Friday, November 12, 2021

A Look at What is Happening to UK Rail Freight in a Week in Which it Has Had a Chance to Show Off

Cop26 Provides a Backdrop for New Freight Service Ideas, Track Analytics and Environmental Works
Shipping News Feature

UK – As COP26 comes to a close the conference has had particular relevance for rail freight in a week that has seen several developments that affect the sector.

The ‘Low Carbon Logistics’ event which stretched over three days showcased the drive by businesses and organisations across Scotland and the UK to reach net zero emission supply chains and was hailed by industry partners as a success. Graeme Dey, Minister for Transport in Scotland, opened the event before three days of exhibitions, presentations, panel discussions and three naming ceremonies of electric and sustainable fuel locomotives.

The first day saw GB Railfreight name a Class 92 electric locomotive ‘Billy Stirling’ during a ceremony at Mossend International Railfreight Park (MIRP). As the third generation of the 151-year-old family-owned operator, Peter D. Stirling Limited, Billy Stirling introduced rail involvement into the company. Following this success, the Peter D. Stirling operation moved to Mossend Railhead in 1981. Under Billy’s guidance, the operator continued to thrive, resulting in the MIPR of present day.

On the second day, the event was titled ‘Driving Rail Innovations' where topics discussed included ‘Sustainability in Scotland's Railway' and the importance of diversity and inclusion for growth in the sector. The main takeaway from the event were the possibilities that could be created with the decarbonisation of the freight industry and the space for growth with all organisations in the sector working together and ‘Pulling Together for Net Zero'.

The same day a second locomotive was also named, this one ‘The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport' a DB Cargo-owned Class 90 Electric unit and carrying a unique livery to depict how important modern rail freight is to the UK economy. The event witnessed visits from a range of high-profile guests from the industry including Alex Hynes, Managing Director of Scotland's Railway, Bill Reeves, Director of Rail at Transport Scotland and on the final day, there was a visit from UK Government Minister Iain Stewart. Paul Sheerin, Chief Executive of Scottish Engineering said;

"Scottish Engineering was delighted to be part of the Low Carbon Logistics event at Mossend this week that concluded yesterday on Transport Day which was a fitting end to a successful three days focused on how the rail sector is pulling together for a cleaner, greener future.

”Being able to highlight the work of our rail cluster project, funded by Scottish Enterprise and Transport Scotland, in which Scottish SMEs looking to diversify into the rail market, bring innovative, green solutions and best practice from other industry sectors into rail was a great opportunity to demonstrate our progress in supporting the aims of the Scottish Government's Rail Decarbonisation Action Plan."

Scotland claims it has some of the most ambitious plans in terms of climate legislation in the world. The 2030 target of 75% reductions goes beyond what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes says is needed globally to prevent warming of more than 1.5 degrees. Andrew Stirling, Director of Peter D Stirling and Mossend International Railfreight Park said

"We wanted to take the opportunity that COP26 offered to really do something about low carbon logistics and the work going on in the freight industry to reach the net zero goals set out by the government. We know that rail and road freight needed pulling together to ensure that the sector delivers targets and that the industry is moving in the right direction. It is up to the government to achieve these goals but businesses like ours, and the ones in attendance at this event, are the ones on the ground ensuring change is made for the decarbonisation of the industry."

Elsewhere efforts to enable the switch of freight from road to rail continues in its various forms. One significant initiative is that of Doncaster headquartered Varamis Rail whose intent is not to use passenger trains much like the traditional role played by aircraft, for its proposed track borne logistics services. Unbeknown to many the greatest amount of airfreight, certainly in non-pandemic blighted times, is carried in the belly hold of passenger planes.

Unlike the long lamented Red Star Parcels service operated by British Rail and now continued by the likes of such as InterCity Railfreight which use those scheduled passenger trains, Varamis says it has plans to launch services, possibly as early as next month which will use repurposed former passenger electric multiple unit stock on the main east and west coast arterial routes between London and Scotland.

Cherry picking the North-South routes gives Varamis a chance of success in a field one step removed from the parcels market and into the world of general logistics. The enterprise will however depend on reliability which only comes with sufficient available traffic, equipment and route slots, the latter likely to be the easiest as passenger rail traffic reconfigures after Covid.

Varamis has been promising these services for some time however and even issues its own note of caution by saying roll out may be delayed until the New Year. One can only wish them luck as elsewhere work continues with Network Rail upgrading the signalling in Middlesbrough this month in a £45 million project to deliver a modern, more reliable railway.

Around six miles of signalling equipment in the Middlesbrough area will be renewed, with control of the signals moving from two traditional signal boxes to Network Rail's purpose-built Rail Operating Centre in York. The boxes will be demolished as part of this scheme to futureproof the railway. Signals in the area are currently controlled by levers and switch panels inside these boxes, with the last major work taking place over 40 years ago.

In order for engineers to carry out this work safely, the line will be closed from Saturday 13 to Monday 15 November, with no trains to/from Middlesbrough station. Bus replacement services will keep passengers moving during this time.

Elsewhere the tracks themselves are under scrutiny as Edinburgh headquartered Machines With Vision has teamed up with product development specialists Wideblue to develop new sophisticated technology which helps railways monitor the condition of the rails in a more efficient way.

Using train-mounted cameras and sensors to build a map of the ground beneath the train offering precise data as to the train’s location; the system can capture and process images at up to 200 kilometres per hour to millimetre accuracy, a standard said to be 100 times more accurate than GPS mapping.

Analysing the collected data requires the use of complex algorithms and machine learning which the proponents say is an inexpensive and efficient way of collecting data to optimise maintenance. Glasgow based Wideblue were called in to assist in gaining EMC compliance and rail regulatory approval for the prototype product. The firm implemented a redesign of a key aspect of the system based on results from internal investigation and exploratory testing.

Support was also provided by Wideblue for the subsequent re-testing, enabling the product to be certified for full regulatory compliance. Mark Sansom, project manager at the company said:

“It was vital that Machines with Vision’s equipment did not interfere with other systems on the train. Following investigations into some malfunctions and identifying the root cause, we redesigned the core power supply of the system to make it compliant with railway regulatory standards for electromagnetic emissions and immunity. Some mechanical modifications were also undertaken to accommodate the new power supply design and ensure a robust solution was delivered to Machines With Vision.”

Photo: Naming the loco: GB Railfreight Business Development Director Tim Hartley, David Stirling Director of Peter D Stirling, Julie Corr Daughter of Billy Stirling and Andrew Stirling Director of Peter D Stirling at the naming ceremony.