Hitachi's UK plant looks to the world market
Sliding seats could enable passenger trains to carry goods
A1 No 60163 Tornado does 100mph
Rail Alliance drives Midlands Engine
GB Railfreight to implement Ideagen safety software
UAV survey company Bridgeway Aerial takes off
Fire at Euston Station causes nationwide rail disruption
DB Cargo UK confirms job cuts and reform
Subsea cable fault detection demonstrated to rail industry
HS2 rolling stock procurement moves forward
It feels as if the High Speed 2 railway project has been around for a very long time. It was originally the brainchild of Labour Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis, who was a noted railway enthusiast (not a common characteristic among Transport Secretaries of any party), and who in January 2009 commissioned a new company, HS2 Ltd, to report on options for a high-speed network. In October of that year, HS2 technical director Andrew McNaughton delivered the IET Railway Lecture, with the title ‘High capacity and high-speed travel – a green 21st century solution?’, and the official report in March 2010 also emphasised the three key criteria of capacity, connectivity (ie journey time) and sustainability.
McNaughton’s lecture slides and my own memory tell me that he talked at some length about the need for easier and faster connections between the major conurbations in the Midlands and North of England – so this was never a project primarily aimed at saving a bit of time between London and Birmingham, whatever its detractors like to claim. However, I do recall him explaining that it made sense to start building the line from the south because that stretch would bring in the greatest number of travellers and therefore revenue, which would help to pay for future extensions.
The sustainability bit, by the way, was at least partly based on encouraging people to take the train instead of driving or – for longer journeys – flying. Door-to-door journey time is usually a key factor in that choice, which is one reason why city-centre railway stations with good connections often have the edge over out-of-town airports.
Given all that, it’s a shame the project has become so unpopular, but I admit that at least some of the reasons are sound. MPs debated the business case for HS2 in July, and reading the transcript is an eye-opener. Many of them spoke of the struggles their constituents have faced in their dealings with HS2 Ltd when they need to sell property, and the difficulty of getting accurate information and advice. All this “reinforces the sense of distrust in HS2 [and] gives the impression that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing”, said one speaker.
Then there is the cost. That March 2010 report states: “HS2 Ltd estimates the total development and construction costs of the proposed initial core ‘Y’ network to be in the region of £30 billion, including risk, spread out over twenty years or more.” At the time of the Westminster Hall debate, the Department for Transport had allocated £55.7bn of public money to the scheme, but the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has subsequently remarked that it will “probably be north of £100bn” – hence the review. I’m aware that there’s a big difference between construction cost and total cost, but that’s frequently not made clear in the early, optimistic stages of any new venture. A bit more clarity and honesty at the start would save a lot of grief and opprobrium later on.
All the same, I do hope the review can find a workable way forward for the line. Cramming ever more vehicles onto the M1 isn’t really an alternative.
Ben Heubl, associate editor
Lithium firms depleting vital water supplies in Chile, analysis suggests
We reported this week on an extensive investigation outlining worrying developments in the Chilean lithium brine mining business. To extract so much water in one of the most arid places on Earth, the Atacama salt flat, given that companies operate at very low efficiency in extracting lithium, is simply bonkers.
Our two-month inquiry into the dealings of some of the largest lithium producers and the supply chain of lithium carbonate came across not just one but myriad issues connected to an industry struggling to ensure supply of raw materials for the expected surge in demand for electric vehicles – which is, by the way, not here yet, pundits say.
What those experts are really talking about when they refer to a ‘wave’ of EV purchases is a worldwide penetration of passenger EV rates similar to that in Norway – but checking current figures for the US or continental Europe, this remains little more than a buzzword.
Forays by China do look impressive. But so too does China's appetite for lithium. Putting aside some economic issues pointed out in the piece (supply deficit, prices etc), this offers a moment to reflect on the use of lithium in cars, especially how buyers of electric cars argue their clean-handedness with regard to carbon emissions. The premise is, 'I buy an EV, I don’t emit'. But it's a fallacy to think so. EVs are both carbon intensive and polluting.
Electric cars (and soon vans and perhaps lorries, although experts advise against it) can be associated with a huge CO2 footprint during their production. And as a considerable share of air pollution is caused not by your engine but by particles from tyres, brakes and road surfaces, it’s worth emphasising that EVs may not be the ultimate panacea for tackling climate chance and improving air quality. In short, everything has two sides.
The second problem is the supply chain of lithium. The mining of lithium, copper and myriad other materials subtracts huge amounts of fresh water that would otherwise quench populations’ thirsts and feed citizens. How can we not see that these developments will cause water shortages in the future? Climate- and people-conscious regulations are key here. I generally don’t believe in the motto that governments have to break an egg to make an omelette – at least not in the case of climate change. We have to come up with solutions that work on a short-term basis as well as ensuring we move away from fossil fuels.
