Spark of genius at UK cement plant

Construction company Tarmac is collaborating with electrical engineering specialists Furrer+Frey to develop a retractable overhead electrical supply system suitable for freight terminals. The chosen site for trials is at Dunbar near Edinburgh, where Tarmac operates a busy cement plant. The terminal is adjacent to the busy East Coast Main Line, part of the UK’s electrified network. The trial is being supported by the UK government’s ‘First of a Kind’ innovation scheme.

Efforts are underway to extend the operation of electric freight services right into a terminal alongside the East Coast Main Line. Specialists in the field of overhead line equipment, Furrer+Frey, are working with sustainable construction materials corporation Tarmac to equip the cement terminal at Dunbar, east of Edinburgh. Furrer+Frey are pioneers in the field of retractable electric supply equipment, and have previously worked on maintenance facilities in the UK, notably for Eurostar.

Practicalities of operating industrial processes

Tarmac’s Dunbar plant is well known to all travellers on the East Coast Main Line. The plant is alongside the Edinburgh – London line, about thirty minutes outside the Scottish capital. However, the wires that supply power to the electric services on the route stop at the gates to the plant. That means diesel trains have to serve the plant, often running for hours under the wires while using fossil fuel.

That could all change if trials with a new system prove successful. To overcome the practicalities of operating industrial processes in the presence of overhead line equipment, Swiss headquartered engineering specialists Furrer+Frey are working with Tarmac to explore a retractable system. This would allow electric traction to operate trains within the compound while making industrial processes safe for all concerned.

Further investment

The trial is part of the UK government First of a Kind (FOAK) competition. The initiative invites bids from companies to fund existing innovations that may be in use outside the rail industry but which could benefit operations. The competition, run by Innovate UK, is part of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) wider Accelerating Innovation in Rail (AIR) scheme. This is aimed at introducing cutting-edge ways of improving rail services to run efficiently and on time.

Tarmac make no secret of their commitments.

The site at Dunbar has been the subject of recent investment. Back in March, The Scottish Government allocated GBP1.49 million (1.6 million euros) to Tarmac’s Dunbar cement plant in a Freight Facilities Grant. The grant will support the company’s drive to enhance its rail capabilities at the plant, which provides cement products for construction projects across Scotland and further into England.

Towards net-zero

Furrer+Frey says rail electrification in the UK has an important role in reducing CO2 emissions to tackle climate change. Almost 10000km, 62 per cent of the British network remains unelectrified. The British government has committed to making the economy in general carbon-neutral rail by 2050.

In April 2021, the Railway Industry Association, which represents the supply chain in the UK, published a report offering an overview of the benefits, technologies and costs of electrification, to which Furrer+Frey contributed opinion.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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