work. This project has been about un­der­stand­ing those dif­fer­ences and how we can make the two sys­tems work closely to­gether to bring ben­e­fits to the pop­u­la­tion of south York­shire.”

The cor­ri­dor be­tween Sh­effield and Rotherham is one of three key fo­cuses for SYPTE. The city and town are al­ready well-

con­nected - by bus, road and the heavy rail net­work.

Says Ed­wards: “You’ll see as we head along here the places we con­nect - the Park­gate Shop­ping Cen­tre, the cen­tre of Rotherham, Mead­owhall, a Uni­ver­sity Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, Sh­effield Arena. It helps with im­prov­ing con­ges­tion, con­nec­tiv­ity, and it’s good for the en­vi­ron­ment.”

In other words, this is about more than serv­ing the two outer des­ti­na­tions - or in­deed the so-called ‘seam­less com­mute’ for peo­ple who might live in Rotherham and who can now alight in the cen­tre of Sh­effield rather than at the rail­way sta­tion. For ex­am­ple, if you wanted to take a jour­ney by rail from Rotherham to Sh­effield Arena, you cur­rently need to travel into the city, change trams twice, and get out at the Arena. Now, us­ing tram­train, you go di­rectly in a few min­utes.

Close to Mead­owhall South sta­tion, a dou­ble-track chord line turns sharply to the right, pass­ing un­der the Tins­ley mo­tor­way viaduct which car­ries the M1 above.

On the spur, the ve­hi­cle pauses and switches from tram to train mode. The tram ra­dio is dis­en­gaged, and the GSM-R is switched on, along with other safety sys­tems in­clud­ing TPWS (train Pro­tec­tion Warn­ing Sys­tem) and AWS (Au­to­matic Warn­ing Sys­tem). The dou­ble tram track spur sin­gles, then de­scribes an ‘S’ curve to line it­self up along­side Net­work Rail’s me­tals.

This is the (usu­ally freight only) line be­tween Wood­burn Junc­tion and Rotherham. This line is also sin­gle at this point, and the world of trams and trains come to­gether at a newly laid point close to where Tins­ley East Junc­tion sig­nal box once stood.

While the for­ma­tion is dou­ble-width, the now shared sin­gle line con­tin­ues over the River Don, be­fore dou­bling and pass­ing a dis­used sid­ing. Here the cate­nary marches al­most dead straight to­wards Rotherham, div­ing un­der the Mid­land’s ‘old road’ be­tween Chester­field and Mas­bor­ough.

At this stage the trams have the line pretty much to them­selves, bar the oc­ca­sional freight and light en­gine move­ment. But just be­fore Rotherham Cen­tral, things get more con­gested. Join­ing from the left is the sin­gle­track Holmes Chord, used by pas­sen­ger ser­vices which run via Mead­owhall sta­tion but turn into Rotherham.

Tram-train serves Rotherham by means of low-level plat­form ex­ten­sions to the ex­ist­ing fa­cil­i­ties. These were among the fi­nal pieces of new in­fra­struc­ture to be com­pleted, and have been num­bered Plat­forms 3 and 4 (pas­sen­gers walk along the ex­ist­ing heavy rail plat­form to reach the tram-train ser­vice).

These ex­ten­sions will doubt­less be watched closely dur­ing the pi­lot. Do they en­cour­age tres­pass, or could pas­sen­gers be ex­posed to haz­ards from the ex­posed run­ning gear of pass­ing heavy rail ve­hi­cles?

A low-level fence has been in­stalled be­tween the two run­ning lines, to dis­cour­age pas­sen­gers from step­ping off to reach the other side - as they might be tempted to do on the tra­di­tional tram net­work. In the first four weeks, staff will be sta­tioned here to watch pas­sen­gers’ be­hav­iour.