There might be people saying that lithium brine mining is on its way out sooner or later, anyway. So why bother? Good point, but a bad one, too! First, the majority of lithium is still in brine. Second, an aspect that’s not often considered is the environmental damage caused by lithium rock mining. Australia appears to be not too keen on dominating globally. True, the country has higher environmental standards than others. But still, lithium mining from rock causes carbon dioxide emissions and uses water in the process. And thirdly, as pointed out in our piece, domestic extraction of lithium from brine is expected to become a viable environmental option if water is being reinjected and chemical imbalances considered.
In short, we need to come up with solutions, such as becoming more efficient in extracting lithium, and developing tech that replaces the need for so much of it, in order to come off the lithium drug ASAP. History has shown that reliance on any raw material (think uranium, oil...) could lead to major unrest and winners and losers. Fresh water shortages are of huge concern to people from India, Africa and South America; research shows that water is increasingly found to be the basis for wars and unrest.
There must be a way to mitigate climate change without wrecking lives, destroying ecosystems and giving companies unnatural superpowers to deplete areas to only meet the demand for some of us to purchase a new Tesla. This isn't the green transition we had in mind.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
Review into HS2 raises spectre of cancellation over project
This is wrong, I believe, on many levels.
Firstly, I don’t believe reviews of this type should be allowed. The business case for HS2 has been made, it was scrutinised to within an inch of its life and given the go ahead. So whether you agree or not, and with many billions already spent, debates about the future of HS2 should not be happening. Ongoing analysis of the project in an effort to keep it on track should obviously be conducted, but not another reassessment of its viability.
It’s not a new argument, but this is a classic case of the short-termism and political expediency that inevitably arises when we elect governments every five years. There is no continuity. The health service, education, energy, infrastructure, scientific research – they all require long-term planning and can be undermined by a new set of politicians with their own agendas, not least of which is their own chance of re-election. The long-term, strategic stuff needs intelligent, cross-party committees that have greater longevity than the parliamentary cycle. Only then will we get the stability that teachers, doctors, engineers et al are all crying out for.
Then there’s the message that this review sends to those looking to invest in the North. That commitment from central government now seems pretty fragile. Who would have thought that all those ‘Northern Powerhouse’ promises and visions were just a bit of electioneering? Or perhaps HS2 is a vanity project, but as it’s not one of Boris Johnson’s it’s being pushed off the agenda.
Next comes the cost of the review. That will be insignificant compared to the £7bn already spent on the project but will still run into millions once all those salaries of our legal fraternity are taken into account. This call for reviews and inquests is a disease in modern culture. Again, there is obviously an appropriate level of monitoring in all aspects of life, but the immediate call for expensive and time-consuming inquests as soon as anything comes into question is both a way of shifting responsibility and of funding the lifestyles of some already wealthy legal and political time wasters.
And finally, while I’m at it, is the issue of the cost of the project. In the next issue of E&T we have an interesting article looking at why megaprojects regularly run over budget and over time. While operations could often be smoother, and valuable lessons that could be learnt from previous projects tend to be ignored, the bottom line is that the nature of megaprojects means that it is not really in the best interests of the leading protagonists to be honest about the costs. Would politicians have got HS2 through in the first place if they had put forward a more honest budget of £85bn rather than £56bn? Would contractors have won the contracts if they had been more honest about their costs? The answer in both cases is no, which is why typical overspend is likely to be around 40 per cent, while in some spectacular cases it is far more. The Scottish Parliament building came in at 1,000 per cent over budget!
Perhaps this last point backs up the argument for having a review for HS2. I think it backs up the argument for having permanent, cross-party committees for strategic issues.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Wearables could deter slouching at work, researchers suggest
The immense number of workers who sit at a desk in an office is a good reason to have these wearables everywhere. I have back issues, and it doesn’t help that my main way of working is in front of a screen. I’ve resorted to standing a lot of the time – making my own makeshift standing desk out of cardboard boxes – to help with my spine.
But it doesn’t help that I’m also a tall person, so everything is lower for me, even my DIY standing desk. (If you’re worried, which you probably aren’t, the IET have ordered me a real standing desk, and I’m lowkey stoked for it.)
Anyhoo, slouchy people like me in all industries could do with this system, developed by TU Kaiserslautern and the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence. Apparently, the wearable uses sensors incorporated in normal clothing and footwear to gather data from the wearer’s arms, legs and back in real-time related to acceleration and angular velocity. This is processed by software to work out motion parameters such as joint angles or the degree of flexion or twisting of the spine. If it recognises that a movement or posture could be damaging it immediately sends an alert to the user’s smartwatch.
