University Station redevelopment plan launched in Birmingham

University Station at Edgbaston, Birmingham is one of the West Midlands’ busiest railway stations, being situated at the entrance of both the University of Birmingham and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Built in 1978, the station was originally designed for around 400,000 passengers a year. It now receives nearly 3.5 million.

The West Midlands Rail Executive (WMRE) and Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) are leading a project to create a fit-for-the-future station capable of accommodating 7.2 million passengers a year to improve transport to the area.

Speaking to Rail Technology Magazine at the station plan’s launch event, mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, commented he was keen to continue to oversee projects like the new University Station, which made a difference to the transport infrastructure of both Birmingham and the wider region.

He said: “This is about is about giving the [University of] Birmingham and our hospitals a station to be really proud of. It’ll give much better conditions for passengers using it and the right sense of arrival when you get to this great part of the city.”

The proposed station is expected to be completed ahead of Birmingham and the region hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games, but Mr Street was keen to add that the new station was just as crucially about improving the day-to-day lives and commutes of the people of the city as it was to support the city’s upcoming sporting event.

“It’s not just for the Commonwealth Games, but we want to get this done by the time of the games because two big events will be hosted at the University of Birmingham. Athletes and spectators from all around the world will be coming here.

“But, after the games, it will also give citizens, students and visitors to Birmingham something that will work really well and encourage more and more people to use the railway.

“That’s the big story, rail is a huge success for the West Midlands economy at the moment, driving forward our performance, usage up around 8% year on year and we want to keep investing on all the infrastructure that makes that possible.”

The new station building, which will be located on the opposite end of the platform to the existing station, is set to offer a bright and comfortable space and new facilities for passengers. Platforms will be connected by a wide footbridge, which will also provide direct access from the station across the canal to the university campus.

The new station building, located close to the existing station, will offer a bright and comfortable space and new facilities for passengers. Platforms will be connected by a wide footbridge which will also provide direct access from the station across the canal to the University campus.

An artist’s rendering of the newly-unveiled proposals for the redevelopment of University Station in Edgbaston, Birmingham

Alongside the new station, West Midlands Railway’s customer experience director, Richard Brooks, explained that there is also set to be significant investment into the service’s trains, with around £700m being spent, including the arrival of a new fleet.

Mr Brooks said: “It’s really important that we get ready for the future. The station is an integral part of that, but we’re also buying 36 new trains to go on the route, which will be with us in the next two years.

“By the time the Commonwealth Games comes we’ll have new trains, a new station and we’ll be able to give people that use this station the experience they deserve.”

Mr Brooks also expressed how having greater passenger capacity from the additional fleet of trains would also link in with the ongoing green strategy within the Midlands, allowing more people to come to the area by train, reducing car usage and helping minimise the local environmental impact.

Huawei pins its UK hopes on Boris Johnson’s fibre plans

The UK’s new Prime Minister has inherited the difficult Huawei decision and the Chinese vendor has wasted no time in applying some gentle pressure.

While campaigning for the top job, Boris Johnson pledged to deliver full-fibre broadband to every single person in the UK by 2025. Many, including this publication, scoffed at the blind optimism of it all, but Huawei seems to see it as an opportunity to demonstrate how important it remains to the UK economy.

Speaking during Huawei’s first half financial announcement, Huawei’s President of Global Government Affairs, Victor Zhang, had plenty to say about the UK. “Boris Johnson has mentioned many times the importance of delivering ultrafast fibre broadband to rural areas,” he said. “We strongly support this vision and are committed to helping the UK deliver it. Rural fibre broadband isn’t just important for connectivity to the home, it will also help power 5G in remote communities.

“The fibre availability in the UK has had a big gap compared to elsewhere. I fully support the UK government and the new Prime Minister to deploy full fibre in the UK. It’s critical for productivity and economic development and in helping remote communities flourish. We can’t deploy 5G in these areas without fibre.”

Ah yes, 5G. That’s the biggie for Huawei, with the US continuing to pressure the UK into an outright ban of the company from participating in any part of its 5G network. With Johnson and US President Trump apparently on good terms Huawei must be privately fearing the worst, but it has to hope Johnson remains open to all sides of the matter.

