Sheffield tram-train: Making square pegs fit Sheffield tram-train: Making square pegs fit

Square pegs in round holes: they don’t fit – at least not without a large hammer. The same principle works for the integration of light and heavy rail systems. Tramways are designed in isolation, they’re not intended to interact with trains or other operators.

On 10 December, Sheffield Supertram unveiled its first new tram-train. Creeping out of the main shed at Sheffield’s Nunnery Depot, it is the first of seven which are being built in Spain by Vossloh, which is now owned by Swiss manufacturer Stadler, as part of a joint two-year pilot tram-train programme being delivered by the Department for Transport (DfT), Stagecoach Supertram, Network Rail, Northern Rail and the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE).

The introduction of tram-trains will allow Supertram services to travel on the national rail network. Passengers will be able to board one of the new vehicles at Sheffield Cathedral and travel directly to Parkgate Retail Centre in Rotherham, via Meadowhall South and Rotherham Central station, in about 25 minutes.

It is the first tram-train to be built for the UK, but the project is drawing on the experience of tram-train systems in Europe, specifically Karlsruhe. The Karlsruhe Model is often cited as the first tram-train system in Europe and has been the basis of other projects around the continent. The German city has also recently begun operating a new fleet of Vossloh Citylink tram-trains similar to those being trialled in Sheffield.

Although it will be the first tram-train vehicle to operate in the UK, the tram-train concept isn’t new to Britain. Manchester Metrolink trams run on what were the Bury-Victoria and Altrincham- Piccadilly lines connected by an on-street section of tramway through the city centre. As a result, the current Bombardier M5000 fleet have specially designed wheel profiles.

Working with the University of Huddersfield, which was also involved in Manchester Metrolink, Sheffield’s project team has developed a wheel that fits the rail head profiles of both systems, reducing wear rates and mitigating against the risk of derailment, specifically around switches and crossings. As a non-standard profile, permission had to be sought from the RSSB for the new wheelset design before it could be used during the testing and commissioning process.

DSC_5475 [online]

Automatic Power Control

What really makes a tram-train is its ability to adapt to different electrification and signalling systems. Sheffield’s Class 399 vehicles are dual- mode, allowing them to operate under the 750V DC catenary on the Supertram network and the national network’s standard 25kV AC OLE. The route to Rotherham will be electrified at 750V DC – a project due to be completed by the end of 2016 – but a dual-mode vehicle was seen as essential given plans to electrify the Midland Mainline to Sheffield by 2023.

The switching process is automated. An Automatic Power Control (APC) system, which uses magnets embedded in the ground outside of the rail, separates the two power supplies with a neutral section of track. As the vehicle travels over the first magnet it triggers the circuit breakers to open. The tram-train then coasts through the neutral section before detecting the new voltage and closing the circuit breakers. Although it is an automated process, there is a manual override which would allow the driver to close the circuit breaker if needed.

The signalling system, on the other hand, relies on a manual driver action. On the Supertram network, drivers will use the same visual signals and the vehicle identification system (VIS) employed by the conventional tram vehicles, but the new tram-trains are also fitted with TPWS and GSM-R equipment. Although the TPWS is active at all times, the driver will be required to activate the GSM-R as they pass onto the main line network. “It’s a bit of a reminder that they are now driving a train rather than a tram,” said Rob Carroll, major projects manager at Stagecoach Supertram.

Static testing has already started at Nunnery Depot. By next summer, the operator hopes to have received three of the vehicles from Vossloh’s factory in Valencia. Initially the tram-trains will be used to provide extra capacity in busy periods, with regular passenger services slated for early 2017.

Testing and validation of the wheel-rail interface began before Christmas and the first vehicle will begin testing on the tram network by the end of January. The 37-metre, bi-directional vehicles are made up of three articulated sections with three motor bogies and one trailer bogie. Each unit has a capacity for 88 seated and 150 standing passengers. Notable features include pneumatic suspension and rear-view camera displays in the driver’s cab.

Alongside the testing of the new vehicles, various infrastructure projects must be completed to allow tram-trains onto the network. Approval has now been given for Tinsley Chord – a 160-metre section of new track linking the two networks together. New stops are also being added at Meadowhall South and at Rotherham Parkgate, platforms are being extended at Rotherham Central station and the entire Supertram network is being re-profiled.

Over the Christmas period, the first of five LED integrated Lightweight Signals (iLS), which are being supplied by Unipart Dorman, was installed by Carillion on the line to Rotherham.

DSC_5422 [online]

Setting an example

The tram-train pilot will run for two years. The reliability and popularity of the service will be carefully scrutinised and its success could determine to what extent tram-train technology is adopted and embraced in this country.

