Monthly Archives: August 2013

UN Ruling Could Have Serious Consequences For UK Wind Power

Wind Power UK World Infrastructure News

A report in The Independent has warned that plans for future wind farms in Britain – both off and onshore – could be facing major problems following a recent ruling by the United Nations.

The report describes how a UN legal tribunal has ruled that the UK government has acted illegally “by denying the public decision-making powers over their approval and the necessary information over their benefits or adverse effects”. This is in contravention of Article 7 of the Aarhus Convention, which “requires full and effective public participation on all environmental issues and demands that citizens are given the right to participate in the process”.

The legal challenge was made by 69-year old Christine Metcalfe, a community councillor from Argyll in Scotland, on behalf of the Avich and Kilchrenan Community Council at a committee hearing in Geneva last December.

According to The Independent she claimed that “the UK’s renewables policies have been designed in such a way that they have denied the public the right to be informed about, or to ascertain, the alleged benefits in reducing CO2 and harmful emissions from wind power, or the negative effects of wind power on health, the environment and the economy”.

Such negative effects include Wind Turbine Syndrome. While some scientists dismiss it out of hand, others are convinced that low-frequency noise or infrasound can indeed make people sick, with symptoms including headaches, sleep disturbance, tinnitus, problems with balance, dizziness, and nausea. Property values near wind farms are also taking a battering.

The wind power industry has been quick to react to the UN ruling. A spokeswoman for wind trade body RenewableUK spoke to on-line publication businessGreen, saying that while they were still looking into the judgment, they did not expect projects to be derailed. A spokesman from the Department of Energy and Climate Change also spoke to the publication saying that it was disappointed by the ruling, but maintained the decision would not affect its ambitions for the deployment of wind power or other renewable energy technologies.

Gail Taylor

Written By admin 
August 29, 2013 12:00 pm
Posted In ENERGY

Thai Villagers Unite to Build Floating Bamboo Bridge

Mon Bridge world infra news

Thailand’s longest wooden bridge was completed this Thursday – by the residents of the two towns it connects. The previous “real” bridge, Saphan Mon, is said to have collapsed on July 28 after heavy rains and strong currents caused a build-up of weeds around its support struts.

500 residents of the Sangkhla Buri district then took part in building a temporary floating bridge of bamboo, which now spans the Song Kalia river. The collapse had caused a devastating dividing effect on local communities.

The construction of the 450m bridge, which was expected to require two to three weeks, took only six days. This, according to the Mayor of tambon Wang Ka Municipality Pakorn Noikate, was thanks to the desire and determination of locals – including Thais and ethnic Mon people – to demonstrate community strength and unity.

The new bridge was constructed under supervision from the abbot of Wat Sang Wiwekkaram, who also arranged for the donation of extra bamboo after concerns were raised there wouldn’t be enough to finish the job. The new bridge will be open to the public after achieving the required safety clearance.

Richard Greenan

Network Rail Scotland to offer the public a view from the Forth Bridge

129 East Elevation

One of the world’s most iconic rail bridges, the Forth Bridge in Scotland, will become publicly accessible for the first time by 2015 under newly revealed plans by Network Rail Scotland.

The £12-£15 million proposals are for a visitor centre and viewing platform to be linked by a glass lift in North Queensferry, with a smaller pod-type base to facilitate guided walks to the top of the south tower in South Queensferry. Spanning the Forth Estuary, the bridge opened in 1890. The main structure runs 1,630 metres from portal to portal, and its highest point – where the proposed viewing platform will be – is 110 metres from high water to top. It currently carries 200 trains per day, which equates to 3 million passengers per year.

Foyer View North Queensferry

David Simpson, route managing director, Network Rail Scotland comments, “After 10 years spent restoring the bridge to its full glory, and in advance of the application for world heritage listing, these plans will offer the public the chance to visit the bridge and see it ‘close-up’ for the first time. We are hugely excited by these proposals and believe that they have the potential to be developed into an important new visitor attraction for Scotland.

“While these plans are still at development stage, we believe that the options we have revealed today can be delivered without impacting the well loved view of the bridge. Any infrastructure on the bridge will be less visible than the existing scaffold platform and all buildings designs will be of premium quality.

