Ahead of Peloton’s Electrification online webinar on Monday 24 August, Tangent has a quick chat with keynote speaker Dr Pedro Antunes, senior research fellow at the Institute of Railway Research, University of Huddersfield. We talk emerging tech in pantograph-OLE dynamics, how the UK stacks up in its electrification journey, and more!
Your talk at Peloton’s Electrification seminar will be regarding recent developments in pantograph-OLE dynamics to support rail electrification. Could you give us some insight as to what the talk entail and what those developments are?
PA: What I plan on talking about with this presentation is basically to show the work that we have been developing, since starting around 12 years ago – and the evolution of it until this point.
In terms of worldwide needs, one of the biggest problems is putting new technologies on the track. To put new technologies on the track, you have to go through testing and a lot of design, and one of the main projects we are working on here is developing visual capabilities of testing. Before testing, you test via software in other means to avoid as much testing on track, because any testing on track means closing the track for a considerable amount of time, and you have many logistics problems, meaning it’s a big expense to bring a new technology onto a track.
So, imagine if you have a new pantograph or catenary system, it is very difficult for the industry to input that to real-time situations. One of the works that we support the industry on, is giving them the ability to do all of these simulations and tests to preview the performance of their proposed technologies.
And what emerging technologies are coming through to allow for more effective management of Pantograph-OLE dynamics?
PA: We’re actually working on a project currently. One of the key aspects on modern electrification and modern railways is that we can monitor the infrastructure, or, in our case, the OLE. There are several emerging technologies, but what has been identified by industry and the rail operators is that there is a need to start to monitor and predict the general wear – not only the general wear, but also predict any potential failure.
So, we’re trying to have the means to monitor this. Today, and this is worldwide, most of inspections done to OLE is through visual inspection. The trains now, which are starting to be developed in the last five years or so, will start to build a ‘smart’ pantograph, where the pantograph is able to monitor – even if it is just one or two times per month, or online real-time monitoring – the OLE and the pantograph itself.
We have lost know-how. We have lost the learning curve in electrifying. But this is being tackled – it has been identified, and it’s the reason behind this £600m investment
This is needed in order to be able to understand the maintenance cycles, and use what is called predictive maintenance, where you schedule any maintenance of the pantograph, and also looking out for future failures, be ahead of them, detect them, and repair, with more ease and efficiencies.
Looking internationally, how has the UK fared in its progress in line electrification?
PA: What we’ve seen from the UK but also from other countries is the increasing demand. It’s always associated with economic development, and countries have seen that.
Today, what you need is greater reliability of trains. You need them to travel faster, and you need them to fulfil that demand on capacity. Of course, you have all the other sides of the issue which is building this system whilst working towards zero emissions.
Electrification is of course the main solution for this, so it’s a key element on the modernisation of our railways. What I have seen is that many countries are tackling this, trying to electrify as much as possible, but what we have seen in the UK is it has fallen a bit behind compared to other countries.
Usually for Europe, electrification is at about 60% for an average country. In the UK, it’s about 40%. And it’s about 40% with a special peculiarity, which is that we have not been electrifying for a long time.
This is a big challenge: because we have lost know-how. We have lost the learning curve in electrifying. The supply chain is not set up, all of the logistics are not set up. But this is being tackled – it has been identified, and it’s the reason behind this £600m investment. This is one of the major challenges in the UK, to rebuild the capacity to electrify the rail lines.
Is the hurdle to full electrification in the UK simply a capital issue? What other challenges does electrification face in the UK?
PA: With capital you can solve a lot of things! But there are challenges. One of these is building up this background of knowledge. We need to invest in people, to have people ready and capable of not only maintaining, but also developing.
The other issue is particular to the UK, because the UK has a lot of old tracks. Railways have played a very important role in the UK since the beginning of the Industrial Age – and so our tracks are sort of old. Due to their modernization there will be challenges.
You will have, for example, the Victorian bridges, that are tightly constrained and will present some obstacles in electrification. There are several solutions possible to implement this, but it’s still a challenge for planners for the UK.
One thing that will be important – it will be certainly important to integrate everything, exploring solutions of integration. Electrification is the most cost-efficient method of transportation, but it is very capital-intensive. So you need to invest in the infrastructure first before receiving all of the benefits from it.