In July 2019, North Star’s Director of Rail Mark McCole attended the UK Light Rail Conference in Manchester where he presented on Early Operator Involvement in Light Rail Projects – Past, Present & Future. Key points that Mark outlined in the presentation were:
- The positive recognition of the benefit of Early Operator Involvement, evidenced through the large number of DBOM light rail PPP projects and the increasing use of ‘Shadow Operators’ early in project development;
- That the perceptions that operators add ‘complexity’ and excessive ‘redundancy/complexity’ into early design choices is receding;
- Specialist resources (especially at the senior level) are scarce and developing people in the long term to support light rail projects is a priority.
Mark concluded that these developments are positive. Further work is required to create procurement processes that allow for Early Operator Involvement that does not preclude O&M companies from bidding for the O&M franchises. Similarly, operator involvement needs to be a key part of the development of technological solutions in light rail.
Mark summarises below a number of the key themes that emerged from the conference as a whole.
New Light Rail Projects Viability – Central Government Support and Funding
At the conference, there was major reflection on the slow progress and perceived lack of support for new light rail projects at the governmental level in the UK with local authorities and ‘city region’ transport executives being tasked with funding schemes with little central government support. UK Tram, the Light Rail Transit Association, suppliers and operators are all lobbying the government but with Brexit, a focus on HS2, Crossrail and other heavy rail priorities, there is a perception in the industry that progress in terms of securing new light rail projects is not a priority. Discussions at the conference focussed on intensifying lobbying and working with suppliers and the broader industry to try and look at lower cost light rail solutions.
At the event there were discussions and presentations on new technologies that will have a transformative impact on light rail:
- Catenary-Free Operation – There are existing light rail systems that provide catenary-free operation in the form of underground power supply (e.g. Dubai Tram) and the use of super capacitors (e.g. Zaragoza and West Midlands extension). However, the interesting technological development is that of hydrogen power cells to power light rail vehicles. This system would ultimately remove the requirement for high voltage power supply and recharging points (required for super-capacitor systems) and provide a greener, lower cost and more sustainable solution. The technology is being pioneered in the USA on small ‘street-cars’ with plans to develop the technology to work on larger Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs).
- Autonomous LRV Control – The development of autonomous LRVs is well underway; Siemens have produced and showcased a prototype and Alstom are very close to developing a similar vehicle control system. However, ‘full’ implementation of such systems could be five to ten years away (five years in terms of introduction and ten years for use of the system without driver monitoring / intervention).
- Driver Attention Devices – Following the Sandilands incident, the industry is working hard to develop driver attention devices that detect tram driver distraction and micro-sleeping events. Mark took away from the conference that the use of sophisticated facial recognition and mapping technology is proving problematic, and the more traditional systems that require regular driver response via a button and/or the Traction Brake Controller are less than satisfactory (likely to irritate tram drivers and cause repetitive strain injury).