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Young engineers take Railway Challenge

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A team of 11 budding engineers from Transport for London (TfL) has won The Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Railway Challenge, for the second year running.

The national competition saw seven teams compete to design and manufacture the most efficient, reliable and quietest small-scale locomotive, at Stapleford Miniature Railway near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire on 27 – 28 June.

Teams included Derby’s Interfleet Technology Ltd (2nd), and the University of Southampton (3rd), as well as the University of Birmingham, University of Huddersfield, University of Sheffield, and TE Connectivity of Swindon.

Despite the word miniature, these are no toys. The locomotives that the teams build weigh up to a tonne and are computer-controlled, have regenerative breaking and all sorts of traction systems. The locomotives work on 101⁄4” gauge railway line and compete while hauling a 600kg load – which includes one of the Railway Challenge judges.

Technologies buried inside the seven locos included hydrogen fuel cells and petrol engines, chain drives and kardan shafts, batteries and supercapacitors. Most had cables connecting with remote controllers, one had WiFi, another used two laptops.

Sent to Coventry

Like all prototypes and experimental designs, there were teething troubles. One team blew a Raspberry Pi computer board and had to drive down to Coventry to buy a replacement. Another locomotive, which had been tested on straight track, refused to go around tight curves and kept derailing. Overnight work cured some of the problems, but not all of them. By the time the locos came out for the performance tests, each with a couple of passenger wagons connected up, the driver sitting in the front with the controller and a judge sitting behind, the seven entrants were down to four, although one of the remaining would do a demonstration run at the end of the day.

Sensors were fastened to the frame to assess ride comfort. Then each loco had to stop from 15mph and use only the recovered brake energy to propel it forward from a standing start. Southampton stunned everybody by going nearly 40 metres – twice as far as the next best.

Noise challenge

Climbing a steep hill from a standing start was the traction challenge, and the noise each loco made while it did it was the subject of the noise challenge.

Says Professor Richard Folkson, President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, ‘The Railway Challenge presents a unique opportunity for these young engineers to convert their designs into practical applications. The competition is gruelling and runs along the lines of a real-life tendering process.

The teams have to prepare a business case, safety case, financial plans and design, and have to build a locomotive from scratch. I would like to congratulate not only TfL, but all the teams for taking part, as well as acknowledge the fantastic work of the volunteers to make the event so successful and allow it to grow year- on-year.’

Next year all seven teams will be back – largely with new personnel as only two are allowed to carry over – to be joined by some new entrants to take part in another series of tests. There will be new challenges to make sure that everyone has to develop their designs. And there will be sun, and rain, and enthusiasm, and elation, and despair.

Just like a real railway.


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