Leaves on the Line : Wrong Kind of Snow

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These have been the sorts of headlines that have greeted rail travellers from the mid-Autumn to early Spring, every year on Britain’s railways, and back in the days when it was just British Rail, the target for complaints and abuse was just one organisation. Today, and coming in the next 8 weeks perhaps, the same problems will doubtless occur, and delays, cancellations and complaints, along with tempers no doubt, will rise.

But, are we any further forward? The answer is yes and no – obviously!

Recently, a research paper was published identifying the tannin in leaves that mixed with the damp conditions at the railhead, and in Network Rail’s words – are “the black ice of the railway”. This in certainty will reduce friction between rail and wheel, and loss of traction. The problem, is how to remove it, and increase the adhesion levels.

This was how the media ‘broke’ the story at the end of July.

Guardian headline

Back in steam days it was, to some degree, rather more straightforward perhaps, mixing steam and sand directed at the interface ahead of the wheels as they made contact with the rail was a simple option – not infallible, but an option. Of course, that process continues to this day, as the ‘standard’ method – but improvements were and are essential.

In 2018 the University of Sheffield offered a possible solution to the leaves on the line question with an innovative idea using “dry ice”, in a trial, funded by a grant from Arriva Rail North, which led to further trials on a number of passenger lines during autumn 2019.  Working together with a Sheffield business – Ice Tech Technologies – the process was tested on little used freight lines, in sidings at depots, and later, at other locations. This is a video showing the basic elements of the process:

Fascinating, but perhaps still some way to go.

The CO2 used, is a by-product of other industrial processes, and unlike the conventional railhead cleaning and sanding, does not leave a residue on the rail head. The track cleaning trains do not have to carry 1000s of litres of water, and longer distances can be treated.

Overall the process is intended to provide improved traction and braking control.

At the heart of the challenge posed by leaves, is that layer of ‘black ice’, which in autumn and winter causes so much passenger misery and operational problems. Now, back in Sheffield, the university’s renowned skills and knowledge have identified the cause – and the answer seems to be ‘tannin’, which is present in the leaves falling from the lineside trees every year. These large molecules seems to be the key ingredient that leads to the formation of the compacted layer on the surface of the rail, providing that unwanted reduction in friction at the rail-wheel interface, in turn leading to traction and braking.

Network_Rail_plant_at_Dereham

Network Rail Windhoff Multi-Purpose Vehicle DR98910/60 at Dereham in May 2008.      Photo: DiverScout at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6802613

The railway environment provides many challenges in actually running changes as environmental conditions change over the year, but in Britain, winter especially has been the cause of many train cancellations and delays. Nowadays, the operation of trains and signalling systems are ever more dependent on security of communication – be that signalling centre to train, or track to train – and the on-board systems and traction drives are equally prone to the impact of our changeable weather.

Back in the 1980s, there was a famous, and often-repeated phrase used by a British Rail spokesman to respond to a journalist’s question about snow, train delays and cancellations. That remark: “the wrong kind of snow” was as historic as the BBC weatherman’s observation that a hurricane was not going to happen – and then it did, and Sevenoaks became Oneoak!

The “Wrong Kind of Snow” remark prompted me to write an article in Electrical Review looking at how the UK, dealt with extreme weather conditions, and compared these to how our near neighbours, in continental Europe managed these events. The full feature is as shown below – click on the image to read in full.

Wrong Kind of Snow3

Let’s hope these discoveries abojut tannins and the new techniques for keeping the rail head clean will work to better effect, and reduce the impact of leaves on the line in the coming months.

-oOo-

Useful Links & Further reading:

Ice Tech Technologies Ltd

Rail Innovation & Technology Centre (RITC) at the University of Sheffield

Rails from Cumbria To The World

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Railpower June 1989 CoverExactly 30 years ago, British Steel Corporation received a £12 million order from India, to supply Grade A wear- resistant rails for the modernisation of a number of high-density urban and high speed inter-urban routes.  The rails would account for around 20% of BSC’s Workington Rolling Mill’s output in a year.  The contract was won against international competition, particularly from companies in Western Europe, Japan and Canada.  In 1989 Workington was one of the world’s leading producers of high quality, wear-resistant rail products.

As part of the United Steel Companies of Sheffield – and later British Steel – Workington ceased making new steel, but operated primarily as a rolling mill, taking in steel ingots from other United Steel sites, and rolling into various sections. BSC Track Products coverFrom 1974, the Moss Bay site began to specialise in permanent way products – such as rails and fish-plates. Continued investment, together with their acquired know-how, ensured that they became the largest British producer of these products.  Whilst further south, in Barrow-in-Furness, the plant that had been the world’s pioneering supplier of steel railway rails, by volume, the works concentrated on even more innovative steelmaking ideas.