Rob said that Sheffield’s tram-train project team was being approached by organisations around the UK. “Manchester has been very interested from the start, so we’re currently having quarterly meetings with Manchester just to relay what we’ve learned.

“We’ve now had a few meetings with Glasgow for the airport link, and South Wales are also interested.”

Glasgow is hoping to introduce a tram-train service between the city centre and Glasgow Airport. A tram-train is preferred over a conventional light rail system between Glasgow Central station and Paisley Gilmour Street. In South Wales, a mixed heavy and light rail network around Cardiff has been on the agenda for some time.

With aspirations to create a light rail connection between Nottingham and Derby, and with numerous tram extensions planned in Birmingham, no doubt other cities will watch Sheffield’s tram-train experiment with interest.

  • Other cities are looking into having Tram-Trains which may happen in the near future but for Sheffield and Rotherham. Both cities will benefit the ways that the Tram-Trains can really be useful and to be as reliable working on both Tram tracks and on Heavy rail tracks along with electrification needed for these new Class 399 Tram-Train vehicles that it will be in passenger service in Spring/Summer next year.

    • Been Benuane

      Tram-trains are very expensive and inefficient and are at best a compromise solution for when the other options aren’t feasible.

      • onlineo

        Yes they are expensive but the capital cost are the largest part of the cost and by having a tram train instead of a tram or a train these have been minimized. New vehicless are a hell of a lot less than new track. So to go purely tram would involve a lot of new difficult to fit in track as would going purely train.

        Compared to a bus, trains and trams are never feasible because a bus does not have to pay for its bus lanes and a proportionate share of its road repair fees. If buses companies paid to maintain every bus lane, inc all repairs and re painting the comparison would be better but there would still be the non bus lane routes that they would use too.

        • Been Benuane

          But does a service to Rotherham justify the cost of the tram-trains?

          I notice (looking at the route) that whilst the corridor to Cathedral is separated from the road; it does have many level crossings with no barriers nor warning bells in the google earth images. The drivers of Sheffield had better hope their cars don;t ever collide with a tram-train!

  • One of my highlights of 2015, was sitting in a cafe in the main square in Kassel in Germany and watching trams and tram-trains running through the square. Passengers would get off a long distance tram-train and then either go about their business or board a tram to continue their journey. The experience sold me on the flexibility of the tram-train concept. Incidentally, Kassel Hauptbahnhof now has very few trains, as all local services are now tram-trains and divert into a tunnel under the station. The station is goin to be developed as an entertainment venue.

  • John Gilbert

    But that connection at Tinsley between Supertram and Network Rail to enable Tramtrain to transfer should NOT have two right-angle curves in it when only a short distance towards Sheffield the join could be almost straight. Two right-angles are utterly ridiculous whatever are the excuses.!! Why, oh why, are we so STUPID in this country!!

    • Nick

      It does seem odd – I think boy scouts could have laid the required track if it was 200 yards further south. Anyone know the reasons why this was now the plan?

  • Hazelkaye

    As the national rail network is less than 2k from Glasgow Airport – to which a spur can be readily built to accommodate trains from the entire UK rail system – why even bother contemplating and progressing the as yet untested, tram-train concept over the route between Paisley Gilmour Street and Glasgow Central when these are “Not intended to interact with trains”?

  • William Forbes

    Hazelkaye makes valid points on the Glasgow Airport Tram-Train which is an exercise in political face saving after the cancellation of the GARL heavy rail link to the Airport. When GARL was first cancelled in 2009 we were offered the bus priority system “Fastlink” as the alternative. Fastlink is only (barely) operational now and local people resort to nicknaming it ‘Farcelink’. Needless to say it is going nowhere near the airport now.

    So another alternative was needed and as the politicians had read (or someone had read out to them) the stories about how fabulous the Tram-Train was, then it was obvious they would prefer to flirt with the fanciful. The junkets to Karlsruhe would no doubt assist in removing any doubts.

    The Rotherham experiment is held up by the Glasgow team as the panacea and yet the one thing it will not address (as the article shows) is the operation of dual power. The Glasgow plan has the switch (and the much needed dead section of track) at the top of an 8% incline following a 90 degree turn.

    I wish them well.

    • Hazelkaye

      Quite so Mr Forbes!
      A ‘all round’ backside-covering embarrassment of a ‘project’!

  • Rowan John Watson-Taylor

    I am a little surprised that the new tram train does not have a yellow front end. Is this not a requirement for running on the heavy rail network? Is the paintwork simply not complete yet? With hindsight, it is a shame we did not have the tram trains right from the beginning when the Sheffield Supertram network was built. They could have run on the railway line (that they currently run alongside) between Attercliffe and Tinsley.