Leav­ing Rotherham, the tram-trains ac­cel­er­ate through the raised plat­forms and con­tinue for an­other mile, be­fore turn­ing onto a pur­pose-built sin­gle-track spur which ter­mi­nates ad­ja­cent to an out-of-town re­tail park. Here the ve­hi­cles can off­load pas­sen­gers and pre­pare to re­verse with­out hold­ing up through traf­fic on the main line.

When ready to depart, the driver presses a but­ton on his con­sole to alert the sig­naller. As­sum­ing the path is avail­able, the sig­nal at the end of the plat­form clears. Now the driver can move off, and at the end of the spur is a cross­over en­abling the ve­hi­cle to re­gain the Sh­effield-bound line. Back at the con­nec­tion be­tween the two net­works, the driver pauses again to change modes and check in with con­trol.

It is by no means a long ex­ten­sion, but it does al­low a num­ber of facets of the prin­ci­ple to be tested - dif­fer­ent den­si­ties and types of traf­fic, for ex­am­ple. It also breaks Su­per­tram out of Sh­effield for the first time.

How­ever, the in­creas­ing costs and de­lays have led to in­tense scru­tiny. In sum­mer 2017, I re­ported for RAIL on the harsh ques­tions asked and the in­ves­ti­ga­tions held into tram­train.

The Na­tional Au­dit Of­fice ex­am­ined the mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the heavy rail net­work, to fa­cil­i­tate light rail ve­hi­cles run­ning on it. They were ex­pected to cost £15 mil­lion, but the real cost is near £ 75m. That doesn’t in­clude the cost of the ve­hi­cles, nor the com­pen­sa­tion paid to Stage­coach be­cause the new ser­vice is late start­ing. In to­tal, when some rail re­newal costs on Su­per­tram are added, it is cost­ing around £125m.

Net­work Rail has had to pull for­ward fund­ing from Con­trol Pe­riod 6 (2019-24), to deal with the cost over­runs caused by ex­tra work to the in­fra­struc­ture. Be­cause heavy and light rail have dif­fer­ing tech­ni­cal and safety stan­dards, bring­ing the two to­gether has pre­sented chal­lenges for the pi­lot. In prac­tice, this has meant look­ing at sig­nalling, wheel pro­files, dif­fer­ent load­ing gauges, the ride qual­ity of the lighter tram-train ve­hi­cles, and (cru­cially) the trac­tion power sup­ply for the new Class 399 ve­hi­cles.

Also on board the ve­hi­cle is Net­work Rail’s Si­mon Coulthard.

“I’ve been the spon­sor re­spon­si­ble for the project since it started in 2009,” he says.

“We’re ex­cited for its prospects here and also in other city re­gions across the UK. The Na­tional Au­dit Of­fice did their in­ves­ti­ga­tion which we fully ac­cepted. It high­lighted some of the is­sues around chang­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tion, the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion, and how we came to choose the sys­tem we did. Pi­lots are there to some ex­tent to learn for the ben­e­fit of the fu­ture. We un­der­es­ti­mated the cost of the scheme.”

The tram net­work is en­er­gised at 750V DC. While the Class 399s can op­er­ate with that and also with the nor­mal main line 25kV AC, a de­ci­sion was made to wire the main line at 750V DC, with NR in­structed to fu­ture­proof the cate­nary should a switch to 25kV AC be made in the years ahead. This meant de­vel­op­ing a whole new set of over­head line equip­ment, which is where the timescales re­ally slipped and costs es­ca­lated.

Hind­sight is an ex­act science, so what ad­vice will NR be giv­ing to oth­ers in­ter­ested in tram­trains?

Coulthard replies: “The things we talk to other city re­gions about tend to re­volve around the sys­tem in­ter­faces, which are key to get right - the wheel rail in­ter­face, the train plat­form in­ter­face, the choice of trac­tion power. These are all ar­eas where we have a mas­sive amount of learn­ing which we can share.