In fact, the Workington plant had taken over rail production after the end of World War II, from nearby Barrow-in-Furness, where the world’s largest integrated steel and iron works once stood.  Barrow was the major supplier of railway rails to the world, and only lost that position following the post war economic challenges, and steel industry restructuring in the UK.  Workington took on the mantle and remained one of the world’s leading suppliers until its final closure only 13 or so years ago.

Barrow Steelworks Rail bank

Barrow steelworks rail bank around 1900

Like Barrow, Workington was an innovator in steelmaking technology, and despite the dramatic decline of the industry in the 1980s, was deploying technological innovation, with new techniques and processes until its final demise. In British Steel days, the business had been successful in the world market for wear-resistant high-grade steels, and consolidated this lead with a £7 million investment programme at Workington in 1987, just a couple of years before landing the Indian order.

The modernization at Workington included the world’s first mill-hardened rail production unit at a cost of nearly £4 million, alongside this another £1 million was invested in the second stage of a computerised automated inspection system, to provide ever closer control of dimensional tolerances on finished rail products.

Workington rail bank

Workington rail bank – 1980s

In addition, in 1987, Track Products won a multi-million pound, three-year contract to meet all British Rail’s requirements for rails until 1990. Under the contract, Workington was committed to supplying some 150,000 tonnes of rail to BR.  At the time this was stated to be about ¼ of the capacity of the Workington plant, and with British Rail as the site’s biggest single customer. The collaboration in research effort between British Rail and BSC Track Products on developing rail steel technology maintained the northwest’s reputation for innovation, and was an important factor in generating export sales, from Southend to Singapore.

Workington’s rolling mills had been producing some 1/4 million tonnes of rail, fishplates, baseplates and steel sleepers annually during the mid to late 1980s, and from that total, Workington was actually exporting 50 to 60% of total output.  The West Cumbria (Cumberland) site produced rails from feedstock of 330 x 254mm cross section blooms supplied from other BSC Works, mostly the Lackenby Works on Teeside.  Barrow had also supplied Workington with steel until it took on, developed, and perfected the now commonplace continuous casting process.

Homg Kong MRT

Workington supplied rails for the Hong Kong and numerous other metro systems.

The role of the BSC Track Products mill in the overall manufacturing process was just that – the supplier – and (at least in the 1980s) British Steel had little part in the design, and virtually none at all with the installation.  The greater part of the output was for replacement and/or maintenance purposes, they had been supplying small quantities of the specialist ‘conductor rails’ at home and for some overseas metro systems.

Other exports to – for example – African countries were rare, and even countries such as Nigeria, with sufficient wealth to promote rail expansion proved to be slow to implement projects, leaving British Steel Track Products in a difficult position.  So, the order from India in 1989 was certainly a great, if brief success for the UK steel industry as a whole.

RIA Journal extract June 1989

BSC Track Products map

 

Today, there is nothing left of the steelworks or rolling mills in England’s North West, where it had once led the world, in both the quality and quantity of global rail exports.

 

 

-oOo-

Further reading and useful links:

  1. Barrow Hematite Steel Co (Grace’s Guide)
  2. Barrow Hematite Steel Company (Wikipedia)
  3. Workington Steelworks 2003 shortly before closure – Showing Rail Rolling Process
  4. Steel Rail Rolling Line at Workington (Corus video)

 

 

Hong Kong MTR & Stockport

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The UK business of Davies & Metcalfe was most famous for key components on locomotives and rolling stock, from steam injectors, to brake systems and latterly to automatic couplers for rapid transit and light rail systems.

D&M CouplersMost of the company’s business was carried out from the wortks in Romiley, Cheshire, south of Manchester.  It was a long established family business, begun in North Wales in Aberystwyth in 1878, and after a move to Romiley became a household name in manufacturing steam locomotive injectors in the 20th century.  Diversification into braking systems came by way of a partnership with the Swiss company Oerlikon, and sold braking technology under the brand “Metcalfe Oerlikon”.

These arrangements continued after the UK’s railways were nationalised in 1948, and Metcalfe-Oerlikon brake systems were fitted to many diesel and electric locomotive and rolling stock designs. By the 1970s, when the UK rail industry was awarded the contracts to design and build the Hong Kong MTR trains, Davies & Metcalfe,  supplied the braking technology and the essential, automatic, close-couplers for the new rolling stock.

