Monday, 28 January 2013

In my backyard

Clive Summerfield @ Monday, January 28, 2013
So the preferred routes for the extensions to HS2 north from Birmingham have been published. Looking in detail at the route from Sheffield to Leeds it would appear that the line is going to cross the valley behind my house on a 150m long viaduct before diving down a 1-in-50 gradient into a tunnel.

Now there's going to be a massive amount of NIMBYism over these routes, but my own personal attitude is bring it on. I'm looking forward to seeing high speed trains hurl themselves  across the valley before diving underground. The only problem is that I'll probably be a geriatric old crumbly by the time the line is built.

One thing is for sure, there're countless people lining up to slag off the whole project; it'll take too long; it'll go over budget; it'll only benefit a wealthy few, yadda, yadda, yadda... And certainly there's an argument that the billions could be spent on new schools, hospitals, roads, etc. But sometimes you need to take the long view. The current rail network is struggling with express services between cities fighting for paths with local trains and freight. Moving high speed services on to dedicated lines could free up capacity for more freight to be transported by rail, or for more frequent local services.

And all this talk of the line never being used tends to overlook the fact that big transport infrastructure projects quite often end up fulfilling an equally valid yet different role. An example is the Great Western Railway. Built to maintain Bristol's status as Britain's second port and maintain its share of trade with America, its main source of revenue was passenger traffic with freight peaking in the 1920's.

 A closing thought; Brunel's line is still in use today more than 170 years later. If HS2 is built well, the country could be reaping the benefits well into the next century.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A dream and a fear

Clive Summerfield @ Saturday, January 26, 2013
Perhaps life is just that... a dream and a fear. - Joseph Conrad


For Boeing the 787 Dreamliner would appear to be Conrad's quote made real. But perhaps, just perhaps, Boeing are architects of their own downfall, their hubris and arrogance finally coming back to bite them.

Dreamliner 787 Electronics Bay Fire













Now certainly the 787 would appear to be a masterpiece of technological advancement, but with the whole fleet grounded and investigators still unclear as to why the batteries keep catching fire, perhaps there are more fundamental reasons that mere tech? For example, if we look back to 2009 it would appear that the FAA have given Boeing significant authority to self-certify their own aircraft as airworthy.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday extended the authority of Boeing Commercial Airplanes to self-certify its aircraft and aircraft technologies. Under the agency's new safety oversight model, Boeing manufacturing and engineering employees will perform delegated tasks for the FAA, including signing certificates approving new designs. - FAA extends Boeing's authority to self-certify aircraft

Now no one would imagine that Boeing would deliberately cut corners, but with MBAs running technical departments, there is more than just a weather eye on the bottom line, and financial pressures can lead to oversight. So why would the FAA grant such powers to Boeing? I doubt it is down to any form of back-handers passing between the two bodies. More likely we're just looking at the FAA once again siding with the industry over the public (look at the origins and background to the NTSB for more evidence). Back to the batteries; li-ion rechargeable batteries have form in the area of spontaneous combustion. There was the case of the flaming iPods or Dell's burning batteries. Heck, even Boeing has had problems with the damn things during testing.

In 2006, a devastating lab fire in Arizona showed just how volatile Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner lithium-ion battery can be if its energy is not adequately contained. A single battery connected to prototype equipment exploded, and despite a massive fire-department response the whole building burned down. - 787 battery blew up in ’06 lab test, burned down building


 Now a fundamental problem with Li-ion batteries is that they can liberate oxygen from their own combustion products, so simple foam or inert gas extinguishing systems aren't going to cut it. Instead you're looking at heavy smothering agents (sand would work well, but not at 20,000 feet!!). There are safer battery alternatives such as NiMH or LiFePO4, but they weigh more and the Dreamliner's big selling point is fuel efficiency which means cutting as much weight from the design as possible. In the meantime the NTSB, Boeing, GS Yuasa and other involved parties will keep looking, and the Dreamliners will gather dust in hangers.

Chairman Hersman also expressed concerns about the adequacy of the systems to prevent such a fire from occurring. "The investigation will include an evaluation of how a fault that resulted in a battery fire could have defeated the safeguards in place to guard against that," said Hersman. "As we learn more in this investigation, we will make recommendations for needed improvements to prevent a recurrence." - NTSB Chairman says 'We have not ruled anything out' in investigation of Boeing 787 battery fire in Boston.