He at least doesn’t seem to feel rushed into making a final call one way or the other, as the decision to postpone it once more last week would seem to imply. Huawei is choosing to derive optimism from this. “We welcome the support of the UK government with the supply chain review,” said Zhang. “These new regulations are an important step to ensuring robust security and the best technology for all. Personally, I believe the UK will continue to make the right decisions in terms of using the best technology.”

As important as the Huawei decision is, Johnson can’t really afford to think about anything other than Brexit for the next three months as, if he screws that up, there’s a good chance he won’t even be in power anymore. If we finally do properly leave the EU that would probably be bad for Huawei as it would presumably make the US more influential in setting our foreign policy, but that remains a big if.

EA to use drones to detect illegal water abstractions

Drones will be used for the first time this summer to gather information about illegal abstraction in East Anglia’s fenland areas.

The Environment Agency manages abstraction to balance the needs of the environment with the rights of lawful water users during periods of dry weather.

The EA’s regulatory officers carry out high-visibility patrols every year throughout the irrigation season to ensure landowners and farmers are adhering to the conditions of their licences and do not cause harm to the environment.

Last year’s heatwave led to a number of licence holders breaching their conditions and this year some illegal abstractions have already been uncovered.

Andrew Chapman, environment planning specialist for the Environment Agency in East Anglia, said: “Following on from the hot and dry summer we experienced in 2018, our area has not received the winter rainfall we would normally expect and this is placing significant pressure on the water environment.

“We have contacted irrigators who have licences that permit abstraction from the Middle Level to inform them that restrictions are likely to be required during the irrigation season.

“We will be prioritising our water resources compliance work over the summer period in those catchments that are at risk from this prolonged dry period.

“This will be the first time we have ever used drones for this purpose. The majority of irrigators do operate within their licence conditions. However, last year a minority of farmers did not play by the rules and severely restricted other people’s ability to irrigate their crops.”

A third party will be employed to operate the drone, which connects to a web portal, so that an Environment Agency staff member can view the images from a computer and direct the device to fly over certain locations. If irrigators are found to be abstracting illegally, enforcement action will be taken. This can include written warnings, civil sanctions, referral to the Rural Payments Agency or prosecution.

Five new environment officers have been taken on this year to help manage the water resources issue. Their role includes identifying licence holders at risk of water restrictions and making them aware of the possible shortages.

They will also carry out inspections in the riskier catchments where more intense abstraction takes place. In the east of the region, the frequency of compliance checks and patrols is also increasing.

Michael Neale, Land and Water team leader in Essex, said: “We have an intelligence-led approach to all compliance checks. We will always respond to reports of illegal abstraction. We are going to up our response out of hours to reports wherever they come from. We will have more resources on hand to bolster our approach.”

The battle for Premier League subscribers is about to kick-off

Most might have already declared a time of death on linear TV, but for sports fans there is nothing better. Over the next couple of weeks prepare to see some aggressive ads and deals to secure subscriptions.

With the rise of content platforms like Netflix, short-form videos on YouTube and the decreasing price of mobile connectivity, linear TV has faced its challenges. It is still alive, but the digital economy is a different world and does not seem to be welcoming for traditional TV.

That said, one genre is still thriving; sports. Delving deeper, football is the one of the areas which will keep linear TV alive.

It isn’t really a topic which has been discussed over the last couple of months, but the Premier League is set to kick off in a matter of weeks. While there will be skirmishes to secure the services of the latest prima donna, in the telco world of TMT another battle is set to begin; the fight for subscriptions.

The first move has been made by Virgin Media, and it is an impressive one.

After years of watching consumers time with a sub-standard TV platform, Virgin Media finally seems to have sorted itself out. It has secured an acceptable level of content, revamped its user experience and now offers bundled packages which do look attractive. But the focus of this article will be football and why Virgin Media dining at the top table for content.

For £65 per month, Virgin Media customers will be able to secure the Bigger+Sports bundle which incorporates both Sky Sports and BT Sports into the platform as well as broadband. Another interesting element is Amazon Prime, which has been integrated into the service, though customers will have to pay a separate subscription.

