RAIL 934 - Rail Live 2021 was the best yet!

Spending two days at RAIL’s annual Rail Live event, at the Quinton Rail Technology Centre (June 16/17), revealed that there really IS a growing ‘let’s do this’ feeling of renewed optimism and momentum in the rail industry.

Just four months ago and under lockdown, we faced a no-turning-back ‘go/no-go’ decision about Rail Live 2021. There seemed to be a strong sense among all but a very few sponsors and exhibitors that the show should go ahead, even though the first phase of unlocking (reopening schools on March 8) had yet to proceed. Just like every other family in the country, it seemed to us that #therailwayfamily was champing at the bit to actually meet and do business again. We firmly shared that desire.

But Rail Live is a big, expensive and difficult show to stage, and there’s normally a clear run of at least seven months. We had around half that time. But after much soul-searching, we took a deep breath and went ahead.

Serious problems immediately pushed back, not least the decision by two major sponsors and a very small number of exhibitors not to proceed. But despite having no major 2021 rolling stock exhibit (its pioneering hydrogen trains are being developed for Glasgow’s COP26 climate change conference in November) Porterbrook stepped up as a headline sponsor, alongside Dura Composites and SPL Powerlines. They gave us the headroom to continue. Thank you!

Our events team completed six months’ work in half the time and the show opened on Wednesday June 16, beneath clear blue skies and blazing sunshine (see pages 12-16 and 40-41). Around 5,000 exhibitors and visitors attended and (as will always be the case at Rail Live) a large collection of sophisticated yellow plant was the heart and soul of the show.

It was impossible not be impressed by the numerous machines on display, looking for all the world like stars from Thunderbirds! In BR days I recall tampers and a few other on-track machines, but no road-rail vehicles. None. Now there’s road-rail plant for every job - from chipping lineside vegetation, through flash butt welders and mobile generators to an entire family of cranes, diggers, grabs, lifting cages and platforms… and much more.

Where once a grubby works train with a locomotive and a couple of ancient carriages and wagons carried works teams and equipment to site, now there’s an entire family of road-rail vehicles (such as the road-rail Land Rovers and SUVs from companies such as Aquarius) complete with a range of trailers, carrying cranes, mess rooms and other equipment, much more conveniently and safely. They are fast, flexible and economical.

For me, this plant is the beating heart of Rail Live, which aims to develop an ever-higher-profile showcase to display the railway’s constantly innovating tehnology and skills. Rail Live is determined to counter that tiresome public/media view that our industry is still all about picks, shovels and oil lamps.

Network Rail’s New Measurement Train HST was on display, bristling with ‘tech’ and (uniquely) with its doors open to visitors. The NMT covers the entire 21,000-mile network every few weeks, surveying track. Its cameras are so sophisticated that you could read the ingredients on a crisp packet stuck to a sleeper and photographed at more than 100mph.

NR’s two state-of-the-art survey helicopters were also open to visitors. They enable rapid and  effective remote surveying of a wide array of infrastructure, from track fastenings and point heaters to cuttings, embankments, overhead 25kV equipment and bridges… with no one exposed to risk on the track. To accompany its long-standing HD/thermal imaging cameras, one of the aircraft is now fitted with the first UK civil application of the targeting cameras/software pioneered on the fearsome Apache attack helicopters, whose pilots have merely to look at a target to lock on.

On NR’s aircraft, this technology is operated by a games-style console which can lock on to
a trespasser as easily as a faulty bridge component and then video it in HD, regardless of how the helicopter moves. In areas such as this, our railway is leading the way - and Rail Live will promote this reality. This is crucial in enabling the railway to recruit and develop more of the high-skilled staff it will need in the post-COVID age.

Rail Live started as a plant show on NR property at Milton Keynes in 2012, moving to Long Marston in 2013. RAIL became involved at the 2017 show after my chance meeting with QRTC’s Colin and Ruth Flack. Working with them, we have developed the show to be bigger and more comprehensive.

Plant and equipment will always be front and centre, and we’re building on this core in the style of a Farnborough Air Show, where plenty of business/networking is done - but with much more. Hence, in 2021 we displayed Stadler’s superb new Class 777 battery metro train for Merseyrail. This lovely train, which isn’t even in service yet, was enormously popular - a great piece of flag flying by Stadler, whom we look forward to working with again.

Great Western Railway sent its Class 769 tri-mode (diesel, third rail and 25kV OLE) train, upscaled by owner Porterbrook, based on a withdrawn, refurbished and rebuilt Class 319 electric multiple unit.

With NR’s help and flexibility, a brand new Vivarail Transport for Wales Class 230 hybrid diesel-battery train ran half-hourly passenger shuttles from our private platform at QRTC to Honeybourne, to connect with main line GWR trains to Worcester and beyond in one direction and to Reading and London Paddington in the other. On June 16, 300 passengers used this train. Thanks to Vivarail and Transport for Wales (who agreed at very short notice to allow us to use their train), we were able to showcase more battery traction technology in action, fitted to another upscaled older train made as good as new.

And my, how the industry responded! June 16 broke all records, with the highest number of Rail Live visitors ever. And freight had a major presence at Rail Live for the first time too, thanks to GBRf, which provided 66764, to be named in honour of the late Major John Poyntz.

The strong sense of shared endeavour and collaboration that was clearly evident at Rail Live must be nurtured - because there’s a tough road ahead.

On June 15, the Rail Industry Recovery Group (RIRG, see pages 6-7) announced that urgent discussions are imminent about how emergency Government funding (£12 billion during the pandemic; £800 million a month) can be reduced.

RIRG (NR, train operators and unions) acknowledge that the 85% of services currently running are likely to be “curtailed, reduced, or flexed in the future”… and that the thorny issues of Sunday working, technology and working practice reform are all on the agenda. This will be far from easy, but failure to resolve these long-standing issues isn’t an option because UK plc needs its railway to thrive in reviving Britain’s economy. That determination to succeed and collaborative spirit on show at Rail Live are going to have to do some very heavy lifting.

Thank you is too small a phrase for all those individuals, teams, companies and other organisations who made Rail Live the most successful show yet, but it could not be spoken with greater sincerity by everyone on the Rail Live team. We’re also saying ‘thank you and goodbye’ this year to QRTC’s Colin and Ruth Flack, who are moving on to pastures new and fresh adventures. They absolutely shared our vision and passion for Rail Live and worked with us to make it real. I’m delighted that their last Rail Live was the best yet.

Rail Live will be back in June next year, by which time Porterbrook, which took over the Long Marston site on June 23, will have firmly established this unique facility as the Long Marston Rail Innovation Centre. We are looking forward to working with CEO Mary Grant and her team, who have enthusiastically committed to continuing working with us to make Rail Live bigger, better and even more relevant. Please join us next year!

The work has already started…

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