It was a warm, muggy and chaotic start to the 2017 IAF International Exhibition for Track Technology in Münster. A combination of technical disasters for British Airways causing travel hiccups for hundreds of exhibitors and guests, and temperatures soaring to a sticky 35 degrees, meant excitement was high for the start of Europe’s biggest plant extravaganza.

However, whilst the aviation industry might have been feeling the strain, with three packed halls, a busy plant yard and Plasser & Theurer’s huge tracked exhibition area taking over a significant section of the Münsterland Halle exhibition complex, the European rail world once again flocked to Germany and proved that, no matter how clammy the weather or tetchy the journey, you can’t keep a good rail show down!

Plugging-in to what’s new

Having made their way through the super-efficient check-in procedure, visitors were greeted with a trio of jam-packed exhibition halls – and not a shell-scheme stand in sight. ‘The bigger the better’ seemed to be the theme, with towering stands stretching for miles, and showcasing German-hospitality at its finest!

Walking past the Schwihag stand was particularly difficult around lunchtime, as very tempting plates of steak and potatoes appeared before guests, along with glasses of frosty beer and wine being served from the on-stand bar. In fact, with various stands tempting passers-by with duck burgers, salted caramel crepes, asparagus and goats cheese pizza, German sausage buns, piles of fresh strawberries, chilled champagne and, of course, plenty of beer, at times it did almost feel like you’d stumbled into a food festival. Well, when in Münster…

Stepping outside the main exhibition halls, one could be forgiven for thinking it was the entrance to a Robel showroom. A series of conjoining units showcased everything from hand tools to bogies, with live demonstrations spicing things up.

One of the demonstrations was of the hybrid rail grinder, a new contract win for Robel UK which will see the company supplying Network Rail with one prototype grinder and 25 units to evaluate over the next few months. The kit utilises ground breaking (ground grinding?) hybrid technology, which sees the tool producing its own energy whilst idling, using KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) technology. This is then stored, and used to power the grinder when ready for action.

It’s not just the small tools that are harnessing the power of hybrid technology though. Plasser & Theurer’s buzz phrase for 2017 was “Innovation to You”, and this saw the worldwide teams showcasing a huge range of equipment. However, it was the new range of hybrid OTMs that really stole the show. The cutting-edge E3 machines provide all the power, capacity and technical ability that you would expect from a Plasser & Theurer machine, but the E3 technology has been perfected to help minimise noise levels, lower fuel consumption and minimise maintenance requirements as part of an environmentally enviable package – think along the lines of a rail Prius!

Two of the machines on show were fitted with the new technology, the Unimat 09-4×4/4s E3 and the HTW 100 E3. The Unimat 09-4×4/4s E3, a tamper, has been given a completely electrifying makeover, with every element of the vehicle streamlined to achieve maximum efficiency.

In fully electric mode, an electrical drive motor transfers power from the overhead line onto the rail at the axles of the power bogies for propulsion. When engaged into electric working mode, rotary motions are powered by electric motors, and linear cylinders working hydraulic components, such as the lifting-and-lining unit or the squeeze cylinder of the tamping unit, are supplied by an electrically operated hydraulic unit.

As well as working in full electric mode, the tamper can operate as a hybrid. A 600kW diesel engine creates energy to supply drive components to move the vehicle to site, and once there the electrical working units run just like the electric mode.

The HTW 100 E3 vehicle, created to maintain overhead lines, has been designed like so many of the cars we now see on our roads – a perfect balance of traditional fuel and eco- boost technology. Whilst travelling to site, the machine is powered by a 480 kW diesel generator. This, as well as regenerative braking, charges the on-board lithium traction batteries. These provide power for two six-hour shifts of clear working capacity. The battery capacity can be extended using additional modules.

The sums add up too. The new technology is reducing the operating costs of the kit by more than €100 an hour. And as well as saving costs, the developments also allow for a more flexible working capacity – similarly to the Robel grinder, the hybrid technology is proving significantly quieter than traditional methods, with tests showing that on average the machines are 10dBA quieter than their counterparts, meaning the equipment is well placed to work efficiently in tunnels and urban areas.

Cutting edge

The beauty of the IAF show is the sheer amount of track space available, allowing suppliers to showcase some truly exciting pieces of kit. However, if yellow isn’t your colour, this probably isn’t the place for you. At the Geismar stand, the team were even colour coordinated to their display, with international team members all sporting rail-plant-yellow ties.

One piece of Geismar’s kit stuck out a mile though – it was white. This white wonder was a track panel- laying machine, with a difference – it has no need for any auxiliary track, it is designed to operate perfectly on just formation ballast (maybe its lack of rail requirement is why it wasn’t ‘rail plant yellow’?). Using this cutting- edge equipment, a minimal team would be able to install a track panel of up to 42 metres long via remote control, with no need to send a man into a potentially dangerous worksite.

This equipment is currently used in France, however Geismar is meeting with its Network Rail sponsor to determine fleet requirements within the UK, and evaluate options to bring this exciting equipment to market.

Weather worries

With whispers in the air that the lightning storms that had lit up Northern Europe were on their way to us, and the mugginess and distant rumbles certainly suggesting the same, I declined the kind offer from Billy Thomson at NEOTEC to take a trip up in the SkyRailer’s cage to get an overview of the show. However, should I have chosen to, I’d have been in good company. Network Rail has recently adopted the machine for its Overhead Condition Renewals team.

“It’s a nice accolade. The week before the show, we delivered number 78 and 79 into the UK, with 12 going directly to Network Rail. We’re aiming for 100 by Christmas,” laughed Billy. “Who knows, British Airways might have delivered my suitcase by then too!”

Unlike BA with Billy’s suitcase, one team that really delivered was Matisa, with its corner of the showground living up to its “100%” slogan. The team was using the Münster event to showcase its innovative ballast consolidation system, the B66U, which is using double head tamping to ‘shake up’ traditional ballast stabilisation systems.

Matisa’s new machine differs from its competitors by only working on the ballast, and ensuring that existing track geometry remains stable and true. Whilst others may be more aggressive, the B66U’s technology ensures that vibrations are only emitted into the ballast, making this a great option for works on bridges, in tunnels and built-up areas.

The new system has already been accepted for maintenance use in Switzerland, Italy and, in principle, in France (at the time of writing SNCF was running trials), with renewals poised to follow. Will we be seeing it any time soon shaking up the UK infrastructure? Apparently, Network Rail has already made a trip to see it in action on a particularly bitterly cold night in Strasbourg, so watch this space!

Plenty of people from Network Rail also made the trip over to Germany, but there was no danger of needing to wrap up warm here. I