If savings are to be made in the cost of rail track renewals and maintenance, more efficient plant could be one of the solutions. Margo Cole finds out what one of the leading suppliers is offering.
In its most recent financial settlement the UK rail industry was told it must make efficiency savings across all its operations in the next five year period of regulated spending.
With £9.2bn due to be spent on track repairs and maintenance, this is a key area for making savings during the five years know as Control Period 4 (CP4). It is an area in which Network Rail is keen to see what its suppliers can bring to the table.
“CP4 gives a good indication of what Network Rail needs to do in the future, but we also talk to the network managers to see what that actually means to them, and to find out if it is something they want the supply chain to invest in,” says Balfour Beatty head of plant Kevin Murgatroyd.
“As a business, Network Rail doesn’t operate or maintain its own plant − that’s outsourced,” he continues. “If you outsource to the supply chain you expect them to come to you with ideas.”
Balfour Beatty Rail has a range of rail sector contracts in the UK, both to carry out the work itself and to supply specialist equipment to other contractors. These include a track renewal framework to deliver plain line rail plus switches and crossings in Network Rail’s South East territory (the Wessex, Sussex, Kent and Anglia regions).
It also has a contract for grinding plain line rail across the whole of the UK. This includes operating and maintaining a fleet of six rail grinders.
The firm last year committed itself to investing around £20M in six new tamping machines from Swiss manufacturer Matisa. Two are the B41UE model, which is designed mainly for tamping points and crossings, and which is also capable of good output on plain line.
The first of these arrived in the UK last summer. The remaining four Matisa machines are the B66UC − a high performance, continuous action tamping machine. It is also capable of very high output on plain line track. “These machines are new in the UK, but they have done very well in Europe,” explains Murgatroyd.
According to Balfour Beatty Rail Services engineering development manager Geoff Brown, the B66UC can lift, tamp, align and relay over 800m of plain line track per hour. The first of the four machines will arrive from Switzerland in June and, under Balfour Beatty’s contract, Network Rail can deploy it anywhere on the network.
Both of the models Balfour Beatty has bought can be used on lines powered by third rail supply, as well overhead supply, and the B66UC is the first “continuous action” machine to be used on third rail in the UK.
“Traditionally, when you tamp track, you have to go back over the track you’ve just laid [to check that the required tamping outputs have been achieved],” explains Murgatroyd. However, the new machines can take track output measurements as they go along, removing the need for additional measurement runs, and making the whole process far quicker.
Keeping on track
Tamping is a major part of Network Rail’s commitment to keep track on line and level. Modern tamping machines lift the track and re-pack the ballast beneath and realign the rails to make them parallel and level.
“Best European practice is to do it every three or four years, but the track in the UK is much older, so there’s a need to tamp more often,” explains Brown.
“As a result, tamping intervention is a big part of Network Rail’s maintenance budget.”
Because of this, anything that can be done to increase speed and efficiency of operation − such as the continuous action of the B66UC − is eagerly welcomed by client and contractor alike.
“Best European practice is to do it every three or four years, but the track in the UK is much older, so there’s a need to tamp more often”
Another way to speed up the process would be if maintenance machines could operate without the need for full possession of the railway, as is the case in Europe. Most track renewal and maintenance work in the UK is done under night-time possessions, when a length of the track is closed completely.
Possessions take time to set up and, says Brown, are not the most efficient way of working. Instead he would like to see machines operating on sections of rail that are controlled by signals − a bit like the rolling roadblocks that are used to manage traffic on motorways.
“You get big savings in economy, manpower on site and in the time it takes to arrange the possession. It is also much safer, because there is no-one walking around on site,” Brown says.
No modification would be needed to the machines themselves to enable them to work under signal control rather than possession, so Balfour Beatty could change its working methods immediately if Network Rail gives it the go-ahead.
