Posted 17th September 2007

Pioneering past powers Arriva's future

A SIGN attached to the solar-powered street lights on the approach to Machynlleth station reads ‘eco-strip’.

It is advertising an eco-friendly, solvent-free metal and wood stripping service offered by a company based in the mid-Wales town one of the first places in Britain to experiment with wind and solar power.

The ideas hatched at the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth were laugh-ed at when they were first put forward in 1973. But now, more than three decades later, they have been adopted by the town’s railway station.

Although unrelated, the ‘eco-strip’ sign serves as a good introduction to the train care facility just opened at the station. In a few weeks it will have a wind turbine installed, the final touch to a host of features that make Machynlleth depot one of the most energy efficient in the country.

It has a ‘rainwater harvesting’ system that collects 10,000 litres of rain in a huge butt outside the depot, filters the water and pipes it to a 900-litre tank inside. There it is treated to a basic form of pasteurisation, making it suitable for washing both humans and trains.

Two huge solar panels in the roof heat the water, which, said depot head of production Pete North, was piping hot within 24 hours of installation.

“We had no doubts about the rainwater collection system, and it looks like there’s more than enough sun as well.”

There is a lighting system that automatically dims when there is enough daylight outside and uses fluorescent lights that are about 40 per cent more efficient and last twice as long as metal halide models.

In the workshop there is a radiant tube heating system that senses the temperature of the air outside and turns itself off when it is not needed.

And once planning formalities are completed, there will be a 15-metre high, six-kilowatt wind turbine to supply the electricity for other basic functions, such as pit lighting.

Opened only last month by Arriva plc chief executive David Martin and Arriva Trains Wales managing director Bob Holland, the depot is the result of a £3 million investment by the company and nine months’ hard work by its staff. And it could not be more different to the former workshop a crumbling old shed built in the early 1900s and no longer fit for purpose.

Machynlleth’s transformation meant constructing the new workshop building and digging up and replacing all the rail and ballast at the depot. Even the work to excavate 3,000 cubic metres of permanent-way was done using new environmentally friendly methods.

The site was contaminated with a century’s worth of ash, diesel and oil spills, which left the ground polluted with hydrocarbons. Normally the material would be dumped in landfill, but Arriva reached an agreement with the Environment Agency to deal with it on site.

It will now be sprayed with a membrane then covered with soil into which grass will be sown. After a year or two, micro-organisms in the material will absorb the hydrocarbons, leaving it cleaned and able to be recycled for new engineering projects.

While the work was going on, staff at Machynlleth continued getting Arriva’s Class 158s out. The process had sometimes been “tortuous” admitted Mr Holland, but the end result was “superb”.

There could not be a greater contrast between where the staff used to work and where they would now, said Mr Martin. “Arriva will decrease its carbon footprint with a new facility that will continue to improve performance at Arriva Trains Wales.”
The depot’s impact on operations will also make Arriva Train Wales more efficient, by saving trips to the Canton depot in Cardiff.

Machynlleth’s old shed had no proper pit facilities, meaning many 158s had to travel to Cardiff for repairs and maintenance. The new workshop has two full-length pits and can do all repairs and intensive servicing, so the practice will be ended, along with the carbon emissions it generated.

“We can do everything here now,” said project manager David Wilkinson. “We will cut out all the time used in getting trains back to Cardiff, which will improve availability and reliability and give us more time to do examinations and repairs.”
There will also be more staff on hand to do the work. The number of employees at Machynlleth is jumping from 14 to 24, because the depot will now service Arriva Train Wales’s entire fleet of 158s.

The surrounding area has also benefited, with many locals being employed on the site and an influx of specialist contractors who contributed to the local economy.

Arriva hopes the new depot will be part of a general im-provement in the Cambrian Line, helped by a £13 million investment to install more passing loops on the single track and to reduce the risk of flooding at the Dovey estuary.

The Welsh Assembly Government will provide £8 million and Network Rail £5 million of the cost to provide new loops at Dovey Junction, Talerddig and Welshpool, and to raise the track at Dovey Junction by 60 cm, which should allow Arriva train services to continue for all but the very worst flooding. Work is due to be complete by the end of next year.

By that time, Machynlleth’s wind turbine will be turning, just as its environmental prototype made out of cloth and old car parts did back in 1973, when the town first showed the way forward.