The universal column – the UC – has a lot going for it. It’s sturdy and predictable.

With equal sides it doesn’t have the awkward detailing arrangements as its (generally) smaller cousin the joist, nor of its (generally) larger relative the rolled universal beam. The flanges have parallel sides so there are no tapered washers to remember. The web is parallel and chunky and there are no pesky radii to work round. The UC was designed to stand up straight, to carry out the mundane task of taking axial loads and to be pretty stiff in the process.

It’s an example of elegant engineering design.

On the railways there are tens of thousands of them, for it is the lowly UC that forms the basis of most overhead electrification structures. Smaller ones carrying the cantilever equipment, larger ones forming the uprights of portal structures spanning many tracks.

Plain and simple

They’ve been used over the decades because they do the task of keeping up the power cables and all the associated paraphernalia extremely well. Remember the parallel flanges? They’re just the job for clamping or drilling. The sturdiness – excellent for being…. sturdy.

And there’s the prospect of many more being installed which, if they really are that great, might cause some general rejoicing. But no, strange as it may seem for such a simple piece of steelwork, some people think they are ugly. Yes, ugly, blots on the landscape. Just downright, plain ugly, despite their sound engineering credentials.

It’s taken a little while for this to be said by the industry and for an attempt to make amends. And this is where FutureRailway (yes, just one word) comes in.

The FutureRailway programme is a collaboration between Network Rail and RSSB working with industry and the supply chain to deliver the RTS.

And the RTS – the Rail Technical Strategy – supports national policy for the development of the railway over a 30-year planning horizon.

FutureRailway manages a cross-industry research, development and innovation programme to help the innovator to navigate the complex rail industry landscape and identify the most appropriate route to market. It also supports the rail industry and its supply chain to develop long term technical strategies and to facilitate the research, development and innovation needed to deliver these strategies.

The focus is on de-risking business solutions and technologies by helping move them from research through prototype to demonstration and eventual implementation.

But why should FutureRailway bother with the Universal Column which has always done what it says on the tin – and is likely so to do for another few decades?

Time for change?Finalist with model_Bystrup [online]

With the advent of a new north-south high speed rail link and the national rail network preparing for more electrification, now is a good time to ask whether the design of gantries and cantilever structures be made more aesthetically pleasing while at the same time making sure that engineering performance criteria are met.

FutureRailway recently teamed up with HS2 to promote a new innovation challenge through competitions organised by RIBA – the Royal Institute of British Architects – a venture which was funded by the Department for Transport.

In association with RIBA, the Enabling Innovation Team (EIT), which forms part of the Future Railway Programme, HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport (DfT) intend to identify overhead line structure designs that will minimise their impact on the surrounding environment. The aim is to arrive at design solutions that are more visibly appealing to lineside neighbours, that have construction
and installation costs close to that of existing structures and that are relatively easy to install – particularly in hard to access locations.

Each of these criteria is a pretty hard call in its own right, let alone trying to come up with something that satisfies every one of them.

Selecting the best

The competition was launched in December 2013 and attracted 62 entries. Some may have been a little tongue-in-cheek, but others caused the initial selection panel some real challenges. In the end, ten entries were shortlisted and were awarded up to £15,000 each to fund the next stage of development of their scheme, which included producing a scale model of their design.

The final judging took place at the National Railway museum in York. The scale models of the entries were lined up in amongst the historic steam engines in the Great Hall and the public were given the opportunity to leave comments on the various schemes.

After two intense days the judges, who included experts in OLE design, industrial architecture and your very own editor of The Rail Engineer, recommended that three designs will go forward to the next stage of development.

The three – along with comments supplied by the entrants – are:

The High Speed T – ‘HST’ by Bystrup Architecture, Design and Engineering

The High Speed T Mast reduces the overhead rail line to two elements; a triangular cable network carrying the power, and the aesthetic T-shaped mast which supports twin systems serving adjacent tracks.

High speed twin rail lines require less land with a single line of T masts between tracks than with traditional masts either side. There are therefore no masts forming an obtrusive barrier between the track edge and its surroundings.

Tomahawk – a design family by COBE

Tomahawk (pictured) is a family of overhead line structures that minimises the visual impact of the entire line. This is achieved by reducing the overall height, reducing the number of structural elements and by using contemporary materials and manufacturing techniques.

By Keeping It Simple and Straightforward (KISS), the end product is buildable and well suited for its purpose. The simple design will also work visually when repeated hundreds of times throughout the landscape.

Integrated OLS by Moxon Architects with Mott MacDonald

The form of these masts is simple – slender and tapering, the design reduces the visual impact in the landscape. The Integrated OLS scheme simplifies the components of the power line support equipment, replacing insulating pots with built-in insulating properties through the use of a densified laminated wood.

So now it remains for these three proposals to be worked into a form that will stand the final judging. By then, maybe the UC will have some serious competition.