“The pi­lot, by its na­ture, tested things that other sys­tems might not ever need to con­sider. That made it more com­pli­cated than it might oth­er­wise have needed to be. One of the things we have talked to stake­hold­ers about is: do you want elec­tri­fi­ca­tion? The tech­nol­ogy in terms of stored en­ergy is ad­vanc­ing all the time - bat­ter­ies, su­per-ca­pac­i­tors, that sort of thing. The light rail in­dus­try is mak­ing greater strides in that than heavy rail.”

Do you wish you’d put your foot down as Net­work Rail, and gone with 25kV AC through­out, or a diesel so­lu­tion?

“I am happy with what we have here. Ul­ti­mately it was the thing that made the project run longer than we an­tic­i­pated it would, but what we have de­liv­ered and the

legacy for fu­ture schemes is all the bet­ter for it.

“The re­ally uplift­ing thing for me per­son­ally is to work with other city re­gions - Glas­gow, Manch­ester, Cardiff. Lo­cal trans­port au­thor­i­ties are ask­ing us to­day to help us de­velop their own strat­egy and un­der­stand where tram-train fits in. It’s re­ally en­cour­ag­ing to see they are not dis­suaded, as some might be on the face of it by our ex­pe­ri­ence here.”

By now, we’re glid­ing over Net­work Rail me­tals. A Pacer whips past on the ad­ja­cent line. The vis­i­bil­ity from the large glass win­dows af­fords a bet­ter view of pass­ing traf­fic than I’m used to. It’s both a shock and yet com­pletely nor­mal in the same breath.

A ‘ghost stop’ at Rotherham Cen­tral, and two min­utes later we’re pulling into the Park­gate ter­mi­nus. As work al­ways ex­pands to fill the time avail­able, con­trac­tors are drilling and saw­ing, fin­ish­ing off the new path­way which con­nects the plat­form to the shops. Three de­par­tures every hour will op­er­ate from here, run­ning into the evening (ex­cept on Sun­days).

The four weeks of empty stock test ser­vices have op­er­ated com­pletely with­out in­ci­dent, to the point where even a prac­tice fail­ure could be staged for train­ing pur­poses. A tram-train was re­cov­ered from the freight-only sec­tion of Net­work Rail.

“We’re con­fi­dent ev­ery­thing is ready to go,” says Su­per­tram Manag­ing Di­rec­tor Tim Bilby.

“The first two years of run­ning is funded by the Depart­ment for Trans­port as part of the pi­lot. Those two years will be spent look­ing at how pas­sen­gers in­ter­act with the ser­vice, and learn­ing from that.

“How­ever, it is not a ques­tion of it not car­ry­ing on. We have com­mit­ted to run­ning for an­other three years af­ter that, which goes up to the end of our con­ces­sion. As far as we are con­cerned this is an ex­ten­sion [to the net­work] that is go­ing to con­tinue. We are sure it will be suc­cess­ful.”

Bilby be­lieves there are many dif­fer­ent jour­ney pos­si­bil­i­ties which will at­tract new rid­ers: “Com­mut­ing flow at peak times, peo­ple com­ing for leisure and shop­ping - there will be a good spread of load­ings through the day.”

Tram-trains’ birth, although pro­tracted, comes at an in­ter­est­ing time in South York­shire pol­i­tics. Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barns­ley Cen­tral, has re­cently been elected as the re­gion’s first ‘metro mayor’. He’ll serve in both posts si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

“We’re cur­rently re­ar­rang­ing the gov­er­nance that un­der­pins the South York­shire Pas­sen­ger Trans­port Ex­ec­u­tive and its link with the com­bined author­ity,” he says.

“I will take per­sonal pol­icy lead on trans­port. It’s im­por­tant. We’re lag­ging be­hind, with a trans­port in­fra­struc­ture which is not fit for pur­pose. It hasn’t been de­signed for the re­quire­ments of the 21st cen­tury, and it needs sig­nif­i­cant up­dat­ing.

