Rail Industry Focus

01.09.13

National Track Plant Exhibition

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2013

On July 24-25, thousands of track workers from across the industry – and from across the world – gathered at Long Marston in Warwickshire for Network Rail’s National Track Plant Exhibition. The event was the biggest it’s ever been, and featured live demonstrations of a whole host of plant and equipment. RTM’s Adam Hewitt was at the event, and spoke to the man in charge – Network Rail track director Steve Featherstone. 

The sheer amount of kit on display at the National Track Plant Exhibition was the equivalent of five years’ worth of site visits in just two days, according to Steve Featherstone. 

Network Rail’s programme director for track was full of praise for the supply chain for pulling together to put on such a good show at relatively short notice, with nearly 4,000 visitors and exhibitors in attendance to see around 175 rail vehicles of all sizes, plus countless pieces of equipment, displays and stalls, all under gorgeous sunshine. 

A vast variety of plant was on show, from simple cranes to autoballasters, excavators, sleeper spacing vehicles, shunters, fast clipping machines, a tamper lorry, a flash butt welder, personnel carriers, track relaying gantries and far more. 

‘The industry pulling together’ 

Speaking to RTM on the first day of the show at Long Marston in Warwickshire, Featherstone said: “It’s the industry pulling together; nobody’s charged anything and everyone’s contributed and helped out. 

“There are 219 suppliers here: this is my whole supply chain, effectively, in a big field.” 

The exhibitors themselves showed off their expertise in their business areas by chipping in to provide generators, check-in, security and so on, Featherstone said. “I was chatting to some of the guys last night and they said that even if no-one walked through the gate today or tomorrow, the event is worthwhile just in the engagement there’s been during the setting up, with all the suppliers talking to each other, from the tier 1s to the SMEs.” 

The exhibition is ‘live’ for the first time, with suppliers taking advantage of the site’s rail-connectedness to show off the kinds of plant they have never been able to deliver by low loader in previous years, and all visitors having to wear full PPE. 

That includes things like the rail-mounted Railvac and MFS wagons, he said – “You couldn’t bring those into a field without rail connectivity. By going rail-connected we were able to bring in a lot more stuff for people to see and appreciate.” 

Competing with Innotrans and iaf 

Featherstone said the plant exhibition had “outgrown” the previous venues – it has previously been held at Network Rail’s own Westwood site and in Gloucestershire – and said this year’s exhibition had managed to fill most of the 102 acres at the Long Marston site. 

He said he expects it to grow and grow, and to compete with major global shows like Innotrans in Berlin and iaf in Münster. 

He told us: “We were paid a big compliment by someone from one of the big suppliers, who attends all of these shows, who said ours was every bit as good as the European events – and it’s live, you can see the plant working. At every other event, you’re stuck in a convention centre.” 

There was all sorts going on around the show, including plant operators challenged to test their accuracy by hooking and lifting wooden ducks and knocking over tiny targets at the H.E. Services (Plant Hire) Ltd stand, a huge number of live displays, and a charity fundraising event hosted by TXM Plant for the Railway Children charity. 

The company’s national operations director Steve Bodman said he’s used models of scenes in bottles as charity raffle prizes before, “and they always encourage interest due their exclusivity”. The expertly detailed model of track workers and plant working on the railway, made by a specialist in Llantrisant, south Wales, certainly interested lots of passers-by into stopping by the TXM Plant stand and donating to charity.

“He can basically create whatever scene you wish with prior notice and sufficient information,” Bodman explained. He added: “The plant show was a great success for TXM Plant, enabling us to display some of our equipment and network all other solutions we offer as a company apart from plant.” 

Everyone RTM talked to at the event seemed happy with its size and scale, and most were keen to see it return in the future. Topcon’s Simon Crowhen was among those pleased with the interest shown, while dBD Communications called it a “great success”, and its sales operations administrator apprentice Toni Avis commented: “This was a great couple of days to see how our equipment is being used within the rail community.” 

‘People love that it’s live’ 

There were displays, demos and talks throughout the exhibition, with some of the biggest names in track technology and plant showing off what their kit can do. 

Featherstone said: “The benefit for me as the track director is that everything should flow through into my cost base. That may take a year or two, but all of these initiatives will flow through to what we see out on the track. That means the whole thing should be worthwhile. 

“People love the fact that it’s live: you can get inside a digger and see how it works, you can demonstrate the Railvac, we’ve got 300m of rail renewals going on. It’s like five years of site visits around the network in two days. As I go around the country, it’s clear that the people in Bristol still do it the Bristol way, people in York do it the York way, people in Birmingham do it the Birmingham way, because that’s what they’ve always done. They do what they believe is best practice, but because I get the opportunity to go round the country, I can see there are good ideas in different places, and by doing something like this, you bring all the good ideas together and you shift people’s horizons. They see a solution to a problem they’ve got, when they didn’t realise such a solution was out there. 

