An engineering change

Posted: 28 July 2006 | | No comments yet

Since its inception seven years ago, Freightliner Heavy Haul has grown to become a business with a turnover in excess of £75m. Part of the company’s success is the recognition that engineering expertise has a key role to play in delivering and improving service and efficiency. Now, with capacity approaching saturation point – and the railways under ever greater strain – Freightliner continues to find new solutions to old problems.

Since its inception seven years ago, Freightliner Heavy Haul has grown to become a business with a turnover in excess of £75m. Part of the company’s success is the recognition that engineering expertise has a key role to play in delivering and improving service and efficiency. Now, with capacity approaching saturation point – and the railways under ever greater strain – Freightliner continues to find new solutions to old problems.

Since its inception seven years ago, Freightliner Heavy Haul has grown to become a business with a turnover in excess of £75m. Part of the company’s success is the recognition that engineering expertise has a key role to play in delivering and improving service and efficiency. Now, with capacity approaching saturation point – and the railways under ever greater strain – Freightliner continues to find new solutions to old problems.

Over the past few years, the Freightliner Engineering Department have achieved what can only be described as a revolution in asset performance. The team, which draws upon an experienced blend of chartered and technician trained engineers, have undertaken technical procurement of over 100 locomotives and 1,000 wagons (in six distinct fleets), over 150 trucks, 300 road trailers and 26 container handlers, as well as civil engineering projects at numerous Freightliner sites across the UK.

While excelling at traction and rolling stock, road, cranes and civil engineering, the Engineering Department is complemented with the use of external consultants who ensure that the finest technical expertise is brought to bear on each project.

These projects are growing at an exceptional rate. It is a far cry from 1999, when Freightliner Group identified an opportunity to mount a challenge in the traditional bulk rail heavy haulage market. Heavy Haul now operates 1,000 trains per week, utilising its own fleet of 76 locomotives and 630 wagons. Business operations include the transportation of coal, aggregates, cement, automotive and petroleum products, infrastructure and rail services, together with associated train planning, scheduling, track maintenance and fleet management.

Reliability as standard

To what can this tremendous growth be attributed? According to Shakerley, it is a mixture of good judgement, good people, and a bit of luck. Finding out what the customer wants – and how best to provide it – is the Heavy Haul credo. The company is justifiably famed for its reliability, with a train cancellation rate of 0.1%.

The trick, Shakerley says, is to find ways to deliver service and reduce costs while achieving reliability and not shortcutting engineering.

“There is always a tendency to cut your biggest expense”, explains Shakerley. “Engineering is an easy target because in the short term you can get away with it. But in the long term it costs you more. There’s no doubt about it: consistent, steady spending on engineering when it is needed is the most cost-effective way of managing your business.”

This emphasis on investment in engineering culminated in April this year with the establishment of Freightliner Maintenance. Shakerely adds, “I see that as the biggest vote of confidence that what we’ve been doing is the right thing.”

Initially set up to support Heavy Haul, Freightliner Maintenance delivers fuelling, servicing and exam work on locomotives and rolling stock. It also retains a field support capability in the South east of England and Scotland.

“It was borne out of evolution,” Shakerley continues. “Mixing a sound supplier network with in-house capability gives you the best of both worlds.”

Building a Bogie

The remit of Shakerley’s team does not end with the preservation of what already exists. Indeed, engineering is a delicate balancing act between securing optimal performance today and investing for optimal performance tomorrow. How can the two be reconciled? Technology might hold the key. The difficulty is no one can know which doors it will unlock.

“Any new technology carries risks”, mentions Shakerely. “But that’s precisely the point: you can never know the true extent of it’s influence.”

In some areas, however, the benefits of technological change are more tangible. Growth in the bulk of the freight market, in terms of both tonnage moved and tonnage per train, has had an accelerating effect on the deterioration of railway tracks. As a result, measures are being taken to develop equipment (most notably bogies) that is more track-friendly.

The first Track Friendly Bogies (TFBs) were built 15 years ago, but only in the aftermath of the Hatfield rail disaster did it become clear that rolling contact fatigue was an endemic problem. A fundamental re-evaluation of the rail-wheel interface followed; one of the knock-on effects being a renewed emphasis on TFBs. It has come not a moment too soon.

“Track friendly bogies are needed fundamentally to improve the economics of the whole railway,” Shakerley observes. “If we can reduce the maintenance cost of the track and the train, it’s beneficial for everybody. It makes freight more competitive on rail.”

Responsible for the supervision and upkeep of the UK’s railways, Network Rail have tried to incentivise operators to develop TFBs through reduced track access charges. More recently, a group of companies, including Freightliner, have gone a stage further, as they search for ways to make TFBs commercially viable in their own right.

“We have been very active in encouraging our wagon suppliers, such as Greenbrier, to find bogie manufacturers that are prepared to implement change. We are definitely a catalyst,” Shakerley explains.

The track-friendly bogie has a simple objective: to reduce lateral forces, which cause the most damage to the track. This has already been done with the introduction of radial steer on the Class 66 locomotive (of which Freightliner Group has 104 on its books). By utilising a series of fulcrums and pivots, radial steer allows the wheel-sets on the loco to move to align with the track. A reduction in lateral forces not only minimises stress on the loco and the track, but increases tractive effort and therefore harnesses the locomotive’s energy more efficiently.

