SERVICES

Italian trains fail as ice beats pantographs

Genova - Not the fault of the heaters,the electrical resistors that keep rail points red-hot to prevent freezing; these have been put to good use in recent days. Rather, to explain the chaos in Rome, and the problems in Genoa and Liguria, to find an explanation for the paralysis caused once again by ice

Genova - Not the fault of the heaters, the electrical resistors that keep rail points red-hot to prevent freezing; these have been put to good use in recent days. Rather, to explain the chaos in Rome, and the problems in Genoa and Liguria, to find an explanation for the paralysis caused once again by ice, you need to look away from the ground: to the pantographs, those metal arms that connect trains to their power supplies, and, more specifically, the “slide plates” that make contact with the electrical cable. Once they were made of copper and metal, now they are all graphite. And in the case of recent conditions, this has made a big difference: because having copper slide plates meant having the same number of icebreakers in circulation and consequently, the same number of trains in ordinary service. Simply by moving along the tracks, they helped prevent the formation of ice that surrounded the cables and paralysed trains throughout the region. The underlying logic is always the same: the cost-benefit ratio makes the difference. A graphite slide plate ensures better conductivity, and most of all, doesn’t wear the overhead lines out as quickly. The old plates scraped the wires harder and so they tended to break with some regularity. And this was why in 2007, the decision was made to make the transition: “As happened throughout Europe”, FS pointed out. And the old parts have slowly disappeared from circulation. This leaves it to the ice scrapers, generally locomotives adapted from freight service, to remove the frozen layers of ice from the lines. With the support of special carriages and workers who remove the ice manually. And that isn’t the only weak point in the system. Another is the modern electronical systems, for quite similar reasons. In the vast majority of cases it works well, but on occasion it goes haywire. What happens is that the next-generation locomotives can interpret the freezing wires as a case of voltage fluctuation. Meaning that, even with layers of ice that are not that thick, the computers shut down the system - “in self-protection mode” - and the trains come to a standstill; in situations that should not have paralysed any kind of mechanical engine. There’s more: some trains, especially on the mountainous lines - the Giovi trains - have also had issues with grip. In some cases, there wasn’t enough sand spread over the rails to increase friction. Prior to the FS cutbacks, sandbags were everywhere. As were employees equipped with large funnels, ready to top trains up. Now, the trains are loaded up with sand at the depot. But if they run out of sand on their journey, resupplying at a semi-deserted secondary station can be their only option. We should add that Liguria has made progress in recent years. The other typical source of problems in case of ice was the railway’s points.

After the frozen paralysis of 2012, RFI decided to create a corridor of modern snow removers between Savona, Sestri Levante, Genoa and the main line through the mountains, the Genoa-Milan line via Arquata. In total 174 were installed, plus the conversion of 36 gas positions to electric, for a total cost of €3.2 million. But the other half of the problem is still there.

And whilst it is apparently impossible to equip workshops with ad hoc slide plates, to be assembled in case of need, RFI’s answer is in a mega-purchase of carriages specially manufactured by Tesmec with icebreaker functionality: €100 million for 100 vehicles: “The first ten were delivered in 2017”. We will have to wait until 2020 to receive the entire order.

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