Adding in the cost of Amazon Prime, the total bill for all Premier League, Champions League and Europa League football throughout the season will be £72.99 a month. This might sound expensive, but history has demonstrated fans are willing to pay a premium for access to live sports.

Another added benefit from Virgin Media is having everything in one place. There is no need to switch between services and navigate through the new platform, it is a genuine aggregator for football fans.

“Sports fans looking for their football fix next season need to look no further than Virgin Media,” said David Bouchier, Chief Digital Entertainment Officer at Virgin Media. “We’re, once again, bringing all of the football to Virgin TV in a single place with the cheapest UK packages all underpinned by our unrivalled ultrafast broadband.”

Looking at the new landscape for football viewing this year, BT has arguably fallen to the bottom of the pile. It has secured 52 matches across the season, though these are the less attractive 12.30 kick-off times on a Saturday and 15 mid-week games throughout the season. Sky Sports will host 128 matches, including all the Saturday night and Sunday afternoon games. Amazon has played somewhat of a blinder, securing the Boxing Day games.

Fragmentation of football has been an issue for years hence the strong position Virgin Media has put itself in as a genuine aggregator of football content for the up-coming season. Then of course you have to take into consideration the price.

Looking at the like-for-like deals available, it is a bit complicated. If you sign-up for 18 months, you can get Sky Sports for $18 a month, though this is on-top of the £22 a month which will need to be paid for the Entertainment package, and whatever tariff is selected for broadband services (you don’t have to do this but it makes it like for like). Once you are a customer, you can sign-up for BT Sport through the platform which costs £27.99 a month.

Suddenly watching the football is becoming quite expensive, and then you have to factor in the cost of Amazon Prime as well. You can do this the other way around with BT, costing £49.99 a month including broadband for an 18-month contract, but then you have to buy Sky Sports for £22.99 a month and then Amazon Prime.

This is of course a massive U-turn for Virgin Media. Your correspondent was a customer of Virgin Media in a by-gone year, and quite frankly, it wasn’t great. The internet service was OK, and the TV was thrown in for free as there was no justification for paying. This does now seem to have been fixed, though rumours are the service does suffer during peak periods.

The next couple of weeks you will start to see the advertising campaigns kick-in. With the Ashes starting very soon a big summer of sport can be expected. This will also be tied in with university studies heading into their new accommodation in August and September. There is going to be a scrap over who can secure the most subscriptions with sport as the headline feature, though Sky is not necessarily in pole position anymore.

Of course, this is only one element of the decision-making mix, but it is a critical one. You do have to take into account Sky and BT can offer other benefits for customers, including mobile connectivity, though access to top-flight football will certainly be a draw for the millions of fans throughout the country.

Virgin Media will most likely focus advertising on the aggregator platform, Sky will of course talk about football but also all the other sporting content it can bring to the living room. BT might persist with Kevin Bacon, leaning on its connectivity assets. The winner is far from clear, but it promises to be an interesting Summer.

Yorkshire Water appoints firms to £55m electrical high voltage framework

Yorkshire Water has announced details of the companies appointed to the frameworks for all its electrical high voltage works and maintenance services.

The arrangements are for a minimum of 4 years to February 2023, designed to support the remainder of AMP6 and AMP7 have a forecast value up to £55 million.

its high-voltage electrical design & build works and specialist studies services framework

The Scope includes professional services, consultancy, design, project management and delivery capability for the following Lots:

Lot 1: Design services for HV systems

Lot 2:  Design Fault and Protection Studies

Lot 3: In-house full Engineering remit for the delivery of HV and associated Works

Lot 4: Inspection and Maintenance of HV Equipment

The newly appointed parties are as follows:

HV Electrical Design & Build Works and Specialist Studies Services (Lots 1, 2 & 3):

  • Integrated Utility Services Limited (IUS)
  • Linbrooke Services Ltd
  • Smith Brothers (Contracting) Ltd
  • The Freedom Group of Companies Ltd

Inspection and Maintenance of HV Equipment (Lot 4):

  • Integrated Utility Services Limited (IUS)
  • Smith Brothers (Contracting) Ltd
  • The Freedom Group of Companies Ltd

All the companies were technically qualified and selected as the result of a full EU Procurement Process and the arrangements have been endorsed by Yorkshire Water’s Principal Electrical Engineer.

