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PARRY NEWS - Issue 43

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Editorial : PPM Railcar moves to Stourbridge : Automated guided taxis : 5 years in Bristol and Chasewater
Oswestry rail link : Molehill on top of mountain : Wensleydale connection
Huge media response
: Narrow gauge mineral railways : Low tech rail to ease cost


By John Parry

SO IT’S NEW technology which is the best means to combat climate change after all!  And there we were expecting that some huge negotiation involving international trading in the rights to produce carbon dioxide between large and small polluters would, by magic, put everything right.  That was economic extrapolation at its most naïve – the assumption that pursuit of profit by entrepreneurs means that once an ‘advantage’ appears, they will immediately recognise it and put it into use.  Remember, decades passed following the construction of the clearly superior Iron Bridge in Shropshire before any more were built.  The foundryman who committed his company to make the bridge components, Abraham Darby, was long dead by the time the technology was taken up by the market.

So how do you speed good developments along the way?  Word is just out that new personal rapid transit technology from UK pioneers Advanced Transport Systems - having been given valuable help by NESTA (the National Lottery-funded organisation which supports science, technology and the arts) - is now being massively boosted by BAA.  The airport owner has decided not only to invest in the new company, but to implement a pilot scheme at Heathrow Airport.  This is excellent news and an important bell-wether for PPM.  ATS has directed its efforts to a different layer in the transport market that is now occupied by diesel taxis and minicabs and its well-deserved breakthrough, after years of struggle similar to the PPM experience, responds to the environmental case for substituting ‘clean’ for ‘dirty’; guided for driver-steered; innovative for ‘tried and trusted’.

It is now time for one or more of the powerful organisations which direct the rail and tram market to step into technology provision for intermediate-sized public transport vehicles.

The Lottery, meanwhile, is already well known by the railway industry - but in the ‘heritage’ sector.  There are many historic signal boxes, turntables, passenger coaches and steam locomotives whose preservation owes much to lottery funding.  But surely the outcome of the support to ATS shows that railway nostalgia and historic artifice will not always prevail over support for forward-looking endeavours in rail innovation.  The future.

A past parallel once occurred on Easter Island in the Pacific.  The people starved after devoting too much effort to symbolic cultural activities and overlooked the need to plant trees, so wood ceased to be available for things like fishing boats.  Building gloomy looking statues looking out to sea has certain parallels with setting up a national lottery and spending much of its proceeds enhancing ‘heritage’, celebrating closed-down factories and obsolete transport equipment.  More support for technical innovation which might lead to significant economic and environmental benefit is the equivalent of the Easter Islanders planting more trees and carving fewer stone heads.

Readers of this series of newsletters will recall that in 2003 NESTA declined to provide any support to the PPM venture, not because of any criticism of the technology or lack of credible market opportunity, but because of concern of already being ‘too exposed’ to investments in innovative transport.  Perhaps it’s time to think again now that the one ugly duckling has turned into such a valuable swan.  Well directed pump-priming can be used to give an innovative product the gloss and exposure which then gets the attention of the big players who have the power to make things actually happen, fast.

So if technology holds the best answer, it’s time for action not advocacy, the future not the past.

Cradley Heath, November 2005

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The PPM railcar passes in front of Stourbridge Junction signal box on 6th November 2005
en route to the Town branch (far left)

PPM 50 LIGHT RAILCAR No. 999 900 has attained approval from Network Rail and HM Railway Inspectorate for service on the Stourbridge Town branch.

On 9th November, the national network owner issued a Certificate of Authority for Interim Operation to licensed train operating company Pre Metro Operations Ltd, following the earlier approval of a derogation from Railway Group Standards and the issue of the railcar’s engineering acceptance certification, both in October.  Approval of the operator’s safety case is coming from HMRI.

As reported in Parry News 42, Network Rail’s contribution to the complex approvals process has been crucial, with the national infrastructure owner itself seeking the key derogation from the Rail Safety & Standards Board.  Vehicle acceptance body CORREL Rail Ltd undertook scrutiny of the railcar and its maintenance arrangements before issuing engineering certificates.

