28.9.04

SPEEDING THINGS UP. A wheeled vehicle can go around curves at speeds that subject human bodies to great stress, which is why curves on relatively slow roller coasters have extreme banking and railroads continue to experiment with tilt-body trains. The latest entrant in the tilting-train speed derby is Virgin Trains's Pendolinos (yet another third generation Electroliner) one of which set a London to Manchester speed record last week. (I read about it on the Eurostar. Brag, brag.) The service is not without its teething troubles.
Alas, on my return journey, it was a different story. The carriages due to form the 1527 to London Euston were already at the opposite platform at Manchester Piccadilly when the record-breaking special pulled in shortly after 1330.

Unfortunately they were still there at 1537. And at 1547.

Although this too was one of the new Pendolinos, the brakes had refused to unlock and the windscreen wiper was not working. Nor was the air conditioning in some of the carriages.

We left more than 20 minutes late and were warned of a further possible delay at Macclesfield, where a fitter was waiting to fix some of the problems.
Patrick at Transport Blog is less than impressed, recommending an op-ed piece by a former rolling stock engineer with British Railways who has a "here we go again" piece. (No bad idea ever goes completely away.) A sampling:
Virgin's Pendolino trains look a little familiar to me because in the mid 1980s I worked briefly as an engineer in British Rail's research department at a time when the original tilting train - the Advanced Passenger Train - was sitting in a siding waiting to be scrapped.

It was already obvious that the concept of a train which leans into corners was too clever by half. The theory behind it is that it allows you to run a high-speed rail service along an old piece of curving track instead of building a new, straighter line. The only problem is that if a train company can't afford to build a new line, it can't afford to build and operate tilting trains, either.

Besides the £11 million price of each new Virgin Pendolino train, it has cost £7.6 billion and taken 10 years to upgrade the signalling and track on the London to Glasgow line to a suitable standard to enable its maximum speed to be lifted from 110 mph to 125 mph. By contrast, the French railway, SNCF, spent £2.5 billion and took two years building a new high-speed line from Lyons to Marseilles which allows trains to run at 215 mph; and that price includes blasting eight miles of tunnels through the mountains.

Like British Rail, SNCF undertook a feasibility study into tilting trains in the late 1960s but rapidly came to the conclusion that the mechanism was over-complex and would prove too unreliable and costly to maintain.

Using generous quantities of our money, British Rail then spent 15 years proving in three dimensions what the French engineers had worked out on paper. Does it need to be proven all over again? Given that Virgin has been unable to keep the loos working on its new trains - which have already been running in non-tilting mode for several months - it doesn't bode well for its ability to keep the trains leaning at the right angle.
The French finding something too complex (too many nuances, if you will???) The tilt mechanisms are compelling the dining-car staff to develop new train legs, according to the BBC:
The ride was smooth, by the standards of most intercity trains, although the waiters in first class struggled to pour out cups of tea and coffee without spilling them.

The tilt is undetectable to passengers. Only when you happen to look out of the window, and see an unexpected expanse of sky, a bit like a plane banking, do you realise the tilt has been engaged.
Walking from place to place might take riders a bit of getting used to. My legs are quite well-suited to a Metroliner or Acela Express making time, let alone a bouncy ride on the old B&O, but I have to adjust to the British spirals on curves, and the Germans are different still.

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