“It’s an ambitious target, but we’d love to see these plans at least partially realised by 2015 to coincide with the bridge’s 125th anniversary. Any profits from the two facilities would be reinvested into the upkeep of the bridge.”

North Queensferry from water

Network Rail will now begin developing designs in consultation with relevant authorities and local communities, with information on the proposals available at:

Japanese Government Raises Severity Rating of Fukushima Leak

NOAA energy map shows the intensity of the tsunami caused by Japan's magnitude 8.9 earthquake

Direct efforts to stem the toxic leak at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant are to be made by the Japanese Government. 300 tonnes of radioactive water are currently being released into the Pacific daily, with the leak now classed by Japan as a “serious incident”.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it clear that the blocking operation will be taken out of the hands of plant operator the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), who have consistently denied the existence of the contaminating leaks. 400 tonnes of toxic groundwater is channelled off daily to hills surrounding the Fukushima plant.

It was announced on Monday by the Nuclear Regulation Agency (NRA) that the leak has been upgraded from a Level One to a Level Three problem on their seven point scale. It was also acknowledged that the situation is “in some respects” unmanageable for TEPCO.

NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka stated: “The current situation is at the point where more surveillance will not be enough to keep the accidents from happening. Our job now is to reduce the risk of these accidents becoming fatal.”

While TEPCO has been ordered to resolve the leak immediately, there is a growing understanding that little has been done to make safe the stricken reactors, and that further earthquakes or accidents during decommissioning could trigger new catastrophes.

Richard Greenan

Written By admin 
August 28, 2013 10:55 am
Posted In ENERGY

Heathrow’s new Terminal T2B sets benchmark for sustainability

Balfour Beatty Heathrow World infra news

Terminal T2B, the largest “airside” construction project ever carried out at Heathrow, has been awarded the first ever BREEAM certificate for a UK airport building. Construction contractor, Balfour Beatty has successfully integrated a range of sustainable initiatives for the new Heathrow Terminal 2B satellite terminal helping the building achieve a BREEAM rating of “Very Good” for sustainable construction, design and innovation.

Measuring half a kilometre in length, the £590 million project has included the construction of the largest diaphragm wall in Europe as well as the use of over 165,000 cu m of reinforced concrete and 5,000 tonnes of structural steel. Replacing the old 1950s Terminal 2, T2B will provide 16 new aircraft stands, approximately 1,275 sq m of retail space, three passenger lounges with a floor area of 3,600 sq m, and extensive basement space for future baggage handling systems and a track transit system linking to a future Terminal 2C.

Balfour Beatty’s implementation of Building Information Modelling (BIM) has significantly improved project efficiencies and has assisted in allowing the construction to continue with little or no impact on air-side activities.  Working in close collaboration with client Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) and in collaboration with the project supply chain, the adoption of BIM from the ‘ground up’ has significantly increased project efficiencies and offered minimal disruption to wider airport operations. 4D modelling has been used for effective planning and off-site manufacturing has been utilised, with 549 offsite modules provided.

Customer: Heathrow Airport Limited, Value: £590 million, Duration: 5 years, Completion Date: October 2013

What makes good infrastructure? A financier’s perspective…

As we all know, creating successful infrastructure that fulfils its purpose is a multi-faceted affair. It takes political and social will coupled with expertise from the developers, designers, engineers and contractors to plan and build effectively. But before the first foundation stone is even loaded onto the lorry, someone has to foot the bill. We spoke to Brian Field, Urban Planning and Development Adviser of the European Investment Bank and one of the WIN Awards judges, to get his personal take on what turns the financiers onto – or off – a potential project…

Field’s answer to that first question is a straightforward one. “Investors and financiers are clearly looking for an adequate rate of return, although what this actually means will depend on the nature and substance of the project in question.”

It stands to reason that all the stakeholders involved want to see the project succeed. While the civil engineers might lose sleep at night over tangibles such as materials turning out to be unsuitable, or unforeseen geological issues, we asked what might keep a financier awake in the small hours. Field replies, “Once a project is underway, from a financial perspective the key issues are whether it will be delivered on time and on budget and, more generally, whether it will deliver on its promises.”

