On 27 November, four train manufacturers were invited to bid to build new trains for the upgraded Thameslink line. The trains are to be delivered over three years between 2012 and 2015. Alstom, Bombardier, Hitachi and Siemens pre-qualified through a screening process run by the Department of Transport earlier this year.
The invitation to tender (ITT) sets out the requirements specified for these new trains. Network Rail has examined many of its own standards and infrastructure constraints, so that the new trains can take full advantage of a more compatible set of interfaces, improving on areas such as gauging and the interaction between wheel and rail.
The Department for Transport, First Capital Connect and Network Rail have been working on the principles for operating the new trains that will be the first mainline fleet to be equipped with the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) from the outset.
The core section of the route through St Pancras, Farringdon and London Bridge will be resignalled with shorter block sections that will be overlaid with ERTMS Level 2 train protection. Trackside signals will be retained initially, although these will eventually be rendered superfluous.
The trains will be equipped to operate with both conventional and ERTMS signalling through a single interactive screen and controls in the driver’s cab. Another major advance will be the incorporation of the facility to use automatic train operation (ATO) through the core. If adopted, this would take advantage of shorter headways and support the service frequency of up to 24 trains per hour during the peaks.
The new trains will present operators with a conceptual change from past practice in the South East, as they break from the traditional of multiple unit operation. The fleet will comprise fixed consist trains of 240m and 160m length, with the 160m version in outer and inner suburban variants. The 240m trains will be outer suburban, with the main differentiator being the inner suburban will be standard class only and may have a more metro style seating layout. Exact numbers of each type are still being determined by the DfT, as plans for the future Thameslink train services are not yet finalised but manufacturers are being told to expect an order in the region of 110 trains.
The change to fixed consist trains has been driven by the need for maximising passenger capacity in the peaks, and the recognition that with routes operating close to full capacity, there will be little opportunity to split and join multiple units anyway, especially at the restricted turnround stations. Demand will therefore be managed by careful deployment of the two lengths of trains through the day.
The adoption of fixed consist opens up advantages for the passengers. The trains will have facilities located symmetrically around the centre line, and stopping positions will be set for each train length to ensure passengers know where to stand on the platforms. At core stations, the centre section of the platforms will be raised with rubber gap fillers to give level access to trains, allowing wheelchair users to board and alight without assistance from the centrally located section of the trains with wheelchair spaces and wheelchair accessible toilets. Similarly first class will be located in the end vehicles, and cycle racks will be in two designated vehicles.
A clear message coming from passengers is that the 2+3 layout is disliked, and there is a clear preference for 2+2 seating and more aisle width for standing. The new trains will be specified with a mix of 2+2 unidirectional and bay seating, and the precise layout and design will be decided through full-scale mock-ups. There are also likely to be trials with “volunteer” passengers to measure the speed of boarding and alighting, so that the interior design can be refined.
The trains will have wide, open gangways. Passengers have been pressing for this to improve security on trains and designs have been proven to work for wide gangways that allow free movement between carriages, as well as a clear view through the whole train. Satellite and wireless technology will be used for providing real-time information to passengers through flat panel screens, and data will be synchronised the station systems, providing information about connecting services and accurate arrival times.
Many of the objectives of the DfT’s Technical Strategy have been followed through into the specification for the trains, so that there is a great emphasis on low weight and energy efficiency. Whilst regenerative braking on both AC and DC lines will save energy, the new trains will be expected to provide continuously update advice to drivers on efficient driving profiles, and other savings will be sought through selection of efficient air conditioning and lighting equipment. Weight saving targets have been set to encourage manufacturers to consider advances in lightweight materials and construction techniques.
The competition will test the case for re-introducing articulation into commuter trains in the UK. Whilst this is now common practice in Europe, manufacturers have been reticent over articulation in the UK due to the difficulties in getting through the hurdles of approvals and the UK standards that are written around conventional bogie vehicles.
Network Rail is keen to examine the case for articulation and has recognised that there may be a benefit to track wear through fewer axles and lighter overall train weight. Network Rail engineers have ensured that the wheel-rail interface standards will now treat conventional and articulated vehicles equally. Articulated commuter trains also have potential benefits for passengers, such as slightly wider vehicle bodies, and even wider gangways. If any manufacturer is able to come up with an articulated proposal that is significantly lighter and kinder to the track, requiring less traction energy, they will have a powerful advantage in the bidding competition.
The four train manufacturers will have until next April to submit their detailed proposals, and the process of evaluation by the DfT will then
begin. Current plans are for the best offer to be chosen by the end of next year, although the timing for contract award recognises the length of time required to complete the financing of the trains in the current economic climate.