In addition to buying new equipment - like the tamping machines − the firm also tries to make the most of its existing fleet with modifications to make it more efficient or flexible. This is what the contractor is doing with its massive new track construction (NTC) machines. These were brought in the country five years ago with the intention of being used for long stretches of track replacement, where their high output would offer the most benefit.
Now, however, the same machines are being used with the same high output, but on far shorter jobs, enabling them to be done during overnight mid-week possessions. A combination of computerised controls and simple changes to the layout means it is now much quicker to set up the NTC, so short possessions are not a problem.
The firm is also finding new ways to use its massive rail-mounted Kirow crane to improve the efficiency of work on the mainline railway and on London Underground’s network.
“The Kirow is predominantly designed for lifting switches and crossings, but it is also ideal for plain line panels for platforms,” explains Murgatroyd.
“We are keen to invest in new products and new plant, but it has to be appropriate for the access regime available in the UK”
One of the areas of plant Network Rail specifically wanted its supply chain to look at was the road-rail hybrid machines that are used for many simple lifting and digging operations. Most tend to be converted from standard excavators, rather than being specifically designed for the rail sector, and in 2009 Network Rail asked manufacturers, contractors and suppliers for their ideas to improve the existing fleet.
“I think their main concern was the number of road-rail-related [safety] incidents, which were disproportionately high compared with other types of plant,” explains Murgatroyd. “That’s partly explained by the numbers: there are over 1,000 pieces of road-rail equipment on the network, compared with only about 100 rail-specific machines,” he adds.
Rather than coming up with a completely new range of rail-dedicated machines to carry out these everyday activities, the supply chain has instead focused on making the existing machines − and their operation − safer.
“Over the years the road-rail vehicle has become so versatile that it pretty much does everything,” explains Murgatroyd.
“The initial view was to completely redesign them and come up with a bespoke machine, but we moved away from that, because a lot of the problems were being caused by behavioural issues.”
So, instead of investing millions in new machines, Balfour Beatty Rail has focused on simple things. It has improved the communication between machine controller and operator and fitted mechanical devices to
ensure the machines cannot move under their own steam. Lifting plans are also kept up to date, so the machines are only used for operations for which they are designed.
“You have always got to be mindful of behavioural issues,” says Murgatroyd. He adds that one way to make worksites safer is to produce higher output machines, so there are fewer pieces of plant − and therefore fewer operatives − in one concentrated location.
As part of a global business, Balfour Beatty Rail’s UK operation is keen to share best practice with colleagues elsewhere in Europe. But the firm is aware that taking a successful bit of kit from another country and introducing it into the UK rail maintenance market is not always straightforward.
“We are keen to invest in new products and new plant,” says Murgatroyd, “but it has to be appropriate for the access regime available in the UK.”
● High capacity TRAMM
This rail-mounted vehicle includes a crane designed specifically to pick up 18m sections of scrap rail and load them into a wagon in the middle of the TRAMM without the need for outriggers. It can carry up to 42 scrap rails.
● Matisa B41UE
This specialised points and crossing tamping machine also has plain line performance of up to 600m per hour. It includes a measuring system that measures as it works, as well as a computer guidance system.
● Matisa B66UC
A high performance plain line tamping machine that also has good switch and crossing capability. It can tamp up to 800m of plain line track per hour, and has the same switch and crossing performance as specialist tampers. It includes the same measuring system and computer guidance system as the B41UE.
● Kirow cranes
These two rail-mounted heavy-lift cranes are compact, but have capacities of 810t and 1,200t respectively. They can be used for switch and crossing renewals, bridge replacements and power upgrades. Both machines are approved for use on the mainline network, and the smaller crane is also approved by London Underground.
● New track construction (NTC) machine
The possession-only NTC machine is used to relay new sleepers and rails onto a prepared track bed. It is self-powered and comes with a dedicated crew.
● Front shovel excavator (FSE)
A tracked machine that works alongside the rail and is specifically designed for high performance digging and base stone handling. It can dig between 350t and 400t an hour − more than double that of a typical backhoe excavator.