He is a believer that “best practice in infrastructure design and delivery can only benefit our industry”, so what – to him – marks out a truly successful infrastructure project? “For me, a successful infrastructure project is one that does indeed deliver on its promises, but also benefits the community at large.  It needs to meet basic financial sustainability criteria, including adequate cost coverage for the developer/promoter at the required level of service, including the ability to repay the providers of funds, affordable rents and charges for those using the service where these apply, and value for money for the tax payer.

“However, in satisfying such requirements, it should also meet basic social and environmental sustainability criteria by addressing or mitigating the impact of its development on the natural environment.  It sounds like a tall order, but there needs to be a balance.”

Bridging the blue Danube at Bratislava

When asked what excites him most about a quality infrastructure project, Field comments, “The role of major infrastructure projects as “agents of change” cannot and should not be underestimated.  For me a “quality” infrastructure project is one that is a positive agent for such change. A good example that I think has made a real difference is the Apollo Bridge in Bratislava, Slovakia, a project in which I was involved.

“The bridge itself was planned many years ago and was an aspiration of the municipal authorities even in the Soviet era – as reflected in spatial plans dating back more than 60 years.  The original intention was improve the link between the central area of Bratislava and what was originally developed as a dormitory settlement with large panel-block apartment buildings on the other side of the Danube in Petrzalka.  In the event, the building of the bridge has delivered on all of its promises and more.  It has not only addressed the perceived problems of separation of Petrzalka from the central area of the city, but has also facilitated the regeneration of Petrzalka itself as a thriving district within the broader Bratislava conurbation.”

Completed in 2005 by Metro Bratislava, the bridge is not only remarkable for the regeneration it has brought with it. In an extraordinary feat of engineering, the 5,240-ton steel structure, spanning 231 metres, was rotated across the river from its construction site on the left bank into its final position on a pillar 40 metres from the right bank. The Apollo Bridge was the only European project to be selected as one of the five finalists for the 2006 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award (OPAL Award) by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Having established what ticks the boxes for him in terms of infrastructure, Field goes on to explain what he sees as some of the most typical stumbling blocks for new projects. “In conception, infrastructure projects, and particularly large ones, often come with significant political risks that can be a serious pitfall. There are also social and environmental risks that are an increasing focus of public concern and can prevent projects taking off. Meanwhile, once a project is accepted in principle, then funding and procurement can be a problem, a problem often exacerbated by the size of the project in question.  Construction risk comes into play once project implementation is underway and can, once again, be significant.”

Getting infrastructure off the ground in Europe

To help address the funding issues touched on by Field, in collaboration with the European Union and other partners, The European Investment Bank (EIB) currently offers a number of initiatives to offer advice and financial help to EU member states. We asked Field to give examples of where this support has proved to be of significant importance.

Starting with JASPERS (Joint Assistance to Support Projects in European Regions) – created specifically to boost infrastructure in the 12 new member states joining in 2004 and 2007 – he cites the Sofia Metro in Bulgaria as an excellent example of how such support has played a key role in moving forward the construction of an urgently needed mass transportation system. Although planned as far back as the 1960s, work on the city’s new rapid transit network kept stalling. Problems encountered included the unearthing of major Thracian and Roman archaeological finds, the city’s homeless taking shelter in the half-finished tunnels, and a crucial lack of funding.

Enter JASPERS to the rescue with the technical advice that helped the project win the vital EU funding that eventually enabled work to start in earnest in 1998. So far two lines – M1 Red and M2 Blue – have been completed and a third line, the M3 Green, is in the early planning stages. The project design contract has been awarded to the Czech company, Metroprojekt Praha.

Another EIB product is JESSICA (Joint European Support for Sustainable Investment in City Areas). Field explains, “JESSICA was not initially conceived as an infrastructure funding vehicle, but was designed to facilitate urban regeneration and renewal which had otherwise been prevented or stalled by market failure and/or imperfections; such projects are frequently multi-sector and can be quite complex.  In any event, a recently launched JESSICA operation in Sopot, Poland to develop a new railway station and regenerate the built environment in the station’s immediate vicinity – including development of commercial buildings, a hotel, and parking areas – is a good example of where a relatively modest financial injection can make a significant difference in kick-starting an operation.”