D&M MontageThis comprehensive activity continued throughout the decades, and in 1989, Davies & Metcalfe appeared at ‘Light Rail ’89’ in Bristol, and were  collaborating with Bergische-Stahl-Industrie.  The Romiley company were then offering a ‘one-stop shop’ for  Brake Control Systems, Safety and Vigilance Equipment, Wheel Slip/Slide Control Systems, Multi-function Automatic Couplers, Disc and Track Brakes and, Transmission Drive Systems.

D&M Braking kitA number of changes took place in the industry in the last years of the 20th century, and the company continues to supply key components to this day, whether it is for Hong Kong, or even some of the legacy steam railways in Britain.

 

Useful Links:

  1. Hong Kong Metro – 40 Years On
  2. Davies and Metcalfe Limited

Screenshot 2020-02-08 at 12.18.55

  1. Davies & Metcalfe (Wikipedia)
  2. Davies & Metcalfe (Graces Guide)

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St Rollox – Gone But Not Forgotten

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This month saw the last of the once huge manufacturing railway workshops in Glasgow closed.  The facilities were established in the Springburn district of the city by the Caledonian Railway in 1854, brining to an end the 169 year history of building, repairing and maintaining railway locomotives and rolling stock on a 15 acre site.  The St Rollox site was just one of three major sites in the area – the others being the former North British Locomotive Co works, which closed in the 1960s, and of course the Cowlairs Works.

Screenshot 2019-07-31 at 17.22.23As a loco works for the Caledonian Railway, it produced many fine steam types, but the works’ status changed dramatically after the grouping of 1923, and under the ownership of the LMS, no new building was carried out there after 1927.  As a workshop responsible for maintenance and repair, this was the position of St Rollox for the next 40 years.

At the time of nationalisation the works employed 3,382 staff, whilst neighbouring Cowlairs employed a little over 1,200 in 1949, with work being transferred away to Horwich.  Interestingly, at the time the staffing of railway works came under scrutiny, in 1962, both Cowlairs and St Rollox employed just over 1,900 on each site.  Plans were laid to modernise and re-equip the works, and in order to do that, most of the work in St. Rollox was moved temporarily into Cowlairs.  Once re-equipped the plan was to transfer all work into St. Rollox, and close Cowlairs. The new St. Rollox was re-named the Glasgow Railway Works – at least on paper. In addition to repairs and maintenence of motive power and rolling stock, manufacture light alloy containers and the repair of all signal and telegraph equipment was to be set up. The total labour force by 1966 will be approximately 2,800 men.

St Rollox in Glasgow’s Springburn area was at the heart of railway and locomotive engineering in Glasgow, and Scotland, the work to modernise the works was expensive, costing more than £1 million, but the eventual outcome was closure of Cowlairs in 1968. All of the Scottish works of BR were discussed in great detail during the 1960s, and the social and economic consequences of decisions taken in London were not lost on local MPs.

The same seems to be happening again in 2019.

05.06.82_Glasgow_St_Rollox_Works_26028_(6159479398)

Inside one of the workshops of BREL Glasgow St Rollox Works on an organised visit with the Railway Correspondence and Travel Society. Seen closest to the camera is 26028.           By Phil Richards from London, UK – 05.06.82 Glasgow St Rollox Works 26028, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26695179 

St Rollox became part of BREL with the 1980s restructuring of BR workshops, and following the privatisation of BREL in 1988 was operated purely as a rail maintenance facility by British Rail Maintenance Limited (BRML).

In effect St Rollox was closed in 1988 with the loss of 1,200 jobs.  That said, in the seven years that followed, much of what was the St Rollox site was sold off to developers, and occupied by a Tesco supermarket, Costco, Lidl, and a new Springburn fire station.  The rump of what was left for rail maintenance was sold off after privatisation, in 1995, to a Babcock/Siemens consortium.  In 2007 it was sold on again to Alstom, and finally to Railcare Ltd., which went into administration in July 2013.  The following month, the remaining works was purchased by Knorr-Bremse, who created Knorr-Bremse RailServices (UK) Ltd as a new rolling stock maintenance and repair company.  Five years later it was sold on to Mutares, a German based group specialising in acquiring low income companies, with a view to turning them into growing, and profitable enterprises.

The Mutares acquisition, and operation under the Gemini Rail Group  took pl;ace in late 2018, and by December, the new owner announced it planned to close the Springburn works.