“I am draw­ing to­gether a trans­port strat­egy for South York­shire, and we’ll pub­lish that by the end of this year. Tram-train is part of that. I am con­fi­dent it will be a pos­i­tive step for­ward for com­muters and peo­ple trav­el­ling about in South York­shire in the longer term.”

Is it ir­re­triev­ably tar­nished by the neg­a­tive head­lines in the past few years?

“I don’t be­lieve so. Peo­ple should make a judge­ment on the suc­cess of the ser­vice from when it be­gins, not from the life of the project. Let’s see how it prac­ti­cally per­forms. Let’s draw out the les­sons from that.”

Jarvis is also a fan of ac­tive trans­port. Se­cure cy­cle shel­ters are ex­pected to be fit­ted at Park­gate, which may en­cour­age peo­ple from fur­ther along the Don Val­ley to cy­cle there be­fore board­ing.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, af­ter so much build-up, the open­ing ser­vices ran full with pas­sen­gers who had come es­pe­cially to try some­thing new. There was an at­mos­phere of cel­e­bra­tion, and some had even brought en­tire fam­i­lies along. Word of mouth will be cru­cial as the ser­vice seeks to es­tab­lish it­self.

The un­for­tu­nate ac­ci­dent hap­pened at around 1530 on Oc­to­ber 25as 399204 crossed Stan­i­forth Road in Sh­effield. Pic­tures show the lorry halfway across the road - the tram-train has been dragged from the rails.

The Rail Ac­ci­dent In­ves­ti­ga­tion Branch has com­menced an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but some have al­ready noted how in­tact the front of the ve­hi­cle is. The ‘crash­wor­thi­ness’ of the ‘399s’ was an­other key part of the trial - they need to be light enough to run on tram tracks, but heavy enough to with­stand an im­pact with a heavy rail ve­hi­cle. In the af­ter­math, track was re­paired and ser­vices re­sumed two days later.

From here, af­ter years of talk, graft and mis­for­tune, the Sh­effield tram-train project has two years to prove it­self. The UK is watch­ing, and fu­ture trans­port strat­egy may be de­cided on what hap­pens next.

Peo­ple should make a judge­ment on the suc­cess of the ser­vice from when it be­gins, not from the life of the project. Let’s see how it prac­ti­cally per­forms. Let’s draw out the les­sons from that. Dan Jarvis, Barns­ley Cen­tral MP, and Sh­effield City Re­gion Mayor

Hav­ing called at Plat­form 4, Tram 399204 ac­cel­er­ates away through the heavy rail Plat­form 2 at Rotherham Cen­tral, pass­ing a Leeds-Sh­effield stop­ping ser­vice op­er­ated by North­ern 158903 at Plat­form 1.

Sta­tion­ary on the Su­per­tram net­work con­nect­ing spur, the driver twists the switch to change the ve­hi­cle from tram to train mode.

Jour­ney’s end for Tram 399203. Hav­ing run from out­side Sh­effield Cathe­dral, the ve­hi­cle turns off the Net­work Rail main line, fol­low­ing the over­head wires onto the ded­i­cated ter­mi­nus spur at Rotherham Park­gate. The sta­tion can just be seen in the dis­tance. This is the rear side of the Park­gate out-of-town re­tail park, and a new walk­way con­nects the plat­form to the shops.

Tram meets train; the view from the driver’s cab of an ap­proach­ing stop­ping ser­vice just north of Rotherham Cen­tral. This was the last of the ‘ghost runs’ be­fore the ser­vice be­gan.

An il­lus­tra­tion of a tram-train’s ver­sa­til­ity. Tram 399205 stands at the Malin Bridge ter­mi­nus, ready to work a blue line ser­vice to the south­east­ern ‘cor­ner’ of Sh­effield. This won’t in­clude any run­ning on Net­work Rail me­tals, but shows how they can be used to pro­vide ex­tra ca­pac­ity on the cur­rent tram sys­tem or cover for reg­u­lar trams in main­te­nance.

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