Each year, the Railway Division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers organises a technical study tour for its members. It is an opportunity to see how others design, build and operate railways, and it often builds career lasting relationships amongst delegates on what is, effectively, a seven-day engineering networking event.

Members young and old work together to explain the familiar and understand the unfamiliar with the help of hosts who generously show off their facilities or factories. This was the writer’s ninth tour, and on each one there has been learning that could be brought back to the workplace and implemented.

Early in November 2017, twenty engineers met in Porto, northern Portugal, and travelled to Paris in stages by train, visiting the metros of Porto Lisbon and Bilbao, train manufacturers Talgo and CAF, and the trams of Porto, Lisbon, Vitoria/Gasteiz, Bilbao, and Bordeaux, as well as the newest SNCF Ligne à Grand Vitesse, along the way.

The tour was led by Birmingham University’s Dr Felix Schmid and RSSB’s Bridget Eickhoff, albeit in their personal capacities. The participant mix was almost 50:50 young members and ‘old hares’, with representation from Angel Trains, Atkins, Birmingham University, Bombardier, DB ESG, Eversholt Rail, Montreux Oberland Bernois Railway (Switzerland), Porterbrook Leasing, RSSB, TfL, Transport Scotland and Unipart Rail, in addition to some individual members.

As well as the engineering, it is important to develop an understanding of the context and culture of the countries visited and learn something about the circumstances and different requirements that have led to the current situation of the rail networks, systems, installations and companies visited. Even simple activities, such as buying a ticket, can provide interesting experiences! Language can be a considerable barrier, but our leader was multi-lingual, and we were fortunate that English is widely spoken, both in Portugal and by the suppliers.

The City of Porto

Porto (with the definite article “o Porto” in Portuguese, hence Oporto in English) has a population of approximately 250,000 in the city itself and around 2.4 million in the metropolitan area. The airport is served by line E of the metro, which is heavily used, even mid-morning on a Saturday.

The visits to the transport installations in Porto were led by Porto native and light rail engineer Rui Costa, currently working in Bergen, Norway. The first visit was to the Museu do Carro Eléctrico, Sociedade de Transportes Colectivos do Porto. This museum tells the story of the development of the tram system and much of the history of the electric traction, from both the rolling stock and supply perspectives. Exhibits included horse trams from the 1870s and electric trams from the birth of electrification to the 1930s. Many early vehicles were made in England while later vehicles were built in Porto.

Delegates were able to see how electric traction had developed from simple, four-wheeled vehicles to trams with maximum traction bogies (one driving axle with large wheels and one non-driving axle with smaller wheels – the bogie pivot is located off-centre, so more than half the mass rests on the driving wheels). In general, the construction of the vehicles featured an underframe of iron or steel and a wooden body.

An unusual feature of the museum is the display of historic power station and sub-station equipment, some of which is about 100 years old: rotary converters, mercury arc rectifiers, 1950s transformers and ancient switchgear, all located in the former power station building.

Many of the exhibits are used on historic tram tours of the city and participants were shown around the renovation workshop, which illustrated that quite different skills are required to renovate historic vehicles compared with todays’ products. Interestingly, even the oldest trams are being fitted with laminated glass windows to improve the chance of survival in an accident.

The museum visit ended with a vintage tram ride over most of the old on-street network where the latest technology was demonstrated: the tram driver support system using GPS-enabled tablets had been introduced three days before – a sort of Driver Advisory System. It shows the historic tram network and issues conflict avoidance messages to the driver that become increasingly urgent as trams approach each other on the single-track sections. The guide and driver demonstrated the use of rheostatic braking on the 10 per cent (1 in 10) gradients that are common in Porto.

Today’s tram network, Metro Porto, is a low-floor light-rail system. It has 81 stations on 67km of standard gauge (1,435mm) double track. Most of the system is at ground level, some is elevated, and 8km are underground. Most of the metro features automatic train protection (ATP), although there are some street-running outer sections with line of sight operation.

Metro Porto uses vehicles best described as high-performance trams. There are 72 seven-section Bombardier Eurotrams from around 2004 and 32 three-section Bombardier Flexity Swift trams from 2010.

The visit to the depot included its stabling yard, workshop, control centre and a modern sub-station – it was interesting to compare the latter with the facility at the museum. The light rail principles of the Metro were illustrated by small-radius points and grooved rail in the sidings. Vehicles in the workshop demonstrated the design challenge of the all-low-floor Eurotrams compared with the Flexity Swift vehicles, which have low floors near the doorways but high floors in the centre section and above the bogie on each end section.