The annoucement was greeted with dismay, and in the early hours of 14th January 2019, the MP Paul Sweeney made this observation:

In 2018, it was sold to another German company, an industrial turnaround specialist called Mutares. In November 2018, just a few weeks after its acquisition, it was formed into a newco known ​as Gemini Rail, which was a wholly owned subsidiary company of Mutares but also associated with Knorr-Bremse—for instance, sharing the same company house number. It is clear this has been an exercise conveniently designed to quickly rationalise their operations in the UK.

As at December 2018, St Rollox continues to carry out component and rolling stock repairs and overhauls. Recent work has included overhauls of class 156s, class 158s and Class 320s for Abellio ScotRail. It is the largest rolling stock repair site in Scotland. Two smaller sites in Kilmarnock are operated by Brodie and Wabtec respectively, and are still operating at capacity.

In December last year, shortly after acquiring the site, the new owner announced very suddenly that it planned to close the works, stating that it was making losses of between £3 million and £4 million.

At the time, St Rollox had barely 200 staff, but they would be the last to work at this famous site, if the closure went ahead.  As a final point in the January 2019 debate, Paul Sweeney made the following point:

The Minister is making a number of pertinent points, but the fundamental crux of this issue is that while it is a private decision for a private company at this point, it is clear that the company, ScotRail and Network Rail could work collaboratively to restructure the site to put it on a sound commercial footing and allow it to win business competitively. This is not about bailing something out or state aid for a failing industry; this is a kernel of expertise and a centre of excellence that could thrive with a restructuring of ownership.

However, despite the perhaps good intentions, and warm words from the Government spokesperson, the closure has gone ahead, and St Rollox is no longer a railway works, be it construction, or maintenance.  The skillsets remain, but it seems the desire to maintain a rail industry has all but evaporated.

-oOo-

Useful Links & Further Reading

  1. An Illustrated History of British Railways’ Workshops; Edgar Larkin; Pub Ian Allan 1998
  2. St Rollox Railway Works: Closure
  3. St Rollox Railway Works closure threatens hundreds of jobs
  4. Save the Caley in Springburn

Springburn Closure

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What was once the heart of the Scottish rail engineering industry – the Springburn district of Glasgow – has been dealt perhaps a mortal blow, with the announcement of the closure of Gemini Rail’s Springburn Depot.  There was never a railway works or even a maintenance depot bearing the name Springburn, but it was an area home to the North Briotish Loco Co.’s Hyde Park and Atlas Works.  Side by side with these were the Caledonian’s St Rollox and the North British Cowlairs Works – all of which built many thousands of railway locomotives, for home and export around the world.

Gemini Rail Services plant in Springburn to close with 120 jobs set to go

This closure was announced in December, and confirmed in January, with the loss of upt to 200 jobs, although it will not be completed until 2020.  Local and national politicians in Scotland and from the trades unions have been saddened and disappointed by the decision to close, and lose yet more engineering skills.

St Rollox, which was the only works retained in Glasgow by British Railways, was upgraded as nearby Cowlairs was closed in 1968.  It became part of British Rail Engineering in the 1980s, and renamed Glasgow Works, with the rump of the works being transferred to the BR Maintenance Ltd (BRML) arm in 1987, and renamed again as Springburn Level 5 Depot.

During its time as St Rollox in BR days, the closure of Barassie Works and Inverurie meant that all work came to the one remaining workshop in Scotland – the Glasgow Works.  In 1995 BRML was privatised and the St. Rollox site was sold to a Babcock/Siemens consortium along with the Wolverton site. In 2002 it was then sold to Alstom. In 2007 Alstom sold the site to RailCare Ltd. RailCare continued to operate the site until it went into administration on August 2, 2013.

Knorr Bremse were subsequently involved, and finally Gemini Rail, which began life in 2009, and remains based in Birmingham.  In a statement, announcing the closure, the company made this statement:

“…. with sincere regret that Gemini Rail Services announces that severely adverse market conditions means it will be closing operations at Springburn.”

The company also suggested Springburn’s location and a major decline in work contributed to the depot’s was ongoing, unsustainable losses.

Springburn rail depot’s closure confirmed with up to 200 jobs lost labelled a ‘betrayal’ of Scottish rail industry

Looking at this, and given the UK Government’s continued insistence about the ‘huge invetment’ in the rail network, capacity, trains and services, this seems an odd reason for the closure of the depot.   Scotland still has trains to operate and in need of maintenance.

So now, rail engineering, as with shipbuilding and heavy engineering has finally come to an end in Scotland.  Whilst we can see that there are still discussions, consultations and negotiations going on – this is a tragedy for UK engineering, and another loss – we can only hope it doesn’t turn into another supermarket or office park.

-oOo-