The securing of a £1.5m loan from the Midlands Engine Investment Fund has been the latest success in a positive year for Midlands-based Vivarail. Now, following the government’s re-commitment to decarbonising its rail networks, the company has a key role to play as the industry recovers from the Coronavirus pandemic. Tangent sits down with Alice Gillman, head of marketing, to find out more
In June, passengers caught a glimpse of the new battery hybrid Class 230 trains set to transform the Transport for Wales service in its goals towards carbon neutrality, as the UK’s first battery hybrid train continues to undergo testing and mileage accumulation on the Wrexham to Bidston and Cotswold lines.
More recently, the government’s announcement reaffirming its commitment of its intentions to create a decarbonised network is clearly a welcomed one for the company which is the only manufacturer with a fully-operational battery train – one that has already reliably run thousands of miles in testing on the national network. But for Alice Gillman, head of marketing at Vivarail, the prodigious potential of battery technology and remanufacturing older rolling stock has yet to be fully realised by national decision-makers.
“We see ourselves as absolutely fundamental to decarbonising,” Alice told Tangent. “That’s mainly why we’ve developed our re-tractioning package. Because, if you look at the wider picture, if you’re scrapping diesel and then having to build from scratch, you’re losing good quality rolling stock, wasting materials, energy, all of those things, whereas it makes much more sense to take a train that’s got another 20 years of life in its bodyshell and convert it to emission-free battery operation.”
Alice highlights how Vivarail’s capabilities of taking existing rolling stock and applying Lithium Ion pouch batteries, optimising the train’s distance and rate of recharge, “ticks the boxes” that transport planners are looking for: cost-effectiveness; lower maintenance costs; and green technology.
“For example, a Class 158 is a popular and reliable train. What point is there in scrapping that when it could be re-tractioned at a fraction of the time and cost? If you look at other trains – the 165s, 166s and 170s – all with about 20 tonnes of aluminium bodyshells. Can you imagine the amount of energy and raw materials needed to start again? We’ve shown how the upgrades can be done on the Class 230s and the principle is the same for this stock. It’s all linked together and we have a solution that will work today!”
Encouraging British innovation
What will the £1.5m industry loan (granted by the Midlands Engine Investment Fund Debt Finance, managed by Maven Capital Partners) go towards? Vivarail has invested in a new production premises near Leamington Spa that needs “kitting out,” as Alice succinctly puts it – but the company’s investment in the new premises signals an intention to keep British jobs for a true British innovator – something which should be lauded in these uncertain economic times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and Britain’s departure from the EU.
“I think the first point to get across there is that we are the only UK train manufacturer. The income we generate, goes to the UK’s coffers,” Alice explained.
The traction package the company has developed, involving the batteries, power-electronics, traction control units, fast-charge system, and accompanying power storage banks, gives Vivarail a truly progressive British-made product.
“This isn’t limited to the UK – it’s got worldwide application. In the last six months, we’ve had enquiries from France, Germany, Mexico, the U.S., and New Zealand. So you can see immediately that when it takes off, there will be other countries that want to purchase it, just because it’s simple and it’s ready to go. British rail safety standards are amongst the best in the world so being approved here is a huge bonus for overseas sales.
“Anything we do that we sell abroad is again going to generate income. It’s going to keep the IP we have in place in the country. When you look at Great Britain PLC, we will be an asset to the country.”
The biggest hurdle for Vivarail in promoting its services on the market? “The fundamental issue is that we’re small,” Alice noted. “When you’re competing against the likes of multi-national companies, they have enormous staff, enormous resources, and we just don’t have that. I think this is a fundamental problem for smaller innovative companies and not just in rail. We struggle to get the message across because there is a lot of ‘noise’ and our voices can get lost.
“A perfect example is our battery train which we launched 2 years ago and which is already approved by Network Rail for mainline operation. There is no need to develop battery technology for rail, we have already done it!”
Assessing success in an uncertain future
Though forecasted plummeting passenger numbers would lead some to question whether train manufacturers like Vivarail will be able to remain in business in its current form, Alice told Tangent that the cultural and working practice change brought about by COVID-19 provides the UK with an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Making use of Vivarail’s services, which takes existing rolling stock diesel trains, and re-fits them to make them cheaper, faster, and greener, is a no-brainer for any budget-holder who is hesitant to invest millions of pounds into brand-new rolling stock.
Alice explained where the company is currently – and where it seeks to be in two years’ time. She told Tangent: “We launched the battery train two years ago now. We’ve also got ahead of the other competitors; we’ve got the first battery-diesel hybrids on the Welsh trains.
“But again that comes back to the fact that we’re so small, and we can move so fast. And although we are a small team we do manage to punch above our weight.”
And, with interest in its services from all four corners of the globe, success for Vivarail could come in the form of an overseas deal – a shift towards carbon neutrality that the company hopes will shine a spotlight on the UK’s only rail manufacturer, working relentlessly to help the country reduce its carbon output.
“I think when the economic impact is clearly assessed on the industry, it should help us, because, as I say, what’s the point in buying new stock? You can save so much money as an operator, just extending the life of your existing stock, cutting your emissions, and cutting your maintenance costs,” Alice noted.
“A huge success would be another fleet of pure battery trains operating on the network- It would showcase the UK’s ability to innovate and lead the way in green technology – a ‘we want this to happen and we want invest in a British company’ – emotional investment; some kind of pride.”
The team at Vivarail are passionately – and rightly – proud of its products and services, and, in times when we’re seeing waves of redundancies and economic downturn in vital industries across the UK, investment and promotion of industry disruptors like Vivarail will go a long way. As the country looks to navigate its way through changes in post-pandemic life and uncertain trade futures, look for companies like Vivarail to shine a light on a greener, brighter future for the nation’s rail networks.