The vehicle was moved to Stourbridge on 3rd November and gauging trials were completed three days later.  Signal staff and two train operators provided vital assistance: Chiltern Railways allowed use of their local depot and Central Trains provided a conductor to guide the PPM railcar over the main line tracks between the depot and the branch.

A molehill on top of a mountain
Case for Wensleydale connection

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Martin Lowson and ULTra  prototype
(Photo courtesy of Local Transport Today)
WHILE PPM’S VEHICLE design has been responding to feedback from public transport authorities, a different approach has been taken by another innovative British company: Advanced Transport Systems (ATS), founded by Martin Lowson, a former engineering professor from Bristol.  Martin’s ‘ULTra’ concept is aimed at the taxi market and is one of several PRT (personal rapid transit) systems under development.

News broke in October that airport owner BAA is taking a one-quarter equity stake in ATS, putting £7.5 million into the company which will permit the development of a PRT system for London’s Heathrow Airport.

This model of a large customer investing in innovation that will help its own business is one that could be replicated elsewhere, such as on the railways where forward-thinking independent lines could provide a new approach for parts of the national network.

Accordingly PPM and its associates have opened several high level dialogues with senior figures in the UK transport industry.  The aim is to develop the argument that it makes no sense to embark on rationalising and modernising the railways with programmes such as the Community Railway initiative if bodies such as Network Rail have no funding available for tactical investments to make it happen. 

However, the experience with the Stourbridge endeavour is that – with the best will in the world – the ownership, operating, regulating and safety structures are so complex that nothing can be implemented quickly on the national network.  This means that robust experience gained from carrying out actual experimental projects is not available because the experiments themselves take so long to set up.  Reverting instead to consultants’ feasibility studies as a basis for deciding the future is an invitation to fall back on ‘tried and trusted’ solutions because, without tangible evidence to lean on, the consultants and their clients will always prefer to take the more familiar, non-innovative path. 

On the railways, the time is ripe for the equivalent of BAA to step in with a few big decisions, but to achieve rapid delivery of experimental results it will be necessary to enlist the help of independent lines such as the Wensleydale Railway (see page 5).

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PPM’s Stourbridge showcase will be vital shop window for British transport innovation

WHEN PPM OPERATIONS begin at Stourbridge the service will provide a demonstration of innovative transport technology and Community Light Rail.  Operating in passenger service, with support from Centro (the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive) and the Department for Transport, PPM technology will be seen as a new option for transport planners to consider.

However, PPM systems have already been demonstrated to tens of thousands of passengers and a large number of influential visitors.  The Bristol Electric Railbus operation carried over 50,000 people between 1998 and 2000 using a PPM 35 vehicle with an emission-free, intermittent electric power system.  Visitors making trips to the UK especially to see the railbus included planners and engineers from Japan, China and several European countries.  The Bristol railbus now has a new home at Wirksworth on the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway.

PPM 35 ‘Car 10’ owned by Bristol Electric
Railbus, now at Wirksworth

The PPM 50 railcar itself spent nearly two years at the Chasewater Railway in Staffordshire before moving to Wensleydale in August 2005 and finally on to Stourbridge on 3rd November.

With its convenient proximity to the company’s base at Cradley Heath, the Chasewater Railway proved an ideal location for demonstrating the potential of PPM technology.  A string of visitors saw and rode on the railcar during this time, including representatives of UK local and central government.  Many international visitors – from South Africa, Australia, Malaysia, Argentina – also benefited from demonstrations. Journalists took up the chance to report on a new approach for both rural and urban public transport.

His Worship the Mayor of Stellenbosch (South Africa) on board the PPM 50 Light Railcar at Chasewater on 8th July 2005
The Lord Mayor of Birmingham handed over a commemorative plaque which was installed inside the vehicle, and the Mayor of Stellenbosch in South Africa considered that a PPM system could allow a disused railway to be re-opened for both commuter and tourist use.

The Stourbridge operation will enable the export potential for PPM to be realised.  This ‘shop window’ will mean that foreign visitors will see for themselves the technology in normal conditions, giving much greater confidence in decisions towards major investment.