Martin Priestley, senior engineering project manager at Yorkshire Water, commented:

“We are confident that these appointments will contribute to the consistent and efficient provision of safe, quality, reliable assets that will in turn help us to ensure that we provide the level of service that our customers expect and value.”

Council is committed to road safety for all ages

Road safety education is a key service Nottinghamshire County Council provides in partnership with Via East Midlands, and we at the council passionately believe it makes a positive difference at all stages of life, writes Coun Gordon Wheeler.

Everyone in the county is a highway user, whether on foot, bicycle or in motor vehicles.

The council is pleased to be able to offer almost 30 cycle training events for riders of all ages across the county this summer.

Events range from teaching young children to learn to ride with balance bikes, progressing to cycling activities in a traffic-free environment before ultimately giving young people the cycle skills to navigate more challenging traffic situations.

Details on the full programme of events over the summer can be found on the council’s website.

More than 10,000 people have completed the Bikeability scheme this year, which forms part of the cycle training, and the council is now working with partners to roll out a ‘close pass’ campaign that encourages drivers to give cyclists more room and cyclists to adopt good road positions.

Casualty figures from the county’s roads, along with national trends, has identified secondary aged children as a key audience and this work has seen a significant reduction in the number of teenage road casualties in the county.

Sessions are as interactive as possible, starting from year seven right through to sixth form.

They look at the change in the modes of transport as people mature into adulthood and educate youngsters to consider attitudes and behaviour, such as the dangers of being distracted, how our choices affect road safety, overcrowding in cars and the consequences of young drivers being involved in accidents.

Figures also suggest there has been a significant increase in accidents involving drivers aged 70 and over, so it’s important to offer a programme designed to support them too.

For example, the Drive On scheme aims to keep people safely behind the wheel for as long as possible by helping them to understand the issues which can impact their driving.

The scheme is really taking off and has been delivered in partnership with groups such as U3As and WI groups, with many attendees taking up the opportunity to go on an accompanied drive with a qualified instructor.

Another important part of this scheme is to encourage people to have that ‘difficult conversation’ with older relatives and friends to raise any concerns they might have about their driving.

Keep an eye out for posters and postcards in your area and help spread the word about safer driving in later life and the support on offer.

Massive 29% rise in rail over last decade uncovered by survey

Rail has been described as ‘a runaway success story’ in an influential national transport survey which examines trends over the past decade.

Fewer commutes per person, reduced car use in major urban centres and rapidly falling bus patronage – these were some of the transport trends in the UK’s biggest cities and city regions, as identified in the Urban Transport Group’s latest data report.

The report – Number crunch 2019: Urban transport trends in changing times – drew on local city region data, as well as national statistics, and examined the last decade and the most recent data.

Regional rail, including most local services in the Metropolitan areas, has seen soaring patronage, hitting 389 million in 2017/18 – a huge increase of 29% since 2008/09.

The survey uncovered a decline in the traditional, daily commute as working patterns and practices have changed. On average, people made 14 fewer commutes a year in 2017 than they did in 2008.

Stephen Edwards, Chair of the Urban Transport Group and Executive Director at South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, said: “We are living in rapidly changing times, and our travel habits in cities are changing at pace too. From a runaway success for rail services to more blues for the bus, this report reveals the transport trends that are shaping the way we travel in urban areas.

“The report is not just about celebrating winners or commiserating losers – in these changing times, the case for coordinated and integrated transport planning at the city region level and for long term funding is stronger than ever.

“We hope the latest report – and our Data Hub upon which it is based – will arm policy makers with the numbers needed to ensure transport plays its role in creating greener, fairer, healthier and more prosperous city regions.”

Waymo learning from Darwin for autonomous driving

Google subsidiary Waymo has been working alongside its AI cousin DeepMind to develop a technique called ‘Population Based Training’, based on Darwin’s concepts of evolution.

Although we plan on dumbing down the explanation here, we do also hope to remain true to the work Google’s autonomous driving subsidiary Waymo and AI unit DeepMind are doing to advance self-driving algorithms. It’s an incredibly complicated field, but it does seem like the duo is making progress.

