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PROSPER MAGAZINE: DIGITAL EDITION

FEATURE

WE’LL NEED MORE THAN HOT AIR TO GET US OUT OF THIS CRISIS – BUT THE GREEN GAS, BIOMETHANE, COULD POWER PART OF THE SOLUTION

Prosper met with Beverley Nielsen, Black Country Women in Leadership steering group member, Director of the Institute for Design & Economic Acceleration, IDEA, at Birmingham City University and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Brexit Studies, to talk about her work with Ultra Light Rail Partners.

Over the past year Beverley Nielsen has been working on an Innovate UK (IUK) grant-funded ‘first of a kind’ programme as Chairman of Ultra Light Rail Partners to offer smart, green and clean, ultra-light rail-based transport solution as an alternative to traditional heavy rail and metro options.

“Thanks to a very welcome, fully funded grant of £350k from Innovate UK, supported by the Department for Transport on behalf of HM Government,” said Beverley, “the Bristol Biomethane railcar launched last week at the Motorail facility in Long Marston, Warwickshire.”

This ultra-low air pollution and zero climate change emissions railcar uses a combination of the green gas, biomethane, and zero-carbon kinetic energy storage from a flywheel to provide on-board power without the need for overhead wires.

Beverley became Chair of Ultra Light Rail Partners (ULRP) with leaders of the project in 2018 after the company was formed by industry veteran, John Parry, Chairman of Parry People Movers Ltd.

John was keen to build on the successful development of the propane-powered Class 139 railcars in operation over the past decade at Stourbridge. Known as the ‘Stourbridge Shuttle’ these railcars have been providing a 99.7 – 100% service reliability for the past ten years under the management of Pre Metro Operations.

“It’s the smallest train operating company in the country and much loved by the people in the Stourbridge area,” Beverley said, “John Parry with colleague, Jimmy Skinner, founding director of Sustraco, have been innovating in this field for many years trialling the first UK on-street self-powered tram without any overhead wires in Bristol between 1998-2000.

 

The Bristol Biomethane draws on the original railcar bodywork deployed on the streets in Bristol, but it’s been provided with a whole new powertrain enabling it to run on biomethane.

“Alongside the focus on electrification,” Beverley said, “We must put far greater effort into diversification of power options to include gas.

 

The green gas biomethane, readily available from common waste products including sewage sludge, food, plant and organic waste, red-meat processing waste, poultry and cattle manure, has been establishing itself as the world’s most environmentally-friendly fuel being used worldwide to power all forms of transport including over 24 million road vehicles.

 

But it’s not become widely adopted for transport in the UK, except for a relatively small number of trucks, buses and delivery vans.

“With more UK government support, such as through our ‘first of a kind’ award, biomethane could be used to power trams and ultra-light railcars to transform air quality in our urban areas. As a low-cost clean option, it could help connect isolated communities even within the context of our urban conurbations. It is not widely recognised that biomethane is interchangeable with existing natural gas and could be used for not only transport purposes but for electricity generation, water heating, space heating and cooking and could replace up to half the natural gas currently in use,” Beverley continued.

“It could, therefore, provide real economic job creation opportunities regionally and especially around our shire counties where agriculture still forms a considerable element of the economy. In addition, it could offer a generation of skilled jobs in planning, engineering, operating and maintenance of biogas and biomethane plants.

Beverley concluded, “Our small Innovate UK project shows that we have a very real opportunity to build a new intermediate clean transport mode capable of travelling on-rail and on-street.

"Throughout our project, we have focussed on sourcing over 90% of our components in the UK and over three quarters from the West Midlands as the home of transport engineering research and development. We have been able to do this because of the West Midlands strength in automotive as the home of one-third of the UK transport production.

“At this time of great national challenge, we can create many new jobs by investing in innovative clean, green, low cost and ultra-low emissions options like the Bristol Biomethane.”

Moving People – Ultra Light Rail is the Future

Light Rail tram systems are a success worldwide, and in the UK, ‘Ultra Light Rail’ takes the concept further, as a cost-effective, reliable, green ‘last mile’ complementary scheme.

