Birmingham at the IMechE Railway Challenge

For the third year in succession the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education have entered a vehicle in the IMechE Railway Challenge. With the only hydrogen-powered engine in the competition, the team had an excellent experience and achieved 3rd place in the competition.

The IMechE Railway Challenge is designed for teams of engineering students studying at a UK university or apprentices working in industry. They are required to design and manufacture a miniature (10¼” gauge) railway locomotive. The competition weekend took place 27-29 June 2014 and teams competed against each other to test their locomotive designs and endurance.

Over 100 people came to Stapleford Miniature Railway near Melton Mowbray to watch reigning champions University of Huddersfield take on Transport for London, Derby’s Interfleet Technology Ltd, University of Sheffield and Birmingham. The competition saw the five teams compete to design and manufacture the best, most efficient and quietest small-scale locomotive with Transport for London being crowned the winner at the end of the challenge weekend.

The Birmingham team took a bottom-up approach to the engineering design, and opted for a green propulsion solution. A novel drive system with permanent magnet DC motors was powered by a hydrogen fuel cell hybrid system comprising of a battery pack and fuel cell system. The batteries provide most of the power during acceleration and absorb power during braking, and the fuel cell would continually operate and maintain the batteries at a full state of charge. Super-capacitors and a novel power electronic control system were used to provide additional power capability under harsh braking in the “energy storage” challenge. 

This year the team was strengthened by two visiting students from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Ben and Matt, who undertook the challenge as part of their masters’ research project on a University exchange programme. The team worked tirelessly in the lead-up to the challenge weekend, and well into the night fixing minor problems and making last minute engineering adjustments. In the end we had the only locomotive which performed within its time slot and did not suffer, what is known in the railway industry as, a “service affected failure”.

Our competitors all used more conventional motive power, based on commercially available generator sets, which were much noisier and produced much higher emissions, so ours was by far the “greenest” train, and the team were delighted to win the “noise” challenge for the quietest vehicle by a long way. Overall the team had an excellent experience and went away enthused about the railway, and keen to develop further the cutting-edge traction systems research which is being tackled at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education.  We will be definitely back next year, and are intending to use the vehicle as a demonstrator in British Science Festival which is being hosted by Birmingham in September (6-11).

Dr. Stuart Hillmansen

Senior Lecturer in Electrical Energy Systems and Head of the Traction Research Group, School of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering

Part of the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education