“Training an individual neural net has traditionally required weeks of fine-tuning and experimentation, as well as enormous amounts of computational power,” a blog post stated. “Now, Waymo, in a research collaboration with DeepMind, has taken inspiration from Darwin’s insights into evolution to make this training more effective and efficient.”

The easy part of autonomous driving is almost finished. Sensors are almost up-to scratch and prices will come down quickly when economies of scale kicks in, while the chip giants are making progress also. The trickiest part of the equation is the ‘intelligence’ aspect, the AI components which control all of the decisions.

The simplest way to explain training algorithms is through trial and error. The algorithm performs a task, then grades its performance depending on the outcome. Depending on the ‘grades’ the algorithm will adjust how it performs the task to create a more likely positive outcome.

The challenge which engineers and data scientists face is how much freedom the algorithms are given to adjust with each trial. Too little variance and the fine-tuning takes too long, too much and the results vary wildly. Most of the time, engineers will monitor the tests, manually culling the poorest performing results.

The new approach from Waymo and DeepMind is an interesting one. Population Based Training starts with multiple different tests, before the poorest performing ones are culled from the population. Out of the ‘survivors’, copies are made with slightly mutated hyperparameters. This process goes on and on until the algorithms become more reliable, resilient and safe.

It might sound like a simple solution, but not many companies like Waymo are fortunate to have such smarts as DeepMind living in the same corporate family. Its almost unfair, and we’ve quite surprised its taken so long for Waymo to cosy up to its smarter cousin.

Coventry to warn motorists of pollution hotspots with electronic signs

Coventry City Council will use Variable Message Signs (VMS) to warn motorists of air pollution hotspots in the city.

The council will deploy a network of EarthSense Zephyr air quality sensors in areas of Coventry where levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are known to be high, particularly along the A4600 route at Walsgrave Road – a major link in and out of the city.

When pollution levels are breached, the Zephyr sensors send alerts directly to the Urban Traffic Management Centre where they automatically trigger messaging on Variable Message Signs (VMS) for motorists and the general public around the city.

The city council says they are using messages informing motorists of the elevated pollution levels and suggestions to use alternative routes in a bid to drive behavioural change and ease the pressures at pollution hotspots.

Commenting on the project, John Seddon, head of transport & innovation at Coventry City Council said, ‘The city council is keen to install the right technology across Coventry’s road network to allow us to dynamically manage traffic and respond to issues such as poor air quality or traffic incidents as soon as they happen.

‘The EarthSense Zephyr sensors will support us in achieving this aim by allowing real-time monitoring of air quality conditions on a key corridor into the city, and we are excited to see results of this system following successful deployment of sensors earlier this year.’

The final results of the pilot will be reported in December 2019.

In May, Coventry City Council were directed by government to implement a Class D charging Clean Air Zone (CAZ) to tackle the city’s air pollution problems.

Ministers had rejected alternative measures put forward by the council, which included restricting traffic on certain roads, deeming them to be insufficient to tackle illegal NO2 levels.

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New railway station to be built in Ayr to replace historic stop

A new station is set to be built in Ayr town centre to replace the current railway stop, part of which had been housed in the historic Station Hotel – which was declared unsafe in August last year.

Transport Scotland called the erection of a new station “urgent”.

ScotRail staff have been working from portable cabins, while an exclusion zone had been established around the Victorian hotel and the available platform space therefore shortened – reducing the passenger capacity of trains at the station.

The future of Station Hotel is still uncertain while a structural report on the building is completed, while the nearby Burns House is set to be demolished in upcoming months and a square in the town set to be transformed.

A spokesperson for Transport Scotland said: “There is clearly an urgent need to build adequate station facilities at Ayr station, one of ScotRail’s busiest.

“Ideally, this should be linked to plans for the Station Hotel, Burns Statue Square and soon to be demolished Burns council office building. We stand ready to provide further support and guidance as this plan progresses.

“Returning full rail passenger services to Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway as quickly and safely as possible was the key initial priority.”

Next steps will include the council sharing the structural report with a specialist taskforce group, which was set up to deal with the crisis at the station building.

South Ayrshire Council leader Douglas Campbell said there was an “opportunity to have a modern railway facility in Ayr.”