The high floors allow bogies that are largely conventional, whereas the Eurotrams bogies have independently rotating wheels with individual brake discs – while motor bogies have each wheel powered by an asynchronous three-phase motor connected via a gearbox.

Lisbon Metro and Trams

The group travelled from Porto’s beautiful Sao Bento station by Comboios de Portugal (Portuguese Railways or CP) to Lisbon. CP, like Spanish Railways (Renfe), use the Iberian gauge of 1668mm. This gauge, equivalent to six Castilian feet, was chosen following an 1844 report by two Spanish road engineers, Subercase and Santa Cruz. They opined that the tough Iberian topography required more powerful locomotives than those of England and France, thus the wider gauge.

The train was a tilting Alfa Pendular – an Alstom Pendolino – which reached speeds of up to 220km/h according to the vehicles’ displays. On arrival at the Calatrava-designed Lisboa Oriente station, the group was given the task of buying local area day tickets. About half discovered the hard way that the CP day ticket is not interchangeable with the Metro do Lisboa ticket.

The visit to Metro do Lisboa started with a presentation about the history and development of the metro, which had opened in 1959. The population of the city is 570,000 and Greater Lisbon has 2.8 million inhabitants. More than 60 per cent of commuting to and from Lisbon’s City Centre is by public transport, split roughly equally between Metro and bus/tram.

The Metro is recovering after suffering badly during Portugal’s financial difficulties following the Euro crisis. Traffic fell from approximately 170 million in 2010 to approximately 120 million in 2013. Development plans were put on hold, there were many redundancies and the remaining staff had to take a significant pay cut while working harder.

The consequences for the Metro were that it had to reduce maintenance, surveillance and cleaning operations and increase headways. The situation is improving, with a forecast 180 million journeys in 2017, and the Metro has been able to reinstate some of the cut activities and implement developments to improve stations and customer service.

The party’s guide, Nuno Goncalves Pereira, was upbeat about the prospects for new lines, extensions and the enhancement of the existing system. Metro de Lisboa is manually driven with ATP, but is examining the installation of CBTC with automatic operation.

The group toured the depot and workshop. The standard Lisbon metro car has a stainless-steel body, air conditioning and is formed into five or six-car trains, the newest with walk-through gangways.

All trains in normal use have three-phase propulsion systems with fully suspended motors/gearboxes. Like the Porto Eurotrams, they were built by AdTranz/Bombardier in its plant at Amadora Portugal, which closed in 2005.

Metro do Lisboa has its own electronics maintenance and development facility in which highly skilled electronics engineers are developing their own GTO to IGBT conversion kits for the three-phase AC propulsion packages.

Lisbon is a hilly city, so some innovative design features have been incorporated into the Metro network. For example, Baixa-Chiado station in the city centre offers interchange between the blue and green lines. One entrance is at street level in Baixa, the other is in the Chiado district, reached via a flight of five escalators.

The hilly nature of the city also allowed members of the group to experience reliable ‘steel wheel on steel rail operation’ on gradients of up to 12 per cent. A small party also sampled one of the funicular railways, propelled by traction motors on the two balanced cars.

From Lisbon, the group travelled to Spain on an almost-historic Talgo hotel train. Your writer was lucky enough to have a single berth although it was located close to a wheelset (see later) and the ride was rather uncomfortable.

Patentes Talgo

After a 10-hour journey, the group arrived at Miranda de Ebro and boarded a coach to visit Talgo’s factory in nearby Rivabellosa.

Talgo’s Ramón Ortiz García and UK representative Jon Veitch introduced the company. Alejandro Goicoechea and José Luis Oriol founded the company in 1942 to develop their concept of a Tren Articulado Ligero Goicoechea Oriol (light articulated train of Goicoechea and Oriol), the principles of which they had patented in 1940. They tested the concept with a train of isosceles-triangle-shaped frames with independently rotating wheels at the ends of the short sides. Each triangle was then replaced with a short bodyshell, which rested on two wheels at one end and the adjacent vehicle at the other end.

The first commercial operation was in 1950. Since then, Talgo has developed trains capable of changing gauge and travelling at 250km/h, as well as high-speed trains capable of 350km/h. The company has also built hotel trains and bi-mode trains which have a locomotive, with an adjacent diesel generator car, at each end of the train.

During the visit, Talgo engineers explained how the wheels are steered and how the suspension system works. Talgo trains feature steerable two-wheel bogies without axles between the vehicles, which are typically 13.5 metres long, with a tare vehicle mass of some 15.5 t. Compared with a 26-metre bogie vehicle, this arrangement results in half the number of wheelsets and a weight saving of between five and ten tonnes per 26 metres. A rake has one more axle than there are vehicles.

