Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 09:37:18 AM EST
I haven't posted a news round-up for some time, but the news that gathered can be nicely grouped thematically. I'll present news on high-speed development in China, France and Germany; updates on troublesome rolling stock orders in Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy and the UK; news on super-capacitors in rail vehicles; and before all of those, the end of another public–private partnership in Britain:
London Underground pulls the plug on Powerlink PFI - Railway Gazette
UK: London Underground gave notice on August 16 that it intends to terminate the 30-year Powerlink private finance initiative contract for the operation and maintenance of its high-voltage electrical power network.
LU will end the contract in August 2013 by exercising a half-way break clause. It will be required to make termination payments estimated at about £160m to the Powerlink shareholders in order to repay private financing facilities, but expects to make an overall saving of £225m over the next 15 years.
This follows the termination of the PPP contracts for infrastructure maintenance. Unlike those, the Powerlink PFI is said to have performed well, but we again have a confirmation that financing costs are the big disadvantage of involving private capital.
:: :: DEVELOPMENT OF HIGH-SPEED SYSTEMS :: ::
Until last year, China was developing its high-speed rail system at breakneck speed (see The new high-speed superpower). Bad news started to pile up from early 2011, when the railway minister was fired for corruption, the ministry piled up too much debt, and finally the Wenzhou train disaster proved that rushed development brings safety risks. After the disaster, maximum train speeds were reduced, on-going projects were reviewed and no new projects were approved, and the annual budget was reduced strongly. (For an overview check this IRJ article.)
The media coverage of the above might give the impression that development ground to a halt or even that the system is a failure, but that's far from the truth. Two new passenger-dedicated lines have been opened since Wenzhou. One of them after a year-long delay due to ground subsidence (an identical problem led to a much longer delay for a section of the Madrid–Barcelona line). Two further, much longer lines are due later this year, including Beijing–Wuhan, which will leave only the Hong Kong section of the Beijing–Hong Kong corridor to be completed.
As for the existing lines, the most important among them, Beijing–Shanghai, reportedly carried 52 million passengers in its first year (about 142,000 a day on average), making it the second busiest high-speed line in the world (also see China's premier line). The first-year numbers approach the eventual target of 80 million a year, in spite of the 300 km/h top speed limitation and the temporary recall of one train type (but not in spite of the modified fare and seating system, though that could still be improved). Fare revenue is Yuan 60 million a day, that would be Yuan 21.9 billion (c. 2.8 billion) a year, which is about a tenth of the construction cost.
Traffic on France's oldest and busiest TGV line is growing due to the boost from the addition of connecting lines. (The next such line will be Nîmes–Montpellier, which saw its PPP contract signed in June.) I first wrote on ET that a second line will be needed for capacity back in 2007. Plans for such a line were firmed up a year ago, which inspired the diary A second TGV line to Lyon. Now, at a conference in the USA, French State Railways (SNCF) head Guillaume Pepy spoke about the capacity issue clearly:
"Our main problem today is congestion. [...] We operate 280 trains a day between Paris and Lyon. We have tried to avoid building a second line by operating double-deck trains, having very long operating hours, and by building new stations, but a new line is now a necessity."
This comment can probably be understood in the context of the new French government's indication that it may scrap projects included in the Sarkozy-era strategy for high-speed network expansion until 2020, going along with the negative view of the austerian French Court of Auditors. That is, Pepy may be setting priorities regarding which project to save. As for the French government's austerian logic, it makes no sense on the medium term: spending in the next few years would be mostly already committed state contributions to the on-going PPP projects, like LGV Bretagne (which started construction on 27 July).
In Germany, a project repeatedly delayed (and made more expensive) by austerity (see here), the Erfurt–Ebensfeld(–Nuremberg) line, now appears well on track to be finished on time in 2017, after the last of its 25 tunnels was holed through on 3 August.
