You want to reopen a disused rail line. You’ve got permission to do so, you have organised to close, re-route or otherwise deal with rights of way over the infrastructure and you have found a way to deal with the housing development that’s been built on the route and sorted out the design and construction or refurbishment of track and signalling systems.

The challenges are similar if you want to improve mobility in a town or city. Once you’ve sorted the infrastructure, you need to choose trains to run on the railway. Currently, choices are limited to up-cycled ex-Underground trains, Pacers or other old diesel trains. However, you want the railway to have green credentials and you do not see why a rail vehicle should be three times the weight of a bus and cost at least five times as much and, at best, look like “something of its time”!

There might be something different on the horizon.

Radical solution

Rolling back a few years, the 2012 Railway Technical Strategy led to a competition called “Radical Train”, which was aimed at producing technology demonstrators – real things that people could see, feel and touch which would be inspirational and show the way ahead for the industry. Your author, before “retirement”, was part of a panel of judges assessing aspects of the short-listed entries.

One of these was from a consortium of companies that was proposing a very light self-powered train. They won a modest award from the RSSB Future Railway Enabling Innovation Team, funded by the DfT, in November 2013, which led to further funding to develop a self-powered bogie with an integral, hybrid propulsion system and kinetic energy recovery system.

In May 2018, Eversholt Rail, one of the UK’s rolling stock owners, announced that it had joined the Revolution VLR consortium and programme, the industry consortium that will develop, manufacture and market the Revolution VLR (very light rail) vehicle. The consortium, led by Transport Design International Ltd (TDI), includes WMG (formerly the Warwick Manufacturing Group) at the University of Warwick, Cummins, Unipart Rail and other companies from the automotive and rail sectors.

The Revolution VLR vehicle is intended to deliver lightweight, energy-efficient system solutions for affordable service growth and extension of the UK’s rail network. A bi-directional, 18-metre-long railcar, with seating for 56 passengers and standing room for a further 60, Revolution VLR will use lightweight materials and a modular structure to achieve a tare weight of less than one tonne per linear metre. This allows it to run on lightweight modular slab track. The vehicle will be self-propelled, achieve zero-emission launches from stations and be fitted with regenerative braking and optimised hybrid propulsion.

The consortium and programme explained that they will benefit from Eversholt Rail’s market knowledge and extensive experience in rolling stock asset and project management, including the successful service introduction of many fleets of new trains. Mary Kenny, Eversholt Rail CEO, said: “Eversholt Rail has a strong record of innovation in the UK rolling stock industry through introducing new products, technologies and manufacturers to the market. Our investment in the Revolution VLR programme will extend this into the light rail sector and provide further opportunities for growth within the industry.”

New scheme

In June 2018, a further step forward was taken with the announcement that Transport Design International, based in Stratford-upon-Avon, has won a contract to work with WMG to design and construct an innovative very light rail vehicle which will be part of a new transport solution for Coventry. They will create a state-of-the-art, lightweight, battery-operated, rail-guided vehicle which will ultimately be capable of operating without a driver.

The project, funded by the Government’s Local Growth Fund through the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP) and the West Midlands Combined Authority Devolution Deal, is being managed by researchers from WMG at the University of Warwick in collaboration between Coventry City Council and Transport for West Midlands.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Devolution Deal funding has provided £12.2 million to undertake the research and development required to prove the VLR concept. In addition, the WMCA has allocated specialist resource from Transport for West Midlands to provide technical support, advice and guidance to the project team as the scheme develops.

The prototype vehicle will be capable of carrying 20 seated passengers and a maximum of 70, including standees. It will be tested at the Very Light Rail National Innovation Centre in Dudley before a permanent tracked route is installed across Coventry and a fleet of vehicles manufactured.

Politicians from Coventry City Council and members of the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership welcomed the initiative. The participants in the consortium were delighted by the politicians’ confidence in them, summed up by Martin Pemberton, managing director of Transport Design International, who said: “As champions of sustainable, lightweight transport solutions, the TDI team is very proud to have been selected to undertake this exciting, flagship project for Coventry. We look forward to working closely with the City Council and WMG to bring their aspirations to reality.”

Rail Engineer hopes to produce an in-depth article on the engineering and technology to be used on VLR in due course.


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