Checks on overhead wires in North West show little cause for concern

When an overhead wire breaks, or snags on a train's pantograph, the result can be catastrophic.

Network Rail has completed tests of almost 800 miles of high-voltage overhead electric cables on the West Coast main line between Stoke-on-Trent and Carlisle and on key routes in Cheshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester.

Using a system called PANDAS (Pantograph Damage Assessment System), the tests showed that the overhead infrastructure is generally in great condition. Over two days, just two faults requiring immediate attention were found, along with eight minor issues. These early warnings mean the faults can now be dealt with, so they don’t cause major disruption at a later date.

The train’s pantograph with the PANDAS sensor highlighted.

PANDAS was developed by Northumberland-based technical engineering company Transmission Dynamics and is used around the world to detect faults in overhead electric lines used in mass public transport networks. A wireless system, it uses miniature accelerometers clamped on the pantograph head to detect changes in the condition of the overhead wires above.

PANDAS wireless accelerometers from Transmission Dynamics form the heart of the PANDAS system.

Network Rail worked in close collaboration with train operators and manufacturers to carry out the PANDAS tests. The tests were conducted using a West Midlands Trains Class 350 that has been fitted with the PANDAS sensors, driven by a GBRailfreight driver who had the necessary route knowledge.

A Class 350 train, fitted with the PANDAS equipment and seen here at Manchester Piccadilly station, was borrowed from West Midlands Trains for the tests.

Weaknesses in overhead wires can cause them to sag and get caught on electric trains as they pass below, leading to hundreds of metres of electric power lines being pulled down, forcing entire sections of railway to close while repairs are made.

Two examples of what happens when overhead wires catch on a pantograph.

Phil James, Network Rail.

Phil James, Network Rail’s North West route director, said: “We work tirelessly to maintain vital overhead line equipment which power trains across routes in the North West and it’s a testament to my hardworking teams these PANDAS inspections have revealed so few faults.

“Being able to spot hidden issues before they delay passengers and freight is crucial, and by adopting modern techniques like these we’ll be able to build a much more reliable railway for the future.”

Alex Crow, West Midlands Trains.

Alex Crow, West Midland’s Trains’ general manager for fleet and contracts, added: “It has been great to see the innovative equipment at our disposal on our unit on the West Coast main line.

“When Network Rail approached us to utilise it outside of our area, it made perfect sense.

“If we can assist in preventing issues with infrastructure that could ultimately have a knock-on effect on our patch, why wouldn’t we?”

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