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Rail News Blogging #16

by DoDo 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.


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.


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.


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.

Last month I again visited the Szob–Márianosztra narrow-gauge railway (see A narrow gauge railway in the summer three years ago). I found that it is operated as economically as possible. For example, gauge-clearing is done by the driver, hanging from the locomotive door and tearing at the branches with a gloved hand...

Here is the train at end station Márianosztra:

The building in the background is not some monastery but a famous prison. Before catching the train back, I had to circle it on a hellish round trip around the valley in 35°C: the prison now has a lot of agricultural lands for the inmates, all with barbed wire around it.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 09:47:01 AM EST
I recently reconsidered my regenerative braking for bike project - you can now buy 600F 2.7V caps for about $15 now.  that's 2.2kJ/100g.  For comparison, a bike travelling at 20mph (in the middle of the road) has 4kJ of kinetic energy.  So we should be able to store and recover a stop and start in say 250g (half a pound).  This would make the US back streets, with their endless four-way stops much more practical for bikes.  For the motor/generator we are not looking for continuous power, instead it needs to be able to cool off between each stop.  So we might be able to use a 4 times smaller motor (assuming 3 times derating and pulse operation).

The user interface would be quite simple - when applying the brakes the generator would have priority, when the user applies pressure to the pedals the motor would kick in.

by njh on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 04:45:52 PM EST
I wanna have such a bike!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 04:59:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Everyone does.  Basically it is impedance matching for human output vs demand.  And that is what a bicycle is.
by njh on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 05:01:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem you're going to have is the size of the generator. If you want to go from 25 kph to 0 in, say 4 seconds, you've got to transfer that energy from the bike to the capacitor at a rate of 1 kJ/sec. Thats 1000 Watts of power--apologies in advance to those economist who don't want to hear about this!  :-)  --which is a pretty honking generator.

A typical bike lighting generator, e.g. Shimano dh-3n80 puts out 3 Watts.

by asdf on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 06:30:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Typical motorcycle alternators seem to be around 250 Watts, it looks like...
by asdf on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 06:37:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Prius motors are fairly small (about 2kg) and they are 25kW.  My 1kW electric drill weighs about 1kg, including the chuck, case, trigger, gearbox etc.  This helicopter motor is 300W and weighs just 70g:

(and would be ideal but for the fact that it would need a gear reduction ratio of about 10000:1)

Also, this would have a relatively low duty bi-cycle (stop, then start) so we can stinge a little on the windings.  A standard continuous duty motor would be 3* derated (so if it is rated to 300W it could survive 900W with a small amount of burning paint).  We could probably use a motor a quarter or less the required power rating as long as we monitored the temperature in the windings closely and limited to a safe level.

Incidentally, what started me off on this course was someone stealing my cheap AA led bike light, so I replaced it with a completely unstealable (we'll see :) light.  I could diary it if people are interested.

by njh on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 07:04:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep, yer turning it into an engineering problem, which is exactly what is required!  :-)
by asdf on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 07:26:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I suspect that the Prius MG1 motor, which I think is the one you're talking about, is already derated as you suggest. Its main job is to start the IC engine, which is a very low duty cycle situation. Also don't forget the very complicated electronics that goes along with that motor...  :-)
by asdf on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 07:35:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... terminology when talking about a issue where the distinctions they draw are crucial.

What I was mocking was the geek compulsion to make quibbling corrections when the distinction that is drawn makes no difference in the context at hand.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 10:32:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Don't bikes like this already exist in China and Japan?  I've seen bikes equipped with a little battery and electric motor.  Power is drawn from pedaling (and braking, I presume), stored, and then released on command.  I see people idling up shallow inclines quite frequently.
by Zwackus on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 07:21:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have not seen an energy neutral electric bike yet.  Typically (as per my father's one) they have a large battery that you charge up from the grid, then you use it up as you ride.

This is the wrong solution IMO because it has the wrong incentives.  If you're going to have electric assist, why not just ride an electric scooter: after a short while the owners stop pedalling and just sit.  Because the system is designed for continuous use it tends to be intrusive in the ride, heavy, noisy.

The batteries have a short lifespan (a few years) and complex reprocessing chemistry.  They store a lot of energy and so need to be made safe with complex interlock connectors and are valuable so need to be either completely attached, or easily removable.

The motors need to be large for the above mentioned heat issues, which adds weight to the wheel, increasing the inertia of the bike (weight on the wheel is especially bad because it is unsprung and in a rotating frame, perhaps 3 times as bad as weight on the frame).

What I am proposing is more like adding bike lights to a bike, or pumping the tyre up.  It would make the ride more fun, but you still provide all the work.  The operating life in principle could be as long as the frame.  If fuel supplies dwindle, it would still work.

by njh on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 07:34:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What you need to do is put on your steam punk goggles and make this with a spring...
by asdf on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 07:36:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, I worked out a design using a high speed flywheel mounted inside the front wheel.  But it's mechanical stuff, which I'm not very skilled with.

I did wonder whether it would be possible to stop perfectly for a typical red light time and stay vertical on the bike, using the flywheel to keep you upright.

But the ultracapacitor design seems much more within reach.

by njh on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 07:50:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by asdf on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 07:38:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Energy from pedaling goes directly to locomotion. Some ebikes do have regenerative braking, but the efficiency is supposedly only around 25% at best.

