From lighter rail vehicles to hydrogen-powered trains, researchers and industry leaders in the West Midlands are changing how we think about rail for the future…

The advent of more advanced technology, coupled with growing pressures to improve our carbon footprint and meet emissions targets, has accelerated the demand to transform traditional modes of transport on a global scale. In the UK especially, government laws to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 have set the countdown clock ticking.

Developing more eco-conscious, inter-connected solutions is an urgent priority for transport providers everywhere, including in the rail industry. While trains are considered the more environmentally-friendly way to get around – compared to road vehicles and aeroplanes – getting existing infrastructure up to speed is the most pressing challenge for the industry’s future. 42 per cent of track in the UK is currently electrified, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers reports. This, combined with the demand to increase capacity for growing passenger numbers, complicates the industry’s ability to assemble a fleet of rolling stock ready for the net zero era. The race to decarbonise and create more space on Britain’s railways by 2050 is on. But what will get the industry over the finish line?

Powering ahead

A community of researchers and industry leaders in the West Midlands is seeking to develop the answers. As one of the largest hubs for the rail sector in the UK, the region is more than familiar with the challenges ahead. 49,000 railway-related jobs are based in the West Midlands. Its diverse local supply chain includes international heavyweights Siemens, CAF, Alstom and DB Engineering & Consulting.

Companies often favour the region because of its long history in transport innovation; the West Midlands is the birthplace of both the first fuel-burning and steam engines. Now, with mounting ambitions for the UK to become a global leader in the future of mobility, the region is revolutionising rail for a new generation of travel.

Selected as the UK’s first Future Mobility Zone (FMZ), the West Midlands has secured £22 million of Government funding to bring new travel solutions to market. Launched in late 2019, underpinning the region’s proposition is a commitment to delivering the smarter, cleaner and safer movement of people and goods in the future.

Chris Lane, Head of Innovation at Transport for West Midlands – the organisation leading the rollout of the programme said: ‘We see the Future Mobility Zone as more than a programme – it’s the fitting title for the West Midlands as the place to come to develop and demonstrate new products and services with the UK’s best.

‘With our leading organisations and research centres working across technology, automotive, rail, air, electrification, inclusivity and policy, we’ve built the networks, people, assets and support programs to compete internationally for business and deliver real benefits for our people while we’re doing it.’

The FMZ forms part of the region’s wider investment strategy for accelerating innovation in new mobility trends. The West Midlands’ Local Industrial Strategy – the first region to develop its own version of the national Industrial Strategy – identifies opportunities in rail as essential for enhancing the local economy.

David Fisken, Head of Business Attraction at the West Midlands Growth Company – the region’s inward investment agency said: ‘Developing the sector is a crucial part of strengthening our inward investment offer.

‘As well as showcasing our ability to innovate and pioneer real-world changes, it’s also about delivering on reliable and enhanced transport connections to foster long-term inclusive growth and prosperity across the whole region.

‘Quality of life is a hugely important aspect of why investors choose to move here. Being able to offer them and their employees quality-engineered, high-performing travel options boosts our credentials as a dynamic and sustainable place to live.’

The region has experienced peak popularity on its railways in recent years. Last year saw a significant increase in the number of people using the West Midlands Trains network.

Added to this is the region’s status as an established destination for onward travel. Positioned at the heart of the country’s national railway network, the West Midlands bridges the gap between the UK’s northern and southern regions, and is home to the UK’s most used regional train station.

In 2019, Birmingham New Street overtook London Euston in popularity, with upwards of 47 million passenger entries and exits – roughly seven million of which were interchanges. All this means the region is well placed to shape the next phase of rail innovation. But what does this look like, and how will it impact the future of the industry?

Keeping things light

One of the most radical projects to emerge from the region is a brand new Very Light Rail concept. Led by WMG at the University of Warwick, in conjunction with a number of industry partners, the research is shaking up traditional approaches to rail car development by applying technologies and techniques from the automotive sector.

Harnessing its world-renowned academic expertise in automotive R&D, WMG is transferring its knowledge around propulsion, battery development and powertrains in cars to design the VLR concept. Researchers are also investigating use of lighter weight materials usually employed by car manufacturers.

The idea was born out of a response to the Rail Safety & Standards Board’s Radical Train competition, which called on investors and industry leaders to propose alternative approaches to innovation in the rail sector.

Dr Nick Mallinson, VLR Programme Manager at WMG, said: ‘WMG has a track record of driving disruptive innovation in transport, and VLR can benefit significantly from technology advances in the automotive sector.’

Inspiration came from the shuttle operated on the Stourbridge Town branch line – developed by Parry People Movers – and the research has remained West Midlands-orientated ever since.

Progress is well underway on the first of two VLR projects to come forward, titled ‘Revolution VLR’. Being developed for use on traditional, heavy rail branch lines, the ambition is to create lightweight railcars with a mass of just one tonne per linear metre to reduce track damage and maintenance costs. Construction of a prototype is scheduled to complete in April 2020 before it is exhibited to industry.