The solution, therefore, is to design a bogie with a wheel-set that represents an optimum compromise between stability and the freedom to adjust. The introduction of the TF25 (the bogie used on Freightliner’s entire 25-ton axle loaded fleet) with resilient mountings that allow the wheel to be more accurately aligned with the rail for turning has significantly reduced the contact forces. Yet the TF25 was one of just two major track-friendly bogies, both owned and marketed by the same company, Powell Duffryn (now Axiom Rail). Freightliner was keen to bring new players into the market.

Shakerley continues: “We were finding that the capital costs of the TF25 were continually rising – especially when compared to its nearest competitor, the Y-Series bogie. In addition, there was no equivalent Y-series bogie on the market that could carry what we needed: a 25-ton load.”

Consequently, about three years ago, Freightliner ordered two additional wagons on the back of an order of 60 MJA 102 box wagons to act as test beds for future TFB supplies.

“We built two spare, with a standard UIC centre-pivot (as opposed to the TF25 which has side bearer loading) with a view to encouraging other companies to design and build track-friendly bogies,” explains Shakerley. “It is not a straight-forward exercise – but designing a bogie never will be.”

As with all technological change, progress has been incremental. Now, though, two companies – Standard Car Truck Europe and ELH – have committed themselves to the development and production of TFBs. With testing in its final phase, after four exhaustive months, the ELH bogie – known as Opti-Track – is designed to use standard bogie components in order to reduce costs. Encouragingly, Ride testing and computer simulation results (known as vampire analysis) suggest that Opti-Track performs as well as the TF25, at a more cost-effective price.

So assured are Freightliner in Opti-Track that they have agreed to utilise it on an impending order of rolling stock.
“Credit must go to ELH for having the recognition and tenacity to appreciate that the market is there,” explains Shakerley. “Even though it hasn’t yet operated in service, we have gained sufficient confidence to order over 100 wagons using them.”

These new hoppers will augment an existing fleet that has undergone a continuous process of optimisation; that is, both in terms of performance (shorter, yet with a greater capacity) and in order to keep stock and inventory low by the keeping of common parts.

Tomorrow’s work – today

The problem with investment, particularly on rail, is that it usually takes at least a decade to see results that impact the bottom line. That makes all decisions, such as Freightliner’s £30m acquisition in May of 16 new locos and 118 wagons, particularly perilous. After all, there is not much room for error with a £1.5 million pound locomotive on your hands.

“Because new rolling stock generally comes with a design life of 25-30 years, technology decisions have to be lived with for decades to come,” explains Shakerley. “You have got to tread a fine line between total innovation – high risk, high expense – against recognising that you have to move the rail freight business forward; that is, looking at ways to make it more economic in order to stay competitive. There is growing recognition that we have to try new things. Building two wagons for the sole purpose of encouraging people to build new bogies is a demonstration of that.”

Freightliner Engineers are also encouraging the development of Wheel Slip Protection (WSP) for wagons, the aim being to prevent wheel tread damage. Shakerley describes it as simply “the railway version of ABS.”

Vehicles with small wheels, such as the low platform height ‘lowliners’ suffer particularly from their wheels locking and sliding while under braking due to their low moment of inertia. This is compounded when the wagons are in tare. WSP detects this, and momentarily drops the brake cylinder pressure to release the brake and allow the wheel to start rotating again. This is a common application on passenger vehicles, but the problem is the majority of freight trains have no distributed power down the train. One way to provide this power is through batteries alone, but this introduces a new maintenance activity. Freightliner’s chosen partner, Faiveley Transport, have developed an axle-end generator specifically for the ‘Lowliner’ application. The generator provides power for the electronics, dump valves and to charge the on-board batteries. All of these features are required to make WSP an operational reality.

Developments are still in the early stages, but the implementation of WSP on freight wagons would be an industry first in the UK. Freightliner’s taking off the lead proves that they are an agent no less than an instrument of change. In November last year, for example, Freightliner Heavy Haul became the first privatised rail operator to build new hoppers for the aggregates industry when they introduced 48 90-tonne ‘HIA’ wagons.

In these times, however, there are questions that go beyond the limits of science. How can capacity in the rail network be raised over both the short and long term without compromising efficiency and service? On that score, Shakerley is pragmatic:

“With regard to railway capacity, there is always an upper limit. On the other hand, the ceiling is defined to a large extent by the political environment. At present, Rail Freight capacity is limited by passenger trains. As soon as you increase speed on the ground, your window for sneaking through freight trains is narrowed. It is an inevitable by-product of a mixed traffic railway.”
Nonetheless, Shakerley believes there is still some capacity to be had in the current network.

“There are always pinch points. There is undoubtedly more capacity if the new technology – particularly train control – can be justified economically.”

In the meantime, Freightliner and its crack team of engineers will no doubt continue to strike their tried and tested blend of innovation and optimization in order to keep on moving. Further breakthroughs in technology, capacity and efficiency, underpinned by engineering of the highest calibre, will no doubt pave the road – to rail.

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