BBC News

Public transport learns from F1's speed and reliability

By Richard Westcott
BBC transport correspondent

media captionTechnology developed in Formula One is being used on everyday buses and trains

On the face of it, you wouldn't think that fixing an F1 car had much in common with fixing a 550 tonne pendolino train (you know, the Virgin trains that tilt).

But train and bus companies have started working with the Williams Formula One team to help improve their service.

The companies are buying advice and equipment to make their vehicles more reliable, something every passenger in the land will be grateful for.

Take pit stops for example. By watching a F1 team at work, train maker Alstom says it has been able to turn a two day repair job into a four hour repair job.

It is all down to making sure you have the right part in the right place with the right engineer at the right time. That is what F1 pit teams have honed to perfection, something I experienced first hand at the Williams factory in Oxfordshire.

image captionA well-drilled pit-stop team can change tyres and re-fill engines in seconds

I went there to see all the kit they are selling to transport firms, and to have a go at a pit stop, just for journalistic reasons, of course.

Not stupid

It is a touch on the nerve-wrecking side. Everything in the factory is clinically clean. You sit in the car while the whole team waits, each poised to do their job, glowering, and no-one speaking.

Then they push you in. The engine's switched off (they are not stupid) and you have to stop in exactly the right spot, or everyone laughs.

Funnily enough, F1 brakes are a little more punchy than my '07 estate car, but I got there in the end. (See the attached video. Obviously, we have edited out the bits where I messed up).

The train pit stop at the Alstom workshop in Wolverhampton takes four hours rather than four seconds, but you can see how they've learned from F1.

Alstom are also using F1 style telemetry.

Formula One mechanics rely on telemetry to see what's going wrong with the car. It is basically using computers to analyse every tiny detail and feed it back to the engineers in the pit lane.

Alstom's train computers do the same thing. They warn engineers about problems, everything from brake issues to a toilet not flushing - which sounds trivial but it is very annoying for passengers.

media captionFormula One derived telemetry systems can cut train repair times

It all means that the mechanics know what to expect, before the train comes in, so they can get everything ready to go.

The computers even warn them if something is about to go wrong, so they can fix it before it breaks.

Selling their expertise

Then there's the braking systems. F1 cars collect the energy from braking and use it to power the car. Now Williams have begun marketing similar systems that do the same thing for trains, trams and buses.

Kirsty Andrew, at Williams, told me they made nearly £40m last year by selling their expertise and kit to different companies. It is all money that can be ploughed back into making quicker cars.

She also showed me a big, blue metal box that you might well start seeing on railway stations in the near future.

It is part of a system that can collect the energy from trains as they brake for the platform, then use that energy to power the trains back out of the station again.

Poor punctuality is one of the biggest issues on the railways. Most of the delays are down to problems with the track and signals, people trespassing and so on.

By copying Formula One, at least the trains themselves are becoming more reliable.