Running alongside this is a dedicated VLR scheme in Coventry, aimed at developing a low-carbon, low-cost tram-style mode of transport for the city. The project came about after Coventry City Council approached WMG to see if the design and technology involved in Revolution could be applied to trams, as a solution for reducing traffic congestion and associated pollution in the city.

Following initial feasibility studies, Coventry City Council secured funding from various local authority partners in the region to support the R&D of a brand new approach to vehicle and track form design.

The design of a demonstrator has recently been completed and components are being procured. The vehicle will be smaller than a traditional tram and battery powered to eliminate the need for overhead power cables. Passenger capacity is forecasted at 50, with plans for the vehicles to eventually run on a five-minute headway, providing a hop-on, hop-off service. The long-term goal is for the vehicle to be autonomous, reducing additional operational costs.

Current timescales could see the prototype ready for testing in late 2020.

Speaking about the benefits of VLR for the city, Coventry Councillor Jim O’Boyle says: ‘This Very Light Rail work, combined with our work on driverless and connected cars puts us right at the forefront of creating new, ground-breaking solutions for future transport needs. They will be safer and more environmentally friendly and I hope go on to provide good job opportunities for local people too.’

Underpinning this programme of work is the Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre (VLRNIC) in Dudley – a dedicated facility to support the development and growth of the VLR industry.

Supported by Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, the Centre will be a hub for industry and academia to advance R&D in the sector. It will include a 2.2 kilometre test track, conference and exhibition spaces, research labs and an advice bureau to help local authorities and transport planners understand the benefits of VLR. Construction on the centre is underway, with a provisional opening date of April 2021.

‘VLR is a fantastic example of how we are diversifying our local economy to capitalise on new opportunities in traditional industries’ Fisken comments.

‘With VLR, we have a brand new manufacturing sector that is completely unique to the region. The programme presents huge opportunities to expand the expertise of our local supply chain, making it a really exciting chapter in the region’s industrial story.’

Fuelling change

WMG is just one of the region’s powerhouse of universities exploring alternatives in rail.

The Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) at the University of Birmingham is making significant progress in researching different options for fuelling rail vehicles by developing the UK’s first Hydrogen train.

The HydroFLEX project – in partnership with rolling stock company Porterbrook – aims to demonstrate how hydrogen could be deployed across the UK’s rail network as a cleaner alternative to diesel trains.

The project involves the retrofit of a hydrogen fuel cell to an existing Class 319 train. Eventually, the train would be operated on traditional electrified routes and independently, making it a highly flexible train solution for different sections of the railway network.

HydroFLEX achieved a major milestone in June last year when it was given the green light to be tested on the UK’s mainline railway network.

Alex Burrows, Director at BCRRE, adds: ‘This is a great success story for rail in the UK, which shows our capability and commitment to helping the government meet decarbonisation targets.

‘Key to this success is the close partnership between academia and industry, which has enabled us to pool the expertise needed to rapidly progress this technology from concept to full-scale working demonstrator.’

BCRRE is the largest university-based centre for railway research and education in Europe. It is also leading the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network’s (UKRRIN) Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems.

As well as HydroFLEX, the group is advancing research in railway control and operations simulation, data integration and cyber security, and condition monitoring and sensing.

Commenting on the value of its work, Professor Clive Roberts, Director of BCRRE, says: ‘With our focus on improving capacity, reducing energy consumption, and enabling significant cost reductions, BCRRE’s work results in improvements to services benefitting all rail users. Rail has a vital role in creating the world of tomorrow and we are looking ahead to the next phase of railways transformation.

‘BCRRE will play a key role in the large-scale international collaboration needed to digitise the railways and deliver the innovations required to ensure their future success as a safe, fast, high capacity and environmentally-friendly transport mode.’

Picking up the pace

Alongside its universities, a number of other key initiatives put the West Midlands in a unique position to tackle issues facing the industry. The West Midlands will be the epicentre of HS2. Cementing its position as the UK’s most centrally connected region, HS2 will increase capacity on the existing railway network at a local and national level, preventing major upgrades and widespread passenger disruption.

An additional two new stations will be purpose-built to accommodate the new line, including the HS2 Interchange Station near Birmingham Airport and Curzon Street in Birmingham’s city centre.

Birmingham is already a focal point for the scheme as the home of HS2 Ltd.’s headquarters. The National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure is also based in the city. In tandem, the region’s status as the UK’s first multi-city 5G testbed will open up a host of exciting opportunities for rail companies to trial and test new systems and technologies.

Driving forward

The 2020s are set to be a significant era of change for the rail industry. Harnessing the opportunities that these new, future mobility technologies will bring, the West Midlands is on the cusp of becoming a global destination for rail innovation. Already there is a buzz around the region’s qualities as a place to make, create and innovate.

‘The region is making its mark as the country’s hub of innovation in transport manufacture and infrastructure’ says Stephen Bick, Project Director at Siemens Mobility Limited.

‘With major offices across the West Midlands, we’ve been a core part of that development from day one, and our collaborative work with partners such as the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN), Midlands Future Mobility and UK CITE, is helping to realise the region’s potential in cutting-edge, connected transport systems.’