The PPM development was originally conceived as a robust form of transport for the burgeoning cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  It was always inevitable that customers would first require proof that the technology works.  Operation at Stourbridge will provide that assurance.

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Return of passenger services planned for mothballed line

THE SHROPSHIRE TOWN of Oswestry is at the end of a railway seen by many as one of the biggest anomalies in Britain's transport system.  Technically still part of the operational railway owned by Network Rail, the line from Gobowen lies unused.  Yet Gobowen station itself is on the main Shrewsbury-Chester route.

There is a clear argument for reopening the line for passenger services to give the busy market town of Oswestry easy access to local and long-distance destinations.  However, this prospect has been hindered recently by the presence of two railway interest groups: the Cambrian Railways Trust and the Cambrian Railways Society.  Since late 2003, PPM has been working with the Society who have operated a PPM 30 District Tram for over a year on their short demonstration siding track, but the Trust is also an important partner in any future development and both need to co-operate to move forward.

A real rail alternative
The PPM 30 operation at Oswestry meanwhile continues on a low-key basis and according to a recent note from Bill Turnbull, one of the driving team, ‘has been and still is running well … and is very popular with the locals and visitors alike’.

The Society and the Parry organisations cannot wait until the day when longer runs out towards Gobowen and the south west edge of Oswestry are permitted on the presently mothballed Network Rail infrastructure, providing a real rail alternative for passenger transport.

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OVER 700 JOURNEYS were made in eight days of PPM operation on the Wensleydale Railway, while progress on the Stourbridge approvals has been racing ahead.

As the implications of these double achievements sink in, it is inevitable that the Parry technical and planning team should dust off ideas for schemes that have sat on the shelf all too long.

PPM’s most ambitious proposals (issued up to a decade ago) sported the title ‘Towns That Lost Their Railways – but not necessarily forever’.  At the time this proposal raised more eyebrows than interest.  The issues linking transport with the environment were being voiced by just a few commentators outside the mainstream of public debate, but not any more.

If we don’t say it, someone else will: the Wensleydale excursion and the Stourbridge Sunday service establish important precedents, but as passenger operations are ‘molehills’ of achievement when set against the broader context.  Nevertheless a ‘mountain’ of opportunity will be revealed by a successful outcome.  Hundreds of small capillaries – rail corridors, some with their lines in fully serviceable condition – can be looked at for provision of public services once a more affordable form of rail transport is proved to be both practicable and popular.

At last a significant means arises for reducing the pressure on Britain’s crowded roads.

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Map showing the railway junctions at Northallerton.  The East Coast main line runs north-south, calling at the station, and the Wensleydale Railway joins from the west – but only pointing north.  The ‘missing link’ southern chord once ran into the station and the map still shows the former alignment
DEMONSTRATION SERVICES between Leeming Bar and Northallerton on the Wensleydale Railway from 15th to 23rd September showed how the WR can thrive by attracting local passengers.

Firstly, a larger railcar is needed: the PPM 50 type is not sufficient for future passenger flows on the line.  PPM has launched the Wensleydale Community Railcar Syndicate to raise funds for the first such vehicle.

Secondly, a short 500m chord of track must be reinstated to connect the WR to Northallerton main line station, instead of terminating in a field within sight of the town.  In September, a bus link from a specially-built platform at Springwell Lane to the station and town centre was used, but completing the missing link will provide the essential direct connection for rail users.

The Wensleydale Railway provides a valuable strategic link: freight trains keep hundreds of heavy lorries off the UK‘s roads every year.  However, the freight traffic does not provide viable revenue – causing the railway hardship in its attempts to maintain and improve its route into the Dales.
The WR will also be a valuable asset for the UK’s passenger transport by providing practical experience for other ‘community railways’.  This has brought about new efforts to find savings for the national rail network using the WR.

The disused Northallerton embankment
with the existing Wensleydale Railway
tracks in the foreground

Key individuals from Network Rail, the Department for Transport and HM Treasury are actively considering what lessons the national system can learn from quickly-implemented experiments in Yorkshire.  Crucially, rebuilding the connection to the main line station forms part of the plan.

