Technical Developments: The Railway Industry

Technology is everywhere, impacting on all aspects of our life. It’s becoming more common in everyday activities – and our transport systems are no exception.

The railway industry has seen massive technical developments since it began to expand in the 19th century. Cornish inventor and mining engineer Richard Trevithick built the world’s first full-size operational steam locomotive in 1804. The unnamed locomotive pulled a train along a tramway at Penydarren Iron Works in Merthyr Tydfil on 21st February.

Growth of the railways

British civil engineer George Stephenson built Locomotion in 1825, for Stockton and Darlington Railway in northeast England. This became the world’s first public steam railway. It operated a mix of steam-powered and horse-powered locomotives on different routes.

In 1829, Stephenson built his most famous locomotive, Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials. This was a race in October 1829 to discover which locomotives would provide the most effective power for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The success of Rocket led to Stephenson’s reputation as the greatest builder of steam locomotives in Britain, Ireland, most of Europe and the United States.

Completed in 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the first public railway to use only steam locomotives.

High-speed travel

Since the early years, technology has helped to develop the sector into the model it is today. The railway industry is the backbone of the UK’s infrastructure, connecting urban and rural areas, while providing employment for 115,000 people and an additional 250,000 through its supply chain.

Railways have always been at the forefront of technological innovations. In particular, the change from steam to diesel and electrical locomotives has made the service more efficient. The 1970s were particularly productive in terms of new technology.

A key development in the UK was the introduction of high-speed rail travel at speeds of more than 124 mph. British Rail first launched high-speed trains, developing a number of projects simultaneously: tilting train technology, the Advanced Passenger Train (the APT) and the high-speed diesel train, HST.

Over time, the APT project was abandoned, in favour of the HST design. It was put into service on the BR train classes 253, 254 and 255. A new prototype high-speed train, the Class 252, broke the world speed record for a diesel train, hitting 143.2 mph. The main fleet was limited to a speed of 125 mph.

Channel Tunnel rail link

The high-speed trains were introduced progressively on the UK’s main lines, rebranding the service as the InterCity 125. After the electrification of the East Coast Main Line, Britain’s high-speed rail network expanded. Other routes were upgraded with trains that had a top speed of 125 mph. These included the Class 180 Adelante and the Bombardier Voyagera.

Rail travel at speeds of up to 186 mph on regular passenger services began with the opening of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2003. It linked the end of the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone with Fawkham Junction in Kent. This line was later extended to London’s St Pancras in 2007.

Running at speeds of up to 140 mph, the UK’s first domestic high-speed trains were launched in December 2009. A special Olympic Javelin shuttle was launched in time for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. The South Eastern franchise operates these services.

The growth of the internet and computer technology in the 1990s saw a new level of automation commence. Buying tickets online made it easier for passengers to book in advance, from the comfort of their own home, or on the move from a mobile device. Computer technology has also made operational planning more flexible and efficient.

Improved passenger comfort

Passenger comfort has been enhanced by technology, thanks to the use of air conditioning on trains, including London Underground. The ironic thing is that when it first opened in the Victorian age, the Underground was known to be a naturally cool place, thanks to the deep tunnels.

People would enjoy using the Underground to escape from the scorching heat of a summer’s day, in an era when people dressed formally – the men in starchy suits and the women in ankle-length, heavy dresses. In 1906, posters proclaimed the Underground was “the coolest place in hot weather”.

However, as it grew over the 20th century, attracting millions of passengers, it became known as an extremely hot place. On one occasion, 600 passengers were treated for heat-related issues when three trains were stuck on the Victoria Line for 90 minutes.

Around 80% of the heat comes from the movement of the trains and their motors and brakes, 15% comes from other equipment and 5% from passengers’ body heat. When the system was first constructed, the engineers didn’t foresee the effects of heat retention. Although tunnels were only 14°C in the early 1900s, they can now have air temperatures of 30°C.

“Cooling the Tube”

London Underground introduced its ongoing “Cooling the Tube” programme, which includes deploying air-conditioned trains on sub-surface lines, renewing old ventilation shafts and fans and installing new ones. The aim is to go full circle and return the Underground to one of the coolest places in the UK.

Air conditioning is provided in the Tube drivers’ cabs, since they spend the most time underground. Experiments have also been ongoing to use an inverting substation to convert unused power caused by braking into an energy source than can be sent to the national grid.

Engineers on London Underground are also testing carriages cooled by ice units, which will provide a supply of cold air in a similar way to the technology used in a kitchen refrigerator.

Bespoke AC systems

In recent years, manufacturers of air conditioning systems for trains have been able to improve and refine their products. They take into account data, such as the degree of sunshine that can enter the train, the temperatures on the line, how many tunnels there are, passenger numbers and other factors that will influence the AC’s efficiency.

The central unit of the AC system is usually located on the train’s roof and will improve the air quality and thermal comfort of the passengers onboard. The train can have a bespoke system that is adapted to the line on which it runs.

Temperature and air quality sensors play a key role, as they manage the temperature onboard, as well as recycling the air and regulating the amount of oxygen available in the carriages.

Future of railway tech?

The rail industry is in a constant state of innovation. Scientists have been investigating the possibilities of self-driving passenger trains and automated freight trains for years. However, this could be some way off yet.

One of the main challenges stems from the fact it’s difficult to manage a train’s stopping distance. A train driver must identify stations or obstacles on the line well in advance to make a calculated stop. Scientists say technology for a self-driving train would need to pass even more stringent reliability tests than self-driving cars.

As a market leader in railway air conditioning services, LH-PLC helps to keep Britain’s rail networks cool and comfortable. Contact us on 0208 947 0886 for further details.