Indeed, if you had an ebike, capacitive regenerative braking would take load off the battery and stretch its life. You already have the motor, and already have the motor controller.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 10:35:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Irish Times - Readers Letters and Feedback

Sir, - I refer to the article regarding Irish Rail's decision to scrap 90 carriages for want of a foreign buyer (Home News, August 6th). These (Mark 3) carriages, not that old, and low mileage by rail standards, are the most recent and most advanced versions of a type still widely used across Britain. They are still thought to have the best ride of all such current carriage designs.

This year Chiltern Railways, one of UK's most successful franchisees, has recently completely refurbished a whole fleet of these vehicles for long future service on its new flagship "Mainline" London Birmingham route.

However, in Ireland, the carriages ordered as replacements and now deployed on the Dublin Cork route have turned out to be very unsatisfactory. They have been dubbed "vomit comets" in the print media. How can Irish Rail, The Rail Procurement Agency and the Government have ever justified the replacement and scrapping of very successful, comfortable and refurbish-able stock, especially given that the replacements have been expensive, troublesome and still not completely fit for purpose? The lack of a foreign buyer for the 90 condemned carriages is, to my mind, something of a red herring, as Ireland has a unique rail gauge (distance between the rail lines). More plausible is the possibility that, as Ireland is under pressure quickly to put in place EU directives allowing competition in domestic passenger rail services, Irish Rail is adopting a "scorched earth" policy to rid the island of any rolling stock that might be available to other operators. The absence of any stock and the unique rail gauge of Ireland would make new-build an expensive and therefore prohibitive threshold for any aspiring competitor.

Irish Rail's scrappage decision, sneaked out on a bank holiday, should be put on hold until the Government, the Transport Committee, the Minister and the NTA can throw further light on the matter. - Yours, etc,


Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Aug 19th, 2012 at 08:34:14 PM EST
First on Mr. O'Gorman's hypothetised and the probable actual, immediate reason for the scrapping. There are precedents for the scrapping of vehicles instead of selling them to competitors, but even in those cases, I say why would any company have to benefit its competitors? In this case however, the letter writer speculates about a future rail company, whereas IR would have to store these 90 vehicles (occupying over two kilometres of track) until the potential buyer appears, which is not zero cost. What's more, if vehicles are to be stored for a substantial time before re-use, some weather protection would be needed or else the upgrade would become very costy to impossible.

Reading up on the vehicles, I find the "vomit comets" are the Mark 4 coaches made by CAF. Here is an article on their bad ride quality. The interesting part is that the cars were fine when they were new. The article seems to hypothetise that the cars are unsuited for Ireland's bad tracks, but IMHO that can only be part of the story: the Hungarian Railways have CAF coaches and bad tracks too, but the CAF cars have a good ride quality. There can be several reasons for bad ride quality in service, all of which can be dealt with if the vehicles are investigated properly: the initial wheel profile, the service pattern (say if cars always run along a curvy section in the same alignment, that is without being turned 180°), the adjustment of springs and dampers between the wheels and bogies as well as the bogies and the carbodies, the wear of the same elements. So if the instable run of Mark 4 coaches persists, I take IR has not investigated the problem properly.

On what replaces what, Mr. O'Gorman left out some steps: the Mark 4 coaches replaced the Mark 3 coaches on the Dublin–Cork route years ago, after which they themselves replaced older Mark 2 coaches on other routes. What happened now that on these other routes, they were replaced by new Class 22000 DMUs.

Now, what would Mr. O'Gorman prefer? It's not entirely clear from the letter whether he'd want IR to refurbish the Mark 3 coaches for itself and scrap Mark 4 coaches, or if he wants a private compatitor to refurbish them and eliminate IR in competition on the Dublin–Cork route (a route also ending in the scrapping of Mark 4 coaches). What I wonder about is whether dealing with the running gear problem of the Mark 4 would be cheaper than the refurbishment of the Mark 3.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Aug 20th, 2012 at 04:29:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I found an interesting discussion on the pros and cons (mostly the latter) of Mark 3 refurbishment. The focus is on the the comparison with the DMUs replacing them, but they also deal with the Chiltern refurbishment.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Aug 20th, 2012 at 04:45:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Many thanks for this. As you know Irish Rail is a state owned company and the subtext of the letter appears to be that Irish Rail are "wasting a lot of taxpayers money" by scrapping perfectly viable or refurbishable vehicles just to avoid the prospect of possible future competition. Scandalous!

The reality is that the Irish rail market is tiny and loss making and I can't see any commercial competitor being interested in entering the market whatever the regulators might say/want.  So the bigger issue appears to be whether Irish Rail made some very bad purchasing decisions in the past which they may now be about to exacerbate by making a bad scrappage decision. It is (in my view) v. unlikely a buyer will ever emerge, and so it is a case of deciding what is the best use of resources for Irish rail.

With very little capital available for new investment, it is important that management are accountable for whatever decisions they made in the past and are making now. The general public (myself included) has very little awareness of these issues so it's no harm to have them aired in public now. Irish rail services are v. underdeveloped and we need to make the best of what resources we have, and it is unclear to me whether or not Irish Rail have a good "track record" in this regard.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Aug 20th, 2012 at 05:36:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Cut benefits to bring down rail fares: MP - Telegraph

Mark Reckless, MP for Stroud and Rochester in Kent, said those who travel for work should not be facing an increase in ticket prices of up to 11 per cent.

"It is a question of fairness for those working hard to charge them so such," he told the BBC.

George Osborne, the Chancellor, is under growing pressure over the increases, which threaten to squeeze household budgets during the recession even further.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Aug 20th, 2012 at 07:30:14 AM EST
Is this a late April joke?...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Aug 20th, 2012 at 10:38:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You would hope so but unfortunately probably not

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Aug 20th, 2012 at 12:57:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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