In any maintenance environment, the issues of access can prove problematic. However, engineers love a challenge so these difficulties are not insurmountable.

Essex-based access specialist Step On Safety has just completed work on what are reportedly the longest and largest GRP (glass-reinforced plastic or fibreglass) access platforms in the UK and possibly the world. They have been installed at Southern’s Selhurst depot in Greater London and will be used by the train operator for future train maintenance.

The installation of the two permanent access platforms will enable rail engineers to safely maintain the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) units on top of the train operator’s Class 377 carriages whilst also allowing the switchgear inside the door wells to be maintained at the same time.

The challenge

The team at Step On Safety were tasked with designing a GRP double-height walkway platform which would have easily-identifiable, specific access points where the doorway and HVAC units are situated, covering a three, four and five car scenario.

For the roof access, Step on Safety created a bespoke GRP self-closing safety barrier system whichIMG_20140813_122539 [online] will allow the maintenance team to work safely from within an enclosed space while working on the carriage roof.

Being GRP, it has some natural benefits over traditionally-used materials. The materials are completely non-conductive, meaning that there are no issues with them being used in the area of the overhead conductor wire. They are also lightweight (around 65 per cent lighter than steel) so the existing maintenance platform walkways would not be overloaded.

The company was able to design, supply and install the solution within ten weeks of receiving Southern’s approval. Senior site supervisor Norman Hyrons explained some of the difficulties that they had faced.

“Due to the scale of the build and the speed, the biggest challenge was getting parts delivered on time. As a company we carry large quantities of stock so, in most cases, it wasn’t a problem. Having said that, this was a mammoth structure and managing the parts was a full time job for the team back at head office.”

The total possession time was eleven weeks, and that included snagging. Step On Safety had a team of four to six on site at any given time installing two structures, each 100 metres long. Both were double-decked, giving access to the two work areas, so that was a total of 400 metres of GRP flooring along with all of the associated stairs, gates, ladders, and landings. A total of 9,000 rivets were used in the assembly.

Adjustment on site

As in any project, the engineers didn’t escape panic-free. The steps were built off-site in Essex and then shipped to Selhurst. When offered up, they were found to be too short!

However, the installation team took it all in its stride. “Part of our job as specialist fitters is to make slight adjustments, alterations and fabricate on site,” Norman Hyrons explained. “It’s what we do. In this case we had to re-angle the steps and rebuild them, making the bottom step longer so that it would form a perfect fit. It didn’t cause any noticeable delay as time for making adjustments is factored in.”

In fact, next time the team undertakes a job of this size, more of the structure will be manufactured off-site. “We fabricate on site all the time,” Norman commented. “But something this big needs to be totally fabricated in the workshop. There’s just not enough room to fabricate on site when you are building a structure this big.”

IMG_20140813_121123 [online]

The installation was completed on time within the eleven-week window. At the end of the last day, the sense of pride in what had been achieved was evident in the team and the experience gained will undoubtedly benefit them in their next big build.

As for the maintenance engineers that now use the huge new platform, it is already making their life easier. As in most depots, Selhurst maintenance engineers had been used to individual portable stairs and platforms that they had to negotiate into position as they worked their way along each carriage. Now, aside from reducing the hazards and risks, the permanent solid-state platforms are saving time and effort for those working from them, affording safer access to multiple carriages more readily.

Phil Somers, Southern’s Selhurst depot manager, was certainly very pleased. “This project is innovative and a GRP first for us for something of this size. In the past, we would have probably used steel for such a large structure, but this was a project that required to be completed within a tight timescale and GRP ticked all the boxes. Operationally, it went smoothly and we are impressed with the results and the time it has taken to complete.”