Above the frames that link the wheels are vertical tubes connecting the bogie to the secondary suspension, located at cantrail level, which interfaces in turn with the body bolster at roof height. The adjacent vehicle is supported on struts that run from the body bolster to the adjacent vehicle’s underframe. The high secondary air-suspension enables passive tilting of the vehicles to compensate some of the cant deficiency.

Longitudinal forces are reacted at an underframe level coupler. Rods and levers between adjacent bodies and the wheelset ensure that the bogie is always perpendicular to the curvature of the rails.

The group toured the works, where trailer vehicles are being manufactured. Talgo’s technique is to use single-skin aluminium body extrusions, except where more strength or rigidity is required. Body sides and roofs are single skin, reinforced by channel sections. Floors are double-skin extrusions and door portals are reinforced using sections machined from solid.

A train being tested for the Saudi Arabian high-speed line was on show and provided evidence of the high quality of the finish being achieved.

Vitoria/Gasteiz

The afternoon included a visit to the tram system of Vitoria/Gasteiz. This is an old town that 30 years ago accommodated approximately 50,000 people and has grown to 250,000 today, with most living in apartment blocks that create a public-transport-friendly population density. (The only tram system in the UK in a remotely comparable setting is that of Blackpool with its very special context. Other UK towns of 250,000 are simply too spread out).

It is a network of two lines sharing a common section, with a total length of 8.6km of double metre-gauge track and 11 trams, the peak service requiring nine vehicles. Even off-peak, the trams were busy.

The well-equipped depot allows plenty of room for the planned network expansion. The CAF-manufactured and maintained five-segment trams are similar to those operating in Bilbao but are low floor throughout.

The train back to Miranda de Ebro happened to be a Talgo 250, which had a comparatively noisy and rough ride – was it the train or the track?

Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF)

Next, the group travelled on a CAF-built regional train to Ordizia for a visit to CAF, Beasain. Hosts Xabier Perez and José Gortazar led a tour of the works.

The bogie shop was home to a variety of small and large frames and completed bogies, to be used under anything from metre-gauge trams through to Iberian-gauge articulated train sets.

Generally, CAF uses strong double-skin extrusions for car body construction. A variety of body shells for different vehicle types were in production, including tram and light rail rolling stock, UK-gauge vehicles and very large metro cars for Santiago, Chile.

The group was shown how CAF designs and integrates vehicles using Catia 3-D software, followed by a visit to the fit-out and final test areas where Caledonian Sleeper vehicles were much in evidence. This project is of great interest to UK rolling stock engineers as they are likely to be the most complex trailer coaches ever put into service in Britain. It is challenging to accommodate all that is required of a modern ’hotel train’ in the UK loading gauge, especially when cabins with private toilets and showers have been specified for some of the vehicles. The members of the group were privileged to be amongst the first to see how this feat has been accomplished; an object lesson in tightly packaging all the features one would expect in a hotel room. The group also saw a club car with its extremely well-equipped kitchen. The sheer amount of equipment fitted would not disgrace the most complex power car.

For several delegates, the Talgo and CAF visits represented their first ever chance to see rolling stock being manufactured.

Euskotren, Euskotram and Bilbao Metro

Thursday’s visit was to Bilbao’s tram and metro system. The day started at the historic Bilbao Axturi Euskotren station, with a presentation by Iñaki Uriarte about the Euskotren enterprise, the Basque country’s national operator of trains, trams and buses. The rail element is a metre-gauge, largely ‘all stations’, network. Journey times are dependable but slow. However, the company is also in charge of one branch of the hugely ambitious Basque Y high-speed rail project, which will operate at 250km/h even though 67 per cent will be in tunnel. Once built, it will also facilitate combined transport operations from northern Europe to Spain.

The Bilbao tram system has nine three-segment vehicles. The workshop was built into the side of a hill on a very constrained site and has just one road. Whilst very compact, the depot is equipped with everything necessary to maintain the trams, such as cranes, bogie drop and a wheel lathe. Equipment is maintained off site, usually by the OEM, and there is a lift to take even major components up to street level.

The depot is separated from the tram track by the metre-gauge regional lines. To access the depot, trams must cross the main line. Both are metre gauge, but the tram is electrified at 750V DC and the main line at 1500V DC. Thus, when the trams are signalled into the depot, electrical switching is necessary to provide the correct supply for the trams.

Pedestrian access to the depot involved the group crossing the main line twice and lining up hard against the fence alongside the river to allow a tram to pass.