“This is about bringing the people with solutions and the people with problems together, and we should see the benefits flowing through the supply chain and back to Network Rail. This is the GB railway doing it for itself and helping itself out.” 

Exciting developments 

Of the kit on show, he said he was particularly excited by the temporary cross-over, saying: “That is going to be really helpful in possessions, to be able to move trains from one line onto another without the need for a traditional crossover.” 

He said he was keen on technology allowing post-possession handback at higher line speeds. 

He said: “For example, the high output TRS (track relaying system) hands back at 80mph, the ballast cleaner hands back at 90mph – but we’ve been looking at the limitations of 80mph and what we can do to push that further. My ultimate aim – and it will take us a few years to get there – is that I want to have the toolkit to be able to hand back at 125mph. We’ve got the ideas: the innovations are in this field somewhere to allow us to do that. 

“Our challenge is to bring them all together, get them all proven, get the safety certificates sorted out, then one day we’ll be able to hand back at line speed. You wouldn’t necessarily do that everywhere; to get the required track quality takes longer, and there may be track you’re happy to hand back at 50mph, and be able to do more work with the time you’ve got available. But it’s about understanding the trade-offs between handback speed and the length of works you can do.” 

Technology to improve plant reliability 

Plant reliability is another huge issue, Featherstone told us. “One of the things that really hurts us in track renewals is when plant breaks down. Sometimes we lose 10 minutes, sometimes an hour and a half – but it can really hurt us, sometimes we don’t get the full length of work, sometimes we over-run. I’m absolutely passionate about improving the quality of the kit we’ve got. 

“I’ve been looking at remote condition monitoring systems: there are some really good examples of that which, if implemented extensively, should improve reliability and flag up problems before plant has failed, not after. 

“That’ll allow us to keep machines in production for longer, improve our efficiency and reduce disruption. If you’re going to improve plant reliability, you have to think differently. We’ve been getting advice from Rolls Royce in the aviation industry. We did some analysis; if you extrapolate our plant reliability into the aviation industry, and airlines were as reliable as the plant I have on my track renewals, there’d be 490 plane crashes a day!”

“The aviation industry have learnt, over many years, what reliability looks like. In essence, they have electro-mechanical plant, I have electro-mechanical plant – there are very transferable lessons between the two industries. 

“There are some very good and simple lessons we can learn from other industries.”

You can read more about what rail engineers have been learning from the aviation industry here

Live track renewal 

A highlight of the event was the first ever ‘live’ demonstration of a track renewal at a national plant show anywhere Europe, planned and successfully delivered by Babcock. 

The company’s business improvement manager Bruce Wright said: “We aimed to create a renewals environment where innovative plant and construction techniques could be demonstrated and, following the theme of the event, deliver a conventional track renewal by plant rather than labour. 

“Plant operation was at the fore, with a minimal labour contingent contained within a Formula 1 pit stop team only called upon to fix a problem!” 

Simon Higgens, senior programme manager with Babcock, added: “Given the tight possession regimes and challenging work environment we’ll see during CP5, I suspect that a lot of the technology and innovation used at Long Marston will become commonplace.” 

A real team effort was required to meet the challenge of planning and delivering the demonstration showing how innovative plant could be deployed to overcome difficult site conditions. 

These included interfacing with existing track work consisting of 75lb F/B rail directly bolted on to original mass produced concrete sleepers installed during the Second World War, 4.5m track centres representing a 10-12ft track interval, no direct access to the adjacent line (service line) which terminated in a storage shed and provision of ‘new’ materials and engineering trains during one of the busiest parts of the 2013/14 National Track Programme. 

The slick delivery team consisted of Babcock staff from Preston and Hamilton depots together with regular plant supply partners McCullochs, Quattro and Torrent, labour supply partners Morson, and 3D Trimble supplier Korec. It provided compelling viewing for the roughly 3,700 visitors over the two-day event. The finishing touches to the renewal were provided by a Swietelsky Babcock Rail (SB Rail) tamper (73934). 

SB Rail exhibited a range of its large on-track machines, which are usually deployed throughout the network undertaking track renewals and maintenance activities. 

The SB Rail team was on hand to explain to visitors the process involved in applying track design geometry with the two tamping machines on display. 

SB Rail also had its giant Automatic Finishing Machine on show – this equipment is used to ensure correct ballast profiles are applied to the rail infrastructure which in turn ensures the track remains to the correct geometry. 

The company’s head of plant Phil Allanson said: “SB Rail was proud to showcase its equipment to industry colleagues at the plant exhibition.

“The fleet attracted a constant stream of visitors over the two days; most of whom ‘cabbed’ all the machines! We very much look forward to contributing to future events of this nature.”

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