Meanwhile, the federal transport minister moved on another high-budget project: a new dedicated freight line along the busiest section of the Rhine corridor. (Also see Corridors for freight.) In recent times, such a line was increasingly demanded both by freight train operators and Rhine valley inhabitants concerned about noise, but the government had no plans, with budget constraints assumed as reason. Now the minister started a search for a route, but warned that he expects NIMBY protests against this project, too.
:: :: TROUBLESOME ROLLING STOCK ORDERS :: ::
In rail circles, Denmark is (in)famous for the most disastrous train order in history: the 83 IC4 and 23 IC2 diesel multiple units from AnsaldoBreda, which were supposed to replace existing intercity vehicles, but are (still) being delivered with severe quality problems and long delays, now more than seven years(!) behind schedule. The latest problem emerged in November 2011: after some trains passed signals during braking, all delivered units had to be withdrawn from service. The ban was lifted on 2 July, after extensive tests. Since then, I read in a print magazine that the brake system wasn't found at fault for the signal passings: stopping distance was extended due to rails made slippery by falling leaves. This is a common problem for rail vehicles not using traditional tread brakes that also clean the wheel surface; then again, in some places (including Italy) such vehicles are equipped with special tread brakes just for the cleaning.
Another troubled AnsaldoBreda product is the V250 electric multiple unit for "domestic" services on the high-speed line linking the Netherlands and Belgium (operated under the Fyra brand). Partly due to similar quality problems, partly as a direct knock-on effect of the IC4 late delivery, and partly due to retrofits made necessary by the problems with the ETCS Level 2 train control system, these trains are five years behind schedule, too. But on 5 July, the trains finally got approval from the safety authority of the Netherlands, and on 29 July, the first unit was used in passenger service. Regular service is to start on 10 September.
An Italian export by another manufacturer, Alstom's plant in Savigliano (formerly Fiat Ferroviaria), is troubled, too: the ETR470 Pendolino tilting trains running between Switzerland and Italy. From what I read, the main problem seems to be the relationship with maintenance facilities in Italy, but it could be the technology, too, as Swiss Federal Railways SBB plans to retire them by 2014 at the latest. There have been troubles with the approval of a successor, the ETR610 Pendolino, too, so at the start of this year, SBB decided to order non-tilting trains next (I reported). There will be a two-year gap between the ETR470 departure and the arrival of the new non-tilting trains, however. But, even with that background, it came as a surprise that SBB ordered 8 more ETR610 trains on 2 August, for delivery in 2015.
In Britain, the supply agreement about the new generation of intercity trains finally reached financial close on 25 July. Agility Trains, a consortium led by Hitachi, was first chosen by the transport ministry to supply a large number of electric and hybrid electric-diesel multiple units (to be operated by the various private train companies) back in February 2009. However, the project became a political hot potato, with the price, financing and the composition of the order in question and with calls to scrap it altogether, and all that through a government change.
:: :: SUPERCAPACITORS :: ::
Lately, energy storage systems came into the focus of rail vehicle developers for multiple reasons:
- both energy efficiency and acceleration times of diesel vehicles could be improved if braking energy can be re-used during acceleration;
- even for electric vehicles, storage could reduce the strain on the overhead line supply system and the vehicle's transformer;
- many cities now want the downtown sections of their light rail systems to be catenary-free, and such a system is cheaper if power supply doesn't have to be continuous.
The storage technologies that can be used are batteries, fly-wheels and super-capacitors. Storage units with the last and newest technology have now been ordered for the vehicles of a new metro line in Hong Kong from a pair of Japanese suppliers, and the trams of Doha's catenary-free light rail line will be equipped with hybrid battery-supercapacitor energy storage units (both lines will open in 2015). Meanwhile, since July this year, the tram operator of Geneva is testing a super-capacitor unit made by ABB in one of its newly supplied trams. The ABB unit has a mass of 1 t and I calculate its storage capacity at 1.85 kWh.
I think the benefits of such systems will only show after long use. One thing to see is how weather-resistant they are (snow, rain, humidity, low temperatures). Another is the real-world economics: the saved braking energy is contrasted by the extra energy needed to accelerate the extra mass.
:: :: :: :: ::
Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.