One of the management decisions that has to be made by any contractor on the railways is – to hire or buy?

The benefits of hiring in plant are obvious, and logical. The latest equipment is available, without a high capital outlay and with skilled operators. Someone else maintains it and ships it around the country, and it isn’t costing money if it is sitting idle. When costing out a job, the cost of plant on a daily basis is known and fixed, and if it should break down someone else will replace it.

However, there is an alternative theory that, if the company can stand the capital outlay, owning its own plant can improve flexibility and give it a commercial edge over competitors, if it has plant no-one else does.

The WAD model

Stobart Rail, formerly W A Developments (WAD), has been delivering projects on Network Rail’s infrastructure since 1997. There are many reasons why the business has been an effective deliverer, including a directly employed multi-skilled and experienced workforce and in-house training from an award-winning training school. But, in the opinion of the company’s management and directors, one of the most crucial elements is an understanding of and investment in plant and maintenance.

Early on in the embryonic stages of WAD, when setting the foundations for a successful business, the management team identified the importance of setting up its own plant division. Having been let down on numerous occasions on civils sites, the fear of failure in the newly- entered rail sector drove the team toward the conclusion that investment in plant and the maintenance of it would be vital to their successful entrance and prolonged stability in this new sector.

The first acquisition, in 1997, was a Daewoo 140 with a road-rail conversion by Philmor Rail, a compatible oil-braked trailer, flail attachment, rotator clam and grab and a selection of buckets. Using the supplier’s maintenance manual and adding in a number of additional checks, the plant department, assisted by AJ Hargreaves, devised a robust maintenance and preventative maintenance plan to give the company and its customers the assurance needed to ensure minimal disruption caused by plant failure.

At that time, the business supported a number of clients delivering works directly and also providing operated plant for hire. The next step in its development was to draft a Railway Safety Case (Plant Operators License) for the operation of on-track plant in possession, a license for which was granted in 1999.

This provided the business with greater opportunities and the decision was made to invest heavily in plant and equipment to complement its already experienced and multi-skilled workforce. Additionally, a twin test track was constructed with RRAP (road-rail access point), ramps and a test rig for achieving

Delta-D readings and duty charts. The track enabled the in-house training of operators and testing of equipment. It also allowed the team to try out a number of innovative ideas without having to access Network Rail infrastructure.

Adaptable plant and good training

WAD recognised that to achieve both goals, of running a profitable business and supplying its customers with a quality product at the right price, it needed to invest money wisely in its plant and equipment, making sure the kit it purchased was adaptable and specialist in the right measure. To further enhance this offering, a well trained and experienced, flexible workforce with the right attitude was required, hence the investment in a training facility focussing mainly on in-house personnel. Putting that all together, dedicated teams have been able to deliver specialist and multi- disciplined projects as well as high-output schemes which require close attention to detail and planning.

That philosophy continued after WAD was acquired by the Stobart Group in 2008. Plant fitters and engineers, depending on the size of the contract, are rostered to work either on-site on standby or off-site within an agreed call off period. In some cases, they operate the road-rail equipment they are maintaining as they understand intimately the equipment they look after. All the fitters have fully equipped service vehicles stocked with consumables such as spare pipework, oil and filters.

All the workforce are trained in-house by staff from Stobart Rail’s award winning training school which carries out training in rail safety, rail plant, construction plant (CPCS), construction skills(NVQ), mobile access towers (PASMA), portable equipment and first aid. Training for the new Sentinel lift planner ticket has recently been added to the list as the company has been involved in the development of this training plan in conjunction with other organisations in the industry.

Nationwide deployment

Due to the nature and diversity of works that Stobart delivers, staff and plant are often deployed all over the country. They are supplemented by the supply chain, making them easily capable of reacting within short notice should customers require.

In the past, Stobart has reacted at short notice to incidents as diverse as mainline passenger train derailments, freight train derailments, culvert collapses, major and minor earthwork and embankment slips and the coastal erosion of embankments and retaining walls. Its workforce is used to working with plant and equipment in a pressured and sometimes hazardous environment, often at night and in treacherous conditions, and to carry out the work without compromising on Safety or Quality.

Stobart also realises the importance of maintaining good working relationships with its supply chain which can be called upon 24/7 to provide materials and supplementary plant and labour when necessary.

All projects are monitored centrally using a control log which acts as an operational hub to relay information on live sites. This gives management constantly updated information on any issues or problems being encountered. Directors, senior management and safety representatives are rostered on call 24/7, and emergency procedures which are accessible to the log personnel are in place so they can manage different ranging events.

Looking forward to CP5, Stobart Rail is relishing the opportunity to bring it’s innovative approach and adaptability to help develop new and old plant and delivery techniques to achieve the savings required.