The EPEC (European PPP Expertise Centre) focuses its activities not on projects per se, but on the provision of advisory services that help to create structures to facilitate delivery of robust PPPs. Field tells us, “To this end EPEC has been very active in Greece and Ireland, and is currently very busy in Romania.”

Field goes on to talk about the LGTT (Loan Guarantee Instrument for Trans-European Transport Network Projects) scheme, “An excellent example of where exploitation of the loan guarantee scheme has facilitated the development of a large scale infrastructure project is the Bordeaux-to-Tours link of the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique high speed railway line, which brings high speed rail services to south-western France.”

Overall investment on the new link totals 7.8 million euros, of which 1.2 billion has come from the EIB via LGTT financial instrument. The project got the go ahead in June 2011 and will take six years to complete, cutting journey times from Paris to Bordeaux to 2 hours and 5 minutes. The tracks will be 340 km long with 17 connecting lines, and about 400 civil engineering structures including 19 viaducts and 7 cut-and-cover tunnels.

When you consider that this is just one of EIB’s pan-European projects, it’s worth keeping an eye out for opportunities as and when funding is granted. Regular announcements are made on the bank’s website

The opinions expressed in the above interview are those of Brian Field and not those of the EIB.

Infrastructure could be in the front line – report warns

Once again, warnings of attacks on infrastructure have been published, highlighting the vulnerability of vital services in transport and power.

According to Bild, the German mass circulation daily, Al-Qaeda is plotting attacks on Europe’s high-speed rail network. The publication reports that the information came from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US.

The paper reported that, earlier this month, the NSA listened in on a conference call between Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and more than 20 of his operatives in which attacks on Europe’s rail network was a “central topic”.

Bild said that the extremist group could “plant explosives on trains and tunnels or sabotage tracks and electrical cabling”.  Authorities in Germany have responded by deploying plain clothes police officers at key stations and on main routes.

Since intercepting the conversation, the Americans and several of its allies have shut embassies across the Muslim world, fearful of a major attack.

The Local, a publication reporting “Germany’s news in English”, says it contacted Deutsche Bahn but “a spokeswoman declined to comment beyond stating that they work closely with the security services”. Meanwhile, Germany’s interior ministry said that the security situation regarding terrorist threats had “not changed”.

Can an alternative to uranium make nuclear power safer, cleaner and cheaper?


As news breaks that Japan’s nuclear agency has upgraded the severity level of a radioactive water leak at the Fukushima plant from one to three, another story tells of a safer alternative to uranium. It’s name? Thorium. Occurring in the earth’s crust more commonly than tin, mercury and silver, and three times as much as uranium, the element is currently being tested in Norway by Thor Energy. The UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory, Germany and the US are also involved.

Thor Energy’s chief executive Øystein Asphjell told The Daily Telegraph that “Thorium addresses a lot of the accident fallout from uranium because it has a much higher melting point, it cannot be dissolved in water, and there’s multiple safety parameters that are inherent in the material properties”. He added, “The thermal conductivity of thorium-based pellets is known to be much better than uranium.” Last April, the company fed thorium rods into a test reactor as part of a five year radiation programme designed to definitively demonstrate the benefits of the element.

Some experts claim that thorium works even better in molten salt reactors, allowing fission products to be re-added to the reactor thus making energy generation cheaper. It has even been mooted that this type of reactor could have prevented the hydrogen explosions experienced in Japan because if power is lost, a plug in the base of the reactor melts and the salts flow into a containment vessel to cool down, halting the reaction and any release of radiation.

Along with Norway, China is at the forefront of research. In 2011, it launched a $350m R&D programme into the concept of thorium-fuelled molten salt reactors, with the hope of building commercially viable plants in the 2030s. India hopes to have four new fast breeder reactors up and running by 2020 and is home to 16 per cent of the world’s thorium.

