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Italy takes a lead role in Europe’s high speed railway revolution

Italy’s plan to build a 300km/h network is well under way and Balfour Beatty Rail is playing a major part.

Like the United Kingdom, Italy is desperate for a high speed rail network that can link its regional centres and provide a realistic alternative to its creaking highway system.

Unlike the United Kingdom, Italy is well into its programme of work that will eventually see most of its major cities connected in a east–west, north–south, high speed cross.

Part of the European Master Plan proposed by the European Union in the mid-1980’s which aims to see a network of new high speed rail lines with an operating speed of up to 300 km/h, heavier axle weights and larger trains, the Italian High Speed Plan is broken down into four sections.

Turin – Milan, Milan – Bologna, Bologna – Florence, Rome – Naples.

Between Turin and Milan in the north west of the country some 125 Km of line is being built, the first segment from Turin to Novara has been in operation since February 2006 and the Novara to Milan section is currently under construction and due to be operational in April 2009.

Almost 200 Km separates Milan and Bologna and the high speed line connecting the two is due to be completed by September 2008.

A further 80 Km between Bologna and Florence is under construction and due to be competed by June 2009 while the 200 Km Rome to Naples section has been in operation since December 2005.

Other sections linking Milan to Verona and Verona to Padova are currently under design.

The common feature that links four of these sections is Balfour Beatty Rail. Part of the Saturno Consortium which features partners Alstom, Ansaldo Sts and Sirti; Balfour Beatty Rail will supply the high voltage transmission line, overhead contact line, substations, low voltage power supply and remote control systems along the length of the project.

Experts in electrification

Fortunately, explains Balfour Beatty Rail head of project management Antony Di Rosa, the company has quite a history in line electrification.

“I would say it but I think we are the leaders in the railway electrification business. If you look back to the last century we have electrified more than 30,000 Km of railway line,” he says.

But this High Speed project, particularly the Milan – Bologna section, is a little more difficult than most.
In order to boost track efficiency and reduce impact on the surrounding farmland most of the new line is being built alongside the main A1 motorway which runs down the spine of the country. The route is also constrained by the topographical features including the natural barriers of the Apennine mountains and the River Po, the longest in Italy.

The line will by-pass most of the population centres along the route but will link into the existing network through service points dotted along the line.

“Historically the Italian rail network has been constrained by geographical barriers and the development of the railway and road system has seen almost every major population centre serviced by the rail network. Now the Italian government wants to boost the amount of freight taken by rail by increasing both speed and capacity, that can only happen by building new, direct lines,” explains Mr Di Rosa.

To accomplish this the project team is busy installing, testing and commissioning the 132/150kV high voltage transmission line as well as the 2x25kV alternating current double track overhead contact line for the high speed system and 3kV direct current double track overhead contact or catenary system for the links into the existing network.

To link all these different voltages together a series of sub-stations and transformer stations are being built alongside the main line.

Much of the Milan – Bologna route runs through prime Lombardy agricultural land and the project team had to limit the impact in terms of land take but BBR, thorough it design office in Milan, was also troubled with the location of its power masts.

The impact of the electromagnetic field emitted by the power lines has to be investigated and the location of the masts tailored by the in-house design team to ensure the minimum of impact on the population.

Where the power lines cross the River Po two huge 82m high masts carry power lines over a 700m span across the river and its floodplain and other crossings see the lines cross the A1 and over villages.

Over the Autostrada

These crossings have not only proven taxing in regulating the safety of the public but also their impact on the road network while crossing work is carried out.

“We are allowed 2 hour long possessions of the motorway to carry out the work,” says Paulo Staffanini, head of the High Speed Rail project at Balfour Beatty, “It is very important that we minimise the full closure time. The challenge is getting the power to the sub-station and getting the sequencing when connecting that power right.”

The technical difficulties when linking between the two power systems means that the BBR design team has had to work closely with the client in order to work out the sequencing of installation works.

“The challenge for us is optimising our plant and labour and moving them around to tie in with other contractors,” says Mr Di Rosa, “Managing the interface with the main contractor is not easy.”

Much of the specialist overhead catenary line installation will be carried out by BBR’s own staff. It has around 50 installers in-house although at the project’s peak it will use some sub-contractors to help meet demand.

Design of the overhead line support systems has also been carried out by its own team, approximately 2,000 tonnes of steel will support the overhead catenary line along the Milan – Bologna stretch some by its uniquely designed A-frame support systems, the rest with its standard lightweight lattice support pole that has become a standard for use on the Italian rail network. On top of this some 500 tonnes of copper conductor cable is also being fitted – a issue that has created its own problems.

The recent global hike in copper prices has seen a spate of incidents where copper has been stolen from projects and with 500 tonnes of the material running alongside the motorway – the perfect getaway route for potential pilferers – the BBR team has been forced to up the ante in terms of security and also investigate the use of alternative materials.

“Normally security teams would travel by road along the length of the site but here we have allocated locomotives to transport them,” say Mr Di Rosa.

BBR engineers give details of the catenary supports to the main contractor on the section, where they are to be placed and setting out details. It is the main contractor’s job to locate foundations for the support alongside the ballasted track and once in place a detailed survey will pinpoint the offset between the centre of the track and the support column, enabling the installation crew to accurately set the length of the line support arms.

The contact line itself has been designed by Balfour Beatty Rail and is one which will be used across the entire network, a network which could see motorcar mad Italy become the pride of the European rail industry.

Conducting alternatives

By targeting copper electrical conducting cable thanks to its high scrap value, potential thieves may have pushed Balfour Beatty Rail into its next innovation for the rail industry.

The company already has a proud record of innovative design with its lightweight latticed column sections becoming a standard for catenary support systems across the Italian rail network but it is now actively looking for alternative materials to copper for its conductors.

“We have to make the wire less attractive to thieves,” says Antony Di Rosa, “We are looking into alternatives to copper because it is expensive but fortunately we are protected against price fluctuations on this contract.”

A safer signalling system

Signalling is the key to the final efficiency of the rail project. The Italian governments dream will see the high speed links being able to manage as many as 8 trains per hour travelling at speeds of up to 300 Km/hour. At that speed and at that density the signalling system has to be robust and safe enough to ensure the traffic can be diverted should any accident occur.

The Milan – Bologna line will utilise a European Rail Traffic Management System Level 2 for the first time in Europe which will help increase the network’s capacity and ensure safety.

“It is a challenge that the Italian State Railways have taken on in its objective to try and boost
the use of the rail network and help show it off to the rest of Europe,” says Mr Di Rosa.