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Eye to the main chance

The £2.2bn West Coast Main Line bonanza has sent the biggest names in construction racing to invest in state of the art railway plant. Richard Thompson investigates.

Contractors are spending millions developing high output mechanised rail plant that will give them the edge when tendering for lucrative West Coast Main Line work.

Railtrack's contract conditions demand that maintenance and renewal work be carried out without disrupting rail services. Work has to be completed in short possessions to avoid huge financial penalties. But much of Britain's present fleet of railway machinery is ageing and unreliable.

'There has been long term under-investment in the rail industry,' explains Railtrack's WCML project director Tony Cruddas. 'What we want to see is reliable everyday plant so that if there is possession overrun then it is not the fault of plant.'

Railtrack believes that contractors must look at new ways of doing things and that a lot can be learned from Europe where high output equipment is common.

'We have looked at what high output, mechanised plant can do in terms of delivery. We employed two companies - GTRM and Adtrans - to look at best practice in Europe and they have produced a report on what can be achieved. Frankly we are a long way behind the rest of Europe.'

Attracted by the huge potential of the railway sector, contractors have risen to the Railtrack challenge. 'The tight programme on the West Coast Main Line is certainly making people think,' says Balfour Beatty Rail Projects business development director Peter Kehoe. 'We have been investigating rail plant for over two years, looking for innovative ways of getting the best out of the four and a half hours working time that is available during a typical six hour night time possession.'

Track differences make it impossible to simply buy state of the art plant from overseas. Plant has been developed such as light motive power units with high output wiring plant mounted behind. New road/rail access platforms have split levels so that people can work on different levels of cable at the same time. 'These machines are safer, more flexible and more user friendly than anything at the moment,' he adds.

The company is also looking to maximise the use of road/rail plant. 'We have done a lot of study of access points on the route. Because road/rail plant is limited to 45km/h on the tracks we want maximum use of local access. This means building temporary level crossings that are only operational in possession time.'

Planning is one of the keys, says Kehoe, particularly with the design of equipment to allow as much pre-assembly as possible. 'This means the vehicles can be kitted out during the day and allows us to get them to a pre-determined access point.'

Other contractors report a similar tale. 'We see this as a steady sector for the next decade which will see an ongoing level of investment from serious players,' says Amec Rail managing director Ian Hume. The company scoured the globe for good systems and is adding innovations. 'Our track and plant design group has lots of new ideas on the drawing board,' he adds.

Amec has developed a number of heavy duty high utilisation track maintenance machines. 'We have been involved in the development of a new modular multi- purpose vehicle,' says Hume. The Multi Purpose Vehicle, which Amec claims is set to revolutionise the way track is maintained, is a rail mounted machine capable of taking a number of specialised demountable modules that can carry out various functions throughout the year (NCE Railtrack supplement November 1997). 'We have designed and commissioned 25 of these vehicles,' explains Hume. The MPV is capable of weed spraying and fire fighting in summer; de-icing in winter; and water jetting and applying sandite for leaf clearing in autumn.

Another company looking at new plant is GTRM. 'We are working on specifying bespoke equipment for rewiring work,' explains GTRM Civils development engineer Adrian Bocking. 'We are looking at high output plant that can rewire 1.6km in a six hour shift. We have to get high output plant that is able to meet the sheer volume of work. It also needs to be reliable so we can get in and out in time.'

The company has also been looking overseas. A team of senior managers has recently returned from a study tour of Japan. 'The most striking feature was the difference in culture compared to the UK rail industry,' explains engineering director Bob Winfield. 'Everything is continually inspected and monitored with the slightest fault being rectified quickly.'

'We have also carried out such missions to Europe and South Africa,' says Bocking. 'We have used the ideas we have found as a way of bench- marking what was possible.'

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