Written By admin 
August 22, 2013 14:54 pm
Posted In ENERGY

3D model adds a touch of reality to plans for Hyperloop

Hyperloop Model

After months of anticipation, inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk has finally unveiled the designs for his ambitious Hyperloop transportation system. And bringing the plans to life is a 3D model, produced in just 24 hours by 3D printing specialist, WhiteClouds. After reading the story of the hypothetical Hyperloop, WhiteClouds’ CEO, Jerry Ropelato challenged his team to create a scale model in a day, using cutting edge 3D printing techniques. He says, “As a company we’re really interested in technology, and I thought it would be fun and interesting to take what we do every day and make the Hyperloop concept into something real.”

Getting back to the rather larger Hyperloop, according to New Scientist magazine, this is how the technology would work: “The basic idea is half-monorail, half-pneumatic delivery system of the kind used to move mail or packages at high speed within buildings. Musk envisages a ‘pod’ with metal skis, enclosed within a tube where the air is at reduced pressure. A linear induction motor similar to those used on some modern roller coasters accelerates the pod up to speed.” The pod would then glide through the tube on a cushion of air at speeds of up to 1,200 k/hr.

fig 6

Musk claims the Hyperloop could transport passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles via an over-ground tube in only 30 minutes, and would be solar-powered 24/7. He estimates construction costs at $7.5 billion, a fraction of the proposed high-speed train link between the two cities. However, some experts are sceptical, saying that the real costs would inevitably be much higher. Others say that the Hyperlink would have to be made earthquake-proof, which though possible would be very expensive.

Musk has said publicly that he is too busy with his Tesla Motors and SpaceX businesses to spearhead the Hyperloop personally. However, at some point he intends to build a prototype that would take several years to complete, which may help convince government and investors that the idea is viable one.

Although the plans look and sound highly futuristic, the idea of using compressed air for transportation was first explored in 1799 by British engineer, George Medhurst who patented an air-propelled system to move carriages though underground tunnels. Although his plans never got further than the drawing board, forty years later the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel took up the baton and actually built ‘The Atmospheric Railway’ between Exeter and Newton Abbot in the UK. The physics worked, and the line was a success until salt air and rats destroyed the leather contraption that the air was sealed into. In 1909, Robert Goddard, dubbed “the father of modern rocket propulsion” designed a vacuum system he claimed could suck passengers from Boston to New York at 1,200 mph. It was never built.

atmospheric railway

Perhaps now, with the world desperately in need of less fuel-hungry means of transport, Elon Musk may be the one to finally make an old idea work for the 21st Century.

Gail Taylor

Written By admin 
August 21, 2013 13:54 pm

The Future of Rail Safety

Workshop Service

After Galicia, what now for rail safety? What the experts say…

As with all rail disasters, the horrific derailment in Galicia, northern Spain last month in which 80 people perished has triggered a whole host of questions about how to stop it happening again. Why was the driver going at more than double the speed he should have been? How far can engineering go towards eliminating human error? Will politicians be prioritising investment in rail safety technology now? How might this latest tragedy pose new challenges for rail engineers? Such complex questions require well-informed answers so we turned to the experts for their views.

Senior members of the Institution of Rail Signal Engineers (IRSE), the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), and leading developer of train safety technology, Siemens, have all kindly shared their knowledge and opinions with us.

But first, for those of us who aren’t specialists in rail engineering, it’s useful to get a handle on some of the terminology. Clive Kessell, Past President and Hon. Fellow of the IRSE, explains that the European Commission is already in the process of rolling out a major initiative called ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System). Says Kessell, “ERTMS has two component parts – ETCS (European Train Control System) and GSM-R (Global System for Mobiles – Railways) which is an adaptation of the public GSM 2G system. The GSM-R is part of the communication system that relays information to the driver via the onboard ETCS kit from the infrastructure ETCS kit on the tracks. When both cabin and tracks are fitted with ETCS, safety levels are extremely high because if a driver fails to respond to a signal to slow down, the train will brake automatically and the driver cannot override this.”

The train involved in the Galicia derailment was in fact carrying ETCS kit in the cabin, but had left the High Speed section of track which was fitted with ETCS equipment, and entered a transition area onto conventional tracks which were only equipped with the less sophisticated ASFA (Aviso de Seňales y Frenado Automático) system.