Next, the group visited Bilbao Metro. Bilbao is probably unique in having an architect-designed system, the concept for the stations having originated in Norman Foster’s practice and they all exhibit a similar feel, making navigation easier.

The network is 49km long with 48 stations, of which 31 are underground, and 36 trains in a mixture of four and five-car formations also running on metre-gauge tracks. The cars are 18 metres long and 2.8 metres wide, making them unusually spacious for the gauge. The network is electrified at 1500V DC, like Euskotren’s, and features attended automatic train operation with ATP. For the group’s visit to the depot, the train driver had to switch to ATP manual to allow the train to stop at the staff halt.

In the evening, the group travelled from Bilbao to San Sebastian with ‘El Topo’, Euskotren’s main line. The train, a four-car articulated electric set by CAF, took two and a half hours to cover 100km, was busy and the fare was only €3.80. The seat comfort, though, left something to be desired, even when compared to the much-derided UK class 387!

From Spain to Bordeaux

The group travelled from San Sebastian to Bordeaux on Friday morning to experience the city’s tram network, riding on the El Topo and an SNCF TGV, having remembered to ’compost’ our tickets before boarding the French train. Bordeaux’s centre has about 250,000 inhabitants, while Bordeaux Métropole, which includes suburbs, has nearly one million.

In Bordeaux, Felix Schmid delivered a specially written lecture describing the Bordeaux region and how it is regenerating itself after the loss of much of its industry, enabled in part by the modern standard-gauge tramway.

Bordeaux’s city planners did not want the historic areas disfigured by electrification masts and overhead lines. Responding to the challenge, Alstom developed the APS system (Alimentation par le Sol – literally ‘feeding via the ground’) for Bordeaux and it is now used in Reims, Angers, Tours and Dubai. The principle is that there is a discontinuous conductor rail between the running rails that is energised only when covered by the tram. It then has to be proved to be de-energised whilst still under the tram, otherwise the vehicle will stop. It was possible to hear the clattering of the conductor shoes on the discontinuous rail whilst travelling. Changeover from track to catenary takes place at stations.

Today there are 62 seven-section trams, each 43.9 metres long, for lines A and B as well as 12 five-section trams, 32.8 metres long for line C, operating on the 66km network. An extension project has just got underway.

LGV Tours – Bordeaux

The tour concluded with a high-speed rail visit. In Bordeaux, Felix had presented a brief talk provided by the concessionaire of the line, LISEA, which described how the line had been privately financed, in a very French way where virtually all the funding is guaranteed by the state.

For its last visit on Saturday, the group toured some of the infrastructure built for the Tours-Bordeaux line, which opened in July 2017. The tour included a 1500V DC to 25kV AC changeover location, new bridges and stations, as well as the simple and elegant OLE equipment capable of supporting speeds up to 300 km/h, with two pantographs. This was in great contrast with what has been provided for the Great Western electrification. The group then travelled on a 1990s single-deck, smooth-riding TGV to Paris Montparnesse, where the tour ended.

Lessons learned

These comments are typical: Matthew Cooper from Angel Trains, one of the younger delegates, said: “The Annual Technical Tour gave me an opportunity to visit many sites that I would not have been able to visit as part of my normal role. This gave me the chance to learn how different companies are finding solutions to my day to day problems.”

Bill Reeve, director of railways at Transport Scotland, a veteran of several tours, added: “It has unquestionably been a highly valuable tour – the challenging programme has ensured we have been kept intensely engaged throughout the week.

“I am convinced that such visits are essential for the development of young railway engineers and for the continued education and understanding of senior staff too. I know of no other method where I may obtain such strategic insight through benchmark visits at the same time as highly informed discussions with the deeply expert members of the technical visit group.

“Over many years now, I have found these visits to have been of great value in developing the strategy for Scotland’s railways. I have no hesitation in recommending them to others, whatever the stage of their rail industry careers.”

Thanks are due to the tour’s sponsors, Angel Trains, Eversholt Rail and Unipart Rail, The University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education and, especially, to Felix Schmid and Bridget Eickhoff, without whose efforts the tour could not have gone ahead. Felix also checked this text for technical accuracy and provided editorial input. Travel and hotels were organised by Ffestiniog Travel. Subject to sufficient interest from young entrants to the industry and support by experienced railway engineers, there will be a Railway Technical Tour in 2018. The provisional dates are 6 to 13 October 2018 and the Tour is expected to cover developments in northern Italy and the Swiss Alps. Expressions of interest can be sent to rail-tech-tour@talktalk.net.

This article was written by Malcolm Dobell.


Read more: EGIP’s Millerhill milestone