Pre Metro Operations’ Phil Tonks explains the success of the Black Country’s Ultra Light Rail operation in Stourbridge, and how it can play an increasingly important part in future local transport.

People are on the move. A generation were given the freedom of the car to explore, to commute, to see beyond their own back yard. The car has brought them untold experiences, enabled them to earn a living and to broaden their horizons. 

But the car now brings us challenges. Too many cars on the road bring us congestion, pollution, frustration and costs British business millions every year. People, though, still want – and need – to be on the move. 

If there’s one thing Covid-19 has taught us, it’s that congestion and pollution-free streets were different. It made us think about other ways of getting around. Walking and cycling are good for us, for sure, but for longer distance travel, we need to think differently about personal mobility if we want a cleaner, greener world for ourselves and our grandchildren. 

Mention ‘public transport’ and hear the groans. If you’re used to motoring, using the train or bus might not work for you, but how often have you sat in a jam and wondered if there’s another way we could do this? Just adding more roads and more lanes to roads doesn't help. Study after study show them rapidly filling up. It just encourages motoring. 

But this isn’t ‘anti-car’. It’s about a smarter way of moving people from A to B. 

A smarter way that works for individuals, is reliable, cost-effective, safe and becomes the default choice. 

There is no doubt trams are attractive. In Nottingham, the local authority took a gamble. By charging businesses for their car park spaces, they funded – and continue to fund – a highly successful light rail system that integrates effortlessly with the railway station, city centre and local bus services. In short, it works, because people use it in the droves. More locally, West Midlands Metro is another success story. 

What does this prove? If you give people good public transport, they’ll use it and rely on it. In expanding West Midlands Metro, our region is laying down a long-term marker. By linking it to HS2 in Birmingham, we are going to see real opportunities for business local and further afield. 

If ‘heavy rail’ HS2 and ‘light rail’ West Midlands Metro are part of that attractive future, what about Ultra Light Rail? 

But what is ‘Ultra Light Rail’? 

Pre Metro Operations Ltd has been running Ultra Light Rail for over a decade in the Black Country. The Stourbridge Shuttle runs the short distance between Stourbridge Junction and Stourbridge Town railway stations. It’s been a huge success. 

Replacing a more traditional ‘heavy rail’ operation, Pre Metro has managed to halve operating costs, double patronage, increase the frequency to a ‘turn-up-and-go’ level of every 10 minutes, achieve industry-leading reliability figures (currently a rolling average of 99.8%) and operate an innovative vehicle that is also industry-leading when it comes to emissions. 

Chief Executive of Pre Metro Phil Evans told Prosper, “A decade of innovative ultra-light rail operation in Stourbridge has been a real success for us, and our partners – initially London Midland and now West Midlands Trains. We are convinced our model can work in other areas, both local and other parts of the UK, to bring high quality, cost-effective mode of public transport that delivers for the passenger.”

Pre Metro is currently working on plans to showcase a second route locally in the Black Country – from Stourbridge up towards Brierley Hill and The Waterfront. This would use a current freight-only line that last carried passengers back in the 1960s. It would provide passengers with seamless links with West Midlands Metro on their extension to Brierley Hill, opening up fast, frequent, reliable light rail journeys from the southern Black Country into the northern part of the conurbation, and into Birmingham and HS2. Pre Metro’s new line would also link to new housing developments and park & ride. 

“We see ultra-light rail developments such as this as complementary schemes to the wider vision for public transport,” continued Phil, “Ultralight rail is also much cheaper to construct than other schemes, so the potential for value for money is huge. By penetrating local neighbourhoods and serving new-build housing, we remove what is often referred to as the ‘last mile’ issue, where users often still need to use a car to get from their home to a high-quality transport hub.”

Pre Metro’s decade of experience running a high-frequency, highly reliable 7 days per week service is invaluable when operating new schemes like this elsewhere. 

As we build out of Covid-19 and face an economically uncertain future, providing high quality, attractive transit will be crucial to our recovery. Ultra Light Rail can play an innovative environmentally friendly part in moving people. 

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