Professor Roger Kemp of the IET explains, “ASFA is at least 20 years old and has two functions. If a driver is about to go through a red signal, the system will brake the train automatically. Its second function is advisory. A signal is communicated and the driver has three seconds to push a button acknowledging it, but he can then go on to ignore it. There is no automatic driver override. However, according to a report in Spanish national newspaper, El Pais, since the accident the authorities have modified the ASFA system on the fatal curve outside Santiago de Compostela so that it will now also automatically cause an over-speeding train to brake.”

Modernisation takes time

So how quickly will older, less automated systems like ASFA be replaced with ERTMS? Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport at the IMechE answers, “The accident in Galicia will provide greater impetus to ensure that the planned roll-out of ERTMS can be achieved. ETCS would have prevented the derailment.” However, she cautions that for ERTMS to be implemented and functioning across the whole of Europe will still take a number of decades. Kessell agrees, commenting, “ERTMS is mandated for all new High Speed lines in Europe. Designated regional main lines – known as TENs or Trans European Networks – are also mandated for ERTMS, but as these already exist they will require a refit, which will take many years.”

The initiative is intended to harmonise safety systems to facilitate cross-border traffic without having to fit rolling stock with multiple systems from different countries. The buzz word for this harmonisation is ‘interoperability’ and according to Kessell, achieving it is one of the main challenges for the developers and manufacturers of ETCS systems.

“Each developer, each rail operator in each country wants its own minor variations and getting them to standardise has posed horrendous problems and left development lagging behind the GSM-R element. The ERTMS Users Group – part of the European Commission – has been battling this ‘bespokery’ for much of its time and the only real solution is for railways to adopt a near common set of operating rules and associated signalling principles. All of this takes time and to date only the Danes, as far as I am aware, have bought into this fully.”

A spokesman from Siemens agrees that standardisation of equipment as a hurdle, commenting that “the sector is intensively working to further improve the consistency of the ETCS/ERTMS specification, identifying gaps and reducing the room for interpretation. A main challenge for engineering firms is related to the safety approval process, especially for the ERTMS equipment onboard trains travelling in several different countries. Here we realise that rail operation along trans-national corridors and the national responsibility of the authorities require further harmonisation of rules and processes”.

Will Galicia act as a catalyst?

But surely an incident that saw so many dead and many more injured and maimed will speed things up? Oldham predicts, “There will be political pressure to speed up the ERTMS programme but there are limits – such as the availability of engineering design resources as well as the time required for the installation itself, both trackside and on trains. The major impact will be in Spain and with the Spanish economy short of funds for public projects, any real impact will be limited. Those areas where the system is installed but only partially commissioned may be speeded up. ERTMS is not a cheap system to install and any change to the programme already planned is likely to significantly increase the cost.”

We asked Oldham if she thought the engineering firms producing ERTMS systems would now be in for a busy time, to which she responds, “This will be a busy time for them, but initially this will be requests for quotations and information about the implications of installing ERTMS. Their business level is determined by the general level of investment in major renewals and new lines. This investment will continue but will be greatest where there is a significant private sector investment, such as in the UK.”

It’s worth noting that although ERTMS is a European initiative, the technology is used in other countries as well, for example Taiwan and Australia. Although Japan already has its own excellent automatic train control system, it has expressed some interest in using ERTMS in the future. Siemens supplied the first ever ERTMS projects in China and Saudi-Arabia and has references in India, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand.

Although ERTMS can and will be installed on conventional track, until the roll-out across Europe is complete, individual countries will continue to use their own existing train control and signalling systems. For example, the UK uses TPWS which is installed at potentially hazardous sites such as the notorious accident black spot on the 50mph curve at Morpeth near Newcastle, France uses the highly efficient TVM430 system (which incidentally covers most of the British section of the Eurostar High Speed rail track), and Germany uses a system named LZB.

The question of human error

As safety systems continue to evolve, we asked, “How far can engineering go to eliminate human error?”. Kessell replies, “If everything is working OK, technology will be at least 99.8% foolproof. The risk comes when something fails and you work in what is called ‘degraded’ mode. If something fails, the system will stop the train and then you’ve got to have some procedure, some process that enables that train to move without the supervision of the failed system. In theory, from a control system point of view, rail travel is going to get safer and safer. But, that doesn’t stop rails from breaking or axles from splitting in two. A railway is more than just a control system.”

