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Technology | Transport & Logistics

The very light rail technology that will make trams two thirds cheaper to install

8 Aug 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

With transport accounting for one fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions, increasing uptake of public transport is one of the most meaningful ways cities can cut their carbon footprint and improve air quality.

For larger cities with tram networks, this is often an easier task. Inner city rail systems are an increasingly attractive alternative to rush hour traffic, with tram patronage more than doubling on some Melbourne routes in the past decade.

However, for small to medium size cities that cannot afford – or justify the cost of – tram installations, boosting public transport usage is becoming an uphill struggle. Bus popularity has nosedived in recent years, with residents in smaller, tram-less cities, upping their reliance on single occupancy vehicles to reach CBD locations.

Making tram systems more affordable

Enter Coventry Very Light Rail – a new urban light rail system, engineered by researchers in the United Kingdom. This world-first invention drastically reduces the cost per kilometre of tram systems, by removing the need for utilities to be diverted during installation, explains Senior Program Manager, Nicola Small.

“Historically, tram tracks have required deep excavations (600 millilitres), meaning road closures for up to eighteen months are the norm. By contrast, our new lighter vehicle requires a much shallower track form and can sit within the top 300 mm of road. Without the need for deep drilling, utilities can keep running alongside the construction,” she said ahead of the Rail Decarbonisation Conference.

With entire roads and services shut down for months, traditional light weight rail systems can reach costs of £25 – 100 million per kilometre. Meanwhile, Coventry Very Light Rail is projected to cost just £10 million per km.

“With the shallower track form, utility disruption is mostly out of the picture. Of course, some diversion will be required at key junctions, but mostly utilities can be left in situ. This is why the cost per kilometre is so cheap when compared with the traditional technology,” Ms Small added.

Sustainable design and use

Coventry Very Light Rail’s 11m twin-bogie vehicle – designed by WMG at the University of Warwick in partnership with Transport Design International – is comprised mainly of aluminium, steel, and recycled composites.

With polycarbonate glazing and an anti-slip/traction control, in place of sanding equipment, it weighs less than one tonne per linear metre, and can support dynamic axle loads of 5 tonnes. Meanwhile, the vehicle’s modular framework means minimal panel types are needed.

On the track, its ready-formed, 100mm slab eliminates the need for a base layer, trimming the depth of traditional track-beds by two thirds. Whilst carbon is embedded into the ultra-high performance concrete, the smaller volume of concrete required means significantly fewer emissions than with traditional track installations.

Moreover, the vehicle’s on-board energy storage and rapid charging system make it zero emission at the point of use.

A viable business case for trams

Given the drastic reduction in installation costs, Coventry Very Light Rail hopes to help more cities across the world embrace tram technology and complete their integrated transport networks more sustainably.

“Tram systems are an aspirational tool for any city looking to be more sustainable and integrated. They’re a system the public is willing to use; and almost all high performing cities globally have them,” Ms Small said.

“Our hope is that Very Light Rail technology will be more accessible for smaller cities like Bristol, Leeds and Derby [here in the UK].”

Ms Small and team have just developed a replica road construction, on which they can demonstrate to utility companies how the Coventry Very Light Rail track interacts with road systems. To help, sensors have been installed beneath the construction to collect data on movement.

“This replica construction will demonstrate how easy the technology is to install and we hope that cities across the world will take notice,” she said.

The next phase will involve sections of slab and rail being installed at Coventry City Council’s transport depot for heavy goods performance testing. Here, sensors will collect data on axel load, vibration, and structural integrity.

Following that, the new slab will be benchmarked against existing embedded and sleeper track designs, as part of integrated system testing.

Giving an update on the design process, Nicola Small will present virtually at the Rail Decarbonisation Conference, hosted by Informa Connect.

This year’s event will be held 5-6 September at the PARKROYAL Darling Harbour, Sydney. Learn more and register your place here.

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