Basically, it tells you off if your posture is poop. Which could help prevent long-term damage and reduce workplace injuries by reducing stress on your back.
Most people (like me) don’t pay enough attention to moving smoothly or maintaining an ergonomically correct posture.
Siobhan Doyle, assistant features editor
Children’s love for STEM on the decline, IET survey finds
According to a new report by the IET, growing pressures in formal education are having a serious impact on school students’ perceptions of STEM subjects. The ‘Inspiring the next generation of engineers’ research found interest in science has fallen 10 per cent among 9 to 12-year-olds in the past four years, interest in design and technology by 12 per cent and interest in ICT and computing by 14 per cent.
I can imagine this is rather disheartening news: particularly for the people teaching the subjects, parents who perhaps work in these fields, or even anyone who sees STEM subjects as an ideal career pathway for the future workforce. Unfortunately it seems there’s always going to be a widespread perception that subjects such as maths and engineering are difficult and tiresome to commit to, as a career, degree or apprenticeship.
STEM industries and the education sector are aiming to alter this perception, especially for young girls, by coming up with more creative and innovative ways to help children engage in the subject. The IET’s First Lego League is a great example of this, where children participate in activities that involve designing and programming robots.
It’s hoped that the statistics found by the IET will eventually be changed for the better by challenges and schemes such as the First Lego League – hoping to inspire a future generation.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Review into HS2 raises spectre of cancellation over project
The recent ‘developments’ (if we can call them that) around the long suffering HS2 project can be best summarised by the idiomatic expression about “throwing good money after bad”, for that is precisely what the government seems to be doing. There is a certain perverse logic, I have to admit, in aborting it now, having already spent over £7bn on its construction, if it means saving nearly £50bn of British taxpayers’ money (and, possibly, much more) that will be required to complete it.
But what will happen to all those bits of the countryside, and London, already mutilated beyond repair? I can’t help remembering the havoc invoked on the whole area behind Euston Station, particularly around Drummond Street – a unique historical corner of London and home to dozens of superb Asian restaurants, including the multi-award-winning (and amazingly reasonable) Diwana Bhel Poori House, famous for its Indian vegetarian buffet, by far the best in the capital, where I often have business lunches or meet up with my children for an evening of colourful and nutritious gourmet treats.
The street also has several Asian convenience stores, including a couple of famous sweet shops, where, as my London-based Indian friends assure me, generations of kids have been taken by their parents on their birthdays and other festive occasions.
That peculiar street, with all its colour and titillating aromas of curries and spices, is now totally cut off from the rest of London by countless HS2 barriers and trenches. A true explorer’s stamina and an unparalleled sense of direction are required to find it (as I myself confirmed last week). There’s a real danger that if the HS2 station construction is not aborted soon, then Drummond Street will disappear altogether, and that would be a huge loss for London and Londoners.
Even if the works suddenly come to a stop, the street will never be the same again, with the ‘scars’ visible forever as gruesome reminders of wasted time, money and human effort.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Data and security issues deter electronics recycling, study finds
I suspect that most people asked to estimate how many UK households have more than a couple of old tech devices sitting unused in various drawers and cupboards would have guessed it was just about all of them. In my own experience, even people in their 70s and 80s who aren’t particularly tech savvy will have forgotten that they hung onto their old mobile phone when the battery failed, or consigned a cheap tablet to the back of the wardrobe when they didn’t get on with it.
I’m as guilty as anyone of the kind of hoarding found by this survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Not just because – like many of the respondents – I’m worried about the security implications of sending an old phone or laptop for recycling even when I’ve wiped it as thoroughly as I can. I’ve also convinced myself that it’s a waste of all the materials and carbon emissions associated with having manufactured them in the first place to not try and repurpose them. (Not to mention that now most new laptops don’t come with a built-in CD or DVD writer, reviving an old one has at least one practical use.)
It seems that every other month there’s a computer magazine with a feature on ten things you can do with an old computer that isn’t up to running the latest version of Windows securely. Now all I need is a spare day or two to try some of them – and who’s going to do that when the weather’s as good as it has been?
The RSC’s message is an important one: recycling obsolete old tech helps reduce the need for mining and processing of new raw materials. Perhaps it’s time for us all to make the autumnal equivalent of a new year’s resolution and, as the nights start drawing in, vow to either give it a new lease of life or finally part company with it.
This article first appeared on eandt.theiet.org
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