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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Rail on-track plant life grows productivity

writer Nigel Wordsworth

Britain’s railways are under pressure to reduce costs and increase efficiency. There is nothing new in that. But while the recent report by Sir Roy McNulty’s Rail value for money study looked at the overall operation of the railway and its many interfaces, it didn’t go into detail about how the infrastructure should be maintained while still saving money. That will, of course, be left to Network Rail, working in partnership with its main contractors. The report does though suggest that around £250 million a year can be saved by better asset and supply chain management.

The railway infrastructure industry hasn’t just been sitting back and waiting for something to happen. Network Rail and the contractors have been looking to and planning for the future. To get a feel for those plans, the rail engineer recently spoke with Kevin Murgatroyd, Head of Plant, and Geoff Brown, Engineering Development Manager, at Balfour Beatty Rail.

Continental practice

“The McNulty report compares the UK rail network with those on the continent”, commented Kevin Murgatroyd. “And while there are lessons to be learned, at the moment the way we maintain the railway here is quite different from the way they do things in other countries. That’s not just down to custom and practice; there are constraints here that they don’t have internationally.”

“The main problem is the lack of diversionary routes” continued Geoff Brown. “Also, continental railways have a lot more crossovers so they can run single-line while work is being carried out on the other one. They also seem to have more room: the six-foot is often a lot wider than that so again a route can be kept open by doubling-up on one track while the other is being worked on.”

“The seven-day railway is a great concept”, Kevin continued, “but the restricted working hours do cause us problems which means we are continuously looking at ways we can do more work in less time.”

Better machinery

One solution is more productive machinery. This isn’t all owned by the contractors – the strategic high output trains are part of Network Rail’s inventory. Amey-Colas currently has the contract to run high output track renewal systems while Balfour Beatty operates stoneblowers in the south of England and rail grinders nationally. Network Rail’s next big purchase will be for the high output OLE trains to be used on the Great Western electrification.

That isn’t to say that the contractors don’t buy their own plant. Balfour Beatty recently invested in six new tampers from Matisa, including two model B66UEs – a high speed continuous-operation machine developed specifically for the UK and reported on in Issue 69 of the rail engineer.

“There are some clever new machines out there”, Geoff Brown told us. “They can’t all be brought straight over to the UK without modification as our track conditions are different, but some of them can. We need to work in close partnership with our customers and have open and honest contractual relationships that will enable us to buy those machines.”

New designs

Balfour Beatty also designs its own machines. When the rail engineer visited the Settle-Carlisle line to see the company’s New Track Construction (NTC) machine in action – a piece of equipment that was designed and built by Harsco in the USA – it was obvious that the amount of work done in a single shift was not limited by the track layer itself, rather by the more conventional machinery that was lifting the old track and preparing the trackbed for the new sleepers. The NTC was quite capable of laying the quarter-mile of new track in a couple of hours; it was all the preliminary work that took the time.

Responding to that challenge, Geoff Brown looked at the way work was carried out and discovered that four or five road-rail excavators were being used to remove the old ballast and level the trackbed. “Excavators aren’t really designed for the work we are doing” he explained. “They are designed to dig holes, not excavate railway ballast. We looked at other industries and found a machine used in quarrying to remove aggregate from sand-and-gravel beds. While it looks similar to an excavator, the design of bucket is different and the boom cycles much more quickly.”

So Balfour Beatty bought a New Holland Kobelco E200 360° excavator, removed the arm that it came with and had a new one – modelled on the quarrying design – built for it. The result is a machine that Balfour Beatty calls a Front Shovel Excavator (FSE) which can remove over 450 tonnes of ballast an hour and it leaves a much flatter trackbed behind it.

New applications

Existing machines can be used in new ways as well. Balfour Beatty owns two Kirow heavy-lift rail cranes – one of 100-tonne capacity and the other of 125 tonnes. These have traditionally been used in track laying and S&C work. However, on several recent occasions, they have also been used for bridge installations (see Issue 79 of the rail engineer), platform extensions and a multitude of other work. While, in the past, using a Kirow had been thought of as too expensive for these tasks compared with a road crane, in fact it can be more economical when all the preparatory work is taken into account. Having the crane on the track adjacent to the worksite also cuts down disturbance to the local community, with no need for road closures. With three other similar cranes in the UK with other companies, there is the possibility of more of this work being carried out in the future.

With restricted access time, more work can be carried out in a shift if the process of getting on track is speeded up. Other countries protect working machines using signalling. As Kevin Murgatroyd explained, “In Switzerland the last train of the night goes past, the signal goes red and we are on track within minutes. You can’t do that here. Balfour Beatty now carries out track maintenance in many countries of Europe so we can see the best, and the worst, operating practices. Adopting some of those could improve the way we work here in the UK.”

However, changing working practices needs careful thought and consideration. As Geoff Brown commented, “We need evolution not revolution”.

Focus on delivery

One of the first recommendations in the McNulty report to be carried through is the setting up of a Rail Delivery Group. This comprises representatives of the train operators and Network Rail with the aim of leading to better efficiency and lower costs through collaborative working. the rail engineer suggested to Kevin Murgatroyd that a similar Infrastructure Delivery Group, made up of Network Rail and its major contractors, could discuss the points he raised such as longer contract times, easier track access and innovative use of heavy plant, and could benefit the whole rail infrastructure industry. He thought it was a good idea and commented, “We could all work together to streamline the process and make it worthwhile for us all to invest in more effective machinery, then we can all be more productive and help Network Rail deliver the efficiency improvements and cost savings it is looking for.”

So it all comes down to the industry getting round a table, talking and then acting. When it happens, we’ll let you know.

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