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Machines for change The railway plant sector is buzzing with new ideas as Richard Thompson discovered when he visited Compactors.

Secret weapons code named 'Scorpion' and imminent 'Rocket' launches reflect exciting times in the railway plant world.

A visit to rail plant supplier Compactors reveals the scale of investment being made throughout the sector in new machines and revolutionary plant concepts designed to make companies more competitive.

Compactors is owned by leading railways player Amey and inherited much of its rail fleet when the parent company purchased the Great Western IMC. Both organisations work closely together on innovations.

Compactors managing director John Snowdon believes privatisation has allowed a thorough shake up of what was a hidebound sector. 'We have had to find more effective and economic methods of work. This has led directly to innovations in plant and management.'

Privatisation has forced former British Rail companies to understand their business in greater detail - establishing where the costs are and then bringing them down by becoming more efficient. And fewer bureaucratic and financial constraints have enabled the private sector companies to look at innovative solutions to old problems.

Snowdon believes the lack of incentive in the past stifled people. 'Our 2,200 employees represent a lot of experience and knowledge. We have encouraged them to come forward with ideas.' This has led to completely new plant developments.

Compactors inherited stock unsuitable for an environment where overrun penalties can cost thousands of pounds.

It immediately set off on a massive reorganisation and replacement programme to standardise and condense the fleet. This regeneration has seen Compactors spend £1M on new equipment in its first year which is being followed by a further £4.6M in 1998.

Plant producers also welcome the change. Manufacturer Plasser & Theurer reports a marked increase in UK spending on rail plant in 1997. According to managing director Norbert Jurasek: 'British Rail was a good customers for 30 years but its spending was limited by the Treasury. Our new customers are free from government restrictions. They are prepared to invest in an entrepreneurial environment.'

Just how entrepreneurial they are prepared to be can be seen from a look at Compactor's new projects.

'There is a definite trend away from the old locomotive-mounted engineering plant and towards utility road/rail vehicles,' says operations manager Adrian Knight. Removing the restriction of performing just one task or travelling by rail, allows higher utilisation and increased cost effectiveness.

Amey Railways' business development manager Chris York explains how new machines are developed. 'We analyse all the expensive tasks to see if they can be done more cheaply. This means reducing machines down to their basic function. Then we add on extra services. For example we might add tamping heads, ballast brushes and ballast scrapers to a basic road/rail excavator.'

The desire to exploit the potential of modern road/rail systems has led to the development of a new vehicle for overhead line maintenance. The rapid response vehicle-nicknamed 'The Rocket' - was developed with Scottish plant manufacturer Outreach for work on Heathrow Express.

The 23t, three axle vehicle runs on Newag Jumbo 2000 rail bogies and is able to run at 100km/h, though restricted to 56km/h in the UK. It is due to enter service this month.

Launched in autumn 1997, Amey's Sandite Land Rover has been developed to tackle the problem of leaves on the line. Sandite- a mix of lead and sand - is applied to the scrubbed track to provide traction. This has been done conventionally from heavy rail converted 'bubble car' sandite units which are expensive and lie idle for most of the year.

Amey set up a think tank which came up with the idea of attaching the equipment - a pump set, rail scrubbers, tanks and sandite applicators - to a rail mounting Land Rover. From design to launch the project took six weeks.

Other projects on the books include the highly secret 'Scorpion' multipurpose vehicle which is currently undergoing trials in Germany and more efficient ballast compactors.

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