Passenger Rail, Rail Supply, Rolling stock & Rail Vehicle Design

Versatility key to riding light rail wave

Rail Express spoke with Alstom’s Jean-François Blanc, about the success of light rail in the region, the latest in cutting edge technology, and what that could mean for projects and fleets in Auckland and Melbourne.

Alstom Systems Solutions Director Jean-François Blanc says he can understand the success light rail is having throughout Australia and New Zealand.

“Light rail is the most open and easily accessible transit system for passengers,” he tells Rail Express from Paris. “It’s so easy to board, so easy to disembark, and there’s a lot of light inside the vehicle. It is for sure the easiest public transport offered to disabled passengers with abundant, large doors and full low floor access. When you ride a light rail vehicle into the city it’s like you’re walking into the city.”

More than just how it looks and feels, Blanc – who will speak at next week’s ARA Light Rail 2019 conference in Melbourne – says light rail provides an ideal practical solution.

“It’s expandable, in terms of range but also in terms of capacity and performance,” he says. “Light rail can handle from around 3,000 passengers per hour per direction, up to around 13,000, and once you’ve got the infrastructure you can go up to 13,000 with minimal major infrastructure construction.”

Collectively these factors make light rail a valuable transport solution from a whole-of-life investment perspective, alongside larger scale assets like metro lines, when managing fast-growing cities.

Blanc says Australia’s cities – and their residents – are proving they now understand this. “In Australia there are cities that never stopped using trams, like Melbourne, and there are cities that are now re-introducing trams after soe years such as Sydney, or newly discovering the benefits of trams, like the Gold Coast. It’s a very promising market, where people are understanding the benefits and the effectiveness of these systems for citizens – and also that it needs to be complementary to other modes of transport.”

Across the Tasman there’s another fresh opportunity for light rail solution providers: New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), together with Auckland Transport, is clearly showing commitment to deliver light rail between the city’s centre and the large southern suburb Māngere, and into the city’s northwest, by 2028. Like cities in Australia, Auckland says it has chosen light rail for being more reliable than buses, and for providing better access than buses and heavy rail. It is also targeted at reducing congestion, supporting sustainable growth, improving amenity, and providing more choices and better connections throughout the local transport network, according to the NZTA.

“The scale of the project is very large,” Blanc says. “In Auckland authorities are not familiar with light rail systems and a delivery in turnkey, under clear performance objectives, is a guarantee of best management of all technical interfaces and of project management integration risks. It would allow also to foster interest from companies around the world to deliver it.”

Blanc stresses Alstom’s process would always involve mobilising local teams and developing local expertise, but that the project would leverage Alstom’s global experience and support.

“We’ve been delivering over seventeen turnkeys around the world for light rail, so we know what it means to mobilise a mega project in a country. We’ve been doing it across many continents, in the Middle East, South America, Africa, and we know our customers ask us to have this flexibility.”

Light rail rollingstock of the future

Blanc says the Auckland project has one particularity: to reach the airport it would likely call for long inter-station distances, and he says Alstom’s new rollingstock – the Citadis X05 – is particularly well suited for this.

“This is a rollingstock with a top speed of 80km/h,” he says, “which is good for the longer-range stations, and we have built them with very good heat exchange despite being low floor vehicles where the bogie and engine setups have to be quite confined.” He notes the X05 is the vehicle being delivered for the Sydney CBD and South East Light Rail project, where X05s are being coupled together in pairs, to form a fleet of 67-metre vehicles.

Auckland is also yet another city which could investigate catenary-free operation, a technology field Blanc says Alstom leads the way. Alstom is pressing forward with onboard power supply solutions to facilitate ‘wire-less’ operations, but also its ‘third rail’ groundbased power supply system, known as APS.

“Our approach for catenary-free operations is to understand the main characteristics of the project alignments – gradients, curves, crossings, temperature and other environment conditions, and of course what quality of service level the end customer would like to see possible. All of this contributes to choosing an optimum system, be it ground power or onboard, and when it’s onboard it could be battery or supercapacitor.”

Blanc says Alstom encourages customers to leave the specifications of light rail projects as open as possible, so a thorough analysis can be conducted during tender stage, both on capital expenditure, and operating costs. Along with the aforementioned alignment factors, striking the balance between capital and operational expenditure goes a long way towards finding the best solution for catenary free operation.

A system like APS may represent a higher capital expenditure than onboard energy systems, but in turn has the same performance outputs as catenary in terms of gradient, and represents a relatively low operational cost. Onboard energy systems represent a different balance of costs, with the energy systems certainly not designed to last as long as the 30-year lifetime of the rollingstock. The dynamics of these different options are further influenced by the length of the route, the length of desired catenary free sections, and the number of vehicles in the fleet, which contributes significantly to the capital and operational expenditures of the onboard energy system solution.

For now, Blanc says, Alstom is doing a good job of presenting all the options to the market.

“In July 2018 we opened the Nice Line 2 system, fully with supercapacitors using a safe ground charging system. Today in Taiwan we are delivering trams to expand their light rail system, with supercapacitors using overhead charging point. But in Qatar we are delivering APS, because the temperatures are so high that there would be too much energy demand to keep onboard energy systems cool.”

Melbourne fleet

Blanc says Alstom is a key candidate to deliver the next fleet of light rail vehicles for Melbourne.

“We have a good understanding of Melbourne, having provided the first Citadis there in 2000,” he says. “We understand Melbourne being the biggest fleet in the world, they have a variety of rollingstock and requirements, and Alstom can offer solutions from 23 metres upwards. Citadis is a very flexible platform, with the required modularity to suit this.”

Blanc notes the environment and extensive size of Melbourne’s light rail system places additional demand on rollingstock providers.

“In Melbourne, energy efficiency is key to reduce strain on the network, due to some of the shortest tram headways in the world,” he says. “Anybody would have to tackle this fleet with vehicles which are light, and do not consume a lot of energy, and particularly make room for improved ventilation and air conditioning. Now, with the Citadis X05 trams we’ve reduced the energy consumption, so we think it’s a very strong asset for that.”

He notes Alstom is continuously developing technology to further reduce demand for power during peak periods, including energy regenerative technology.

Blanc also says Alstom’s advancements in the field of collision avoidance could be a good addition in Melbourne.

“Melbourne’s [tram system] is a system that is highly integrated into the city, and into the car traffic. It’s more of a streetcar, than what one might call a tramway. And so assistance to drivers is seen by us as very important. This can reduce the level of stress on the drivers, and improve the safety performance.”

Another newer technology is the digital connectivity of Alstom’s trams to both the operator and the maintainer of the fleet, allowing access to critical operational and system performance data. “We first developed this around 2005 for maintenance, and to look at – when failures occur – what happened some seconds before and some seconds after a failure. This allows you to understand how and why it happened, and to start to be able to perform predictive maintenance, rather than corrective.”

Alstom has a tradition with local manufacturing of railway vehicles within Vitoria for decades, thanks to its Ballarat assembly plant.


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