There has been a gap in the UK market for many years for a large rail mounted crane. Until now, the largest was capable of lifting only 12t. And although there are plenty of suppliers of road cranes, these are limited to propped duties, able only to lift and drop from a single position on firm ground. And a lot of track work is simply inaccessible to road cranes.
This month, however, Grant Rail has introduced the first German made KRC 810 to the UK, a massive new rail mounted crane with the ability to carry nearly 30t at a 20m radius. And with Balfour Beatty about to import another megacrane, lifting capacity available to UK rail contractors has been significantly increased.
The new cranes have been manufactured by Kirow in Leipzig at a cost of £1.4M each.
Earlier this month, while Grant Rail's version was undertaking its first lifts on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at Fawkham, Balfour Beatty's crane was preparing to travel across Europe to Balfour Beatty's depot at Ashford, where it was due to arrive yesterday.
At Fawkham meanwhile, despite the cold and rain, the new crane was making room for the double junction with switch diamond which will join the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Waterloo connection to the Chatham main line. During the 52-hour possession the crane removed the old plain line track panels and placed them in a prepared storage area while the new ballast was prepared.
On the following evening the crane began to lift the new panels into position for the track layout, using a specially designed H beam.
The main crossing panel, 9m wide, 15m long and weighing 33.8t, was dropped into position the next morning. This was followed by four other panels, including the 30m long switch panels, which required nearly 30t counter weight.
Balfour Beatty's crane will not see any action until June, when it will start working on a permanent way contract in Wimbledon.
As Malcolm Pearce, Balfour Beatty's engineering project manager explains, the crane is not strictly necessary for that particular contract, but it is an ideal opportunity to check that the specially trained staff and crane systems are working correctly.
Both cranes will be available for hire to other contractors. Balfour Beatty, Pearce explains, has a number of suitable jobs for the crane, but he believes work will 'follow the crane'.
The new cranes offer a significant advance in capability and will be a major boost for contractors. Previously, rail cranes have struggled on canted track, where corners run the inside rail lower than the outside one. The new cranes have an automatic selflevelling device which allows them to remain fully operational even on the most extreme, 155mm, cant.
Another feature is that the tail weight can remain in line with the rail, while the jib can move freely. It is also possible to limit the jib to work only away from the adjacent line.
Although this feature means the crane can work with an adjacent line open, many checks still have to be passed before this can happen, and every lift has to be assessed for safety.
The £1.4M cost of each crane includes two runner wagons that carry equipment such as the lifting beams and the 27t counter weight. These were vital to ensure that route availability class seven, which allows the crane to travel almost anywhere on the network, was obtained, .
Axle loading is a major requirement to obtain class seven . The cranes weigh in at 106t and run on two four-axle bogeys. These are equally balanced to give 13.5t per axle. But to keep this weight below Railtrack's class seven requirements, the counter weight detaches and travels on an attached runner wagon.
Kirow had to undertake a major redesign to ensure the cranes met all requirements. But by getting cranes of this size through Railtrack's approvals process the manufacturer achieved a significant first.
Balfour Beatty and Grant Rail worked together to get the vehicles passed by Railtrack. As Pearce explains, it seemed impractical for both companies to submit documentation for the same vehicles. He feels Railtrack also welcomed this course of action, as it only had to process a single application.
The two operators are working together in other ways as well. Although they will be competitors most of the time, for some jobs, such as major bridge lifts or for a major contract like the West Coast Main Line, there is an agreement that both cranes will be available to operate together. This is possible because both crane crews will have undergone identical training, so a job can controlled by a Balfour Beatty or a Grant Rail operative.
The cranes are operated by dedicated teams, who have been through an intensive training programme.
Even the slingers are dedicated staff; balancing the awkward shapes of the materials being lifted requires specialist training.
By this time next month, both cranes should be fully operational. It is hoped that they will deliver significant time savings and reduce disruption.