A connected Wensleydale Railway, with PPM Community Railcars running from a convenient interchange with inter-city and trans-Pennine trains, will be a shining example of how to operate local and rural railways that are attractive, affordable and acceptable.  It will show how threatened lines, currently needing high levels of subsidy, can be financially turned around – and will provide a new option for re-opening closed railways.

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PRINT AND BROADCAST MEDIA and rail industry journalists descended on the Wensleydale Railway during September to report on the PPM service between Northallerton and Leeming Bar.

Clockwise from top left:
- Northern Echo, 22nd September
- Yorkshire Post, 9th September
- Transport Times, 23rd September
- Heritage Railway, October
- Darlington & Stockton Times,
      16th September
- The Guardian, 12th September
- Local Transport Today, 13th October

A press launch day held on 12th September – shortly before the start of the public demonstration service – attracted representatives of the local, regional and national media, while several publications sent reporters to North Yorkshire to file stories after the passenger operation had begun.

Perhaps the most unusual media coverage was a spot on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme – but of course the subject was rural railways.

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Clayton and Parry Associates assess Borneo application

IN OCTOBER 2005, Parry Associates (PPM's technology licensors)was approached by the technical consultants to an Australian mining enterprise which has opencast operations - mainly copper, salt and coal - in their home territory as well as in South East Asia.  The situation being investigated was in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, where a coal deposit is being worked intensively at times of rising world fuel oil costs.

Ironically, one of the problems with the operation was the multi-million dollar annual diesel fuel bill associated with dumper truck haulage along dirt roads.  While some in the company favoured a massive conveyor system, the group felt that the alternative of a mineral railway should be looked at because of the potential for lower capital investment.

Forty fuel-hungry dumper trucks are used in the existing mining operation
(Photo Steve Gretton)

Accordingly, JPA got in touch with their technical associates Clayton Equipment, which is now owned by two previous employees of Rolls-Royce (the former parent company).  Chief Executive Steve Gretton decided to visit the mining operation later in the month to assess whether – in place of 40 thirty-tonne trucks – the task could be performed with locomotive-hauled trains running on 18km of narrow gauge railway.  As expected, the estimated fuel savings together with reduced costs of maintenance and truck drivers' wages showed a rapid payback on capital investment and a very much reduced environmental impact on the locality.

There are many such haulage operations throughout the world where a return to rail is looking increasingly attractive.

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Road profile wheels facilitate manoeuvring of rolling stock beyond end of line

FARMER-DESIGNER-RAILWAY specialist Colin Saxton of Redruth, Cornwall, has put forward a simplified rail concept to Parry Associates which is so neat and practical that it needs to be taken up. 

Colin services his own farmland with a 2-foot (610mm) gauge railway that can get fodder to the muddiest corner of his most distant field.  His battery-electric locomotives and trucks perform the same task as a Landrover for a fraction of the energy cost without churning up wet ground. 

Many parts of the developing world have roads which only function during the dry season.  During the rains they become mud wallows with vehicles only able to move at walking pace and often not at all.  Unfortunately this is often the time when farm produce needs to be moved or when the products of extractive industries – salt, coal, iron or copper – start to pile up, unable to reach the market. 

Colin’s ideas include methods of constructing rolling stock and track with everything easily manhandled and assembled in remote situations.

He also favours wheels with enlarged flanges which can be manoeuvred off-rail on any reasonably hard ground. 

His single bladed points have special wide space check rails to allow the flanges to pass.   JPA have raised this prospect with their light locomotive collaborators, Clayton Equipment, who have agreed in principle to co-operate in the introduction of the simplified railway concept.

The agenda will include the development of a new, economical locomotive with a hybrid traction package similar to that used in the PPM passenger vehicles.

Colin Saxton and JPA are in discussion over the establishment of a Farm & Mineral Railway Training Centre with residential accommodation, just north of Redruth.  In addition to the farm facility, local expertise is available from present and former light rail operators in the Cornish mining and quarrying industry.

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Page last updated: 13 December, 2005
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