Oldham’s views back this up. “Improved train protection signalling systems are important in mitigating the catastrophic risk of train collision, but statistically this is a lower cause of death and injury than level crossings, infrastructure failures (maintenance related), structures and earthworks problems (weather and maintenance related), mechanical failure of trains and the platform/train interface. Most passenger injuries on railways are slips, trips and falls. Most deaths on or about the railway are suicides, and the growth of technological solutions to help spot and manage these is on-going, but not, of course, the complete answer. However, I do see there being a rise in the amount of automation used on trains to reduce driver error and to assist with remote condition monitoring and automated inspection techniques.”

Professor Kemp’s opinion on technology eliminating human error is, “I don’t think it [engineering] can completely. It’s relatively easy to produce a system that will control and monitor the speed of a train when it’s going along normally, but there will always be some situations when it takes a different set of abilities to control the train.”

In the driver’s seat

He goes on to explore another avenue of thought which centres around the sometimes impossibly high expectations placed on drivers and the issue of disorientation. “The challenge isn’t human error as such, it’s designing a system that doesn’t put humans in an impossible position.”

He then directed us to his blog, written for Lancaster University in his other role as Professorial Fellow of Engineering there. In relation to the derailment in Galicia, he gives this fascinating insight about what might have gone wrong. “In this accident we have to ask whether the driver really knew where he was on the route (or, in more academic language, was he suffering from a deficit in situational awareness).

“The new line passes through difficult terrain and has 31 tunnels, totalling 30 km, and 38 viaducts. The last tunnel before Santiago ends less than a kilometre before the new line joins the old and goes into the 500m radius curve. A week after the accident it emerged that the central control room had phoned the driver as he was approaching Compostela. With the distraction of an administrative phone call, a changeover of the signalling system and a line forever running into and out of tunnels, would it be surprising if the driver had a situational awareness deficit?”
Kessell puts forward a very similar suggestion as to the possible cause of human error at Galicia, positing, “He [the driver] may have lost orientation and wasn’t quite sure where he was. When you ride in the front of a cab on these High Speed lines it does get a little bit monotonous because they are reasonably straight, and in Spain they tend to go right across contours. Tunnel, viaduct, tunnel, viaduct is a fairly typical scenario. He may have become disorientated and forgotten where he was.”

Another tragedy which illustrates some of the difficulties facing drivers and the ‘unfriendliness’ of some of the systems they have to deal with is the Ladbroke Grove incident in the UK back in 1999. The driver, along with 30 others, died when he failed to stop at a red signal and his commuter service collided with an express train. The Cullen Report into the incident found that the driver, Michael Hodder – a 31 year old father-of-two – was only partly to blame. The report states, “His experience was slender, his training had significant shortcomings, and little can be known about his thought processes and habits.” Lord Cullen found no suggestion that the driver had deliberately ignored a red signal, but thought he might have believed he had a ‘proceed aspect’. Low sunlight shining into his eyes, and the unusual configuration of the signal which impaired initial sighting of its red aspect are cited as possible explanations for his fatal misunderstanding.

It’s human nature to be horrified by such stories, and the reasons for the carnage in Galicia will continue to unfold for months to come, keeping it alive in our minds, but the fact remains that rail travel is one of the safest modes of transport out there. Besides which there’s no such thing as 100% safety. Even our own homes are potentially lethal – stairs to fall down, chip pan fires, slipping in the bath, the list goes on.

As we all go about our daily business, the quest to make trains even safer continues. But, is it simply a matter of technical innovation? Perhaps it might also involve seeking greater understanding of and integration with driver psychology and behaviour, and the way the human brain copes – or doesn’t cope – with monotony. Perhaps that’s the next big challenge for both the engineers who build the infrastructure and those who develop the train control and signalling technology?

Gail Taylor

Written By admin 
August 21, 2013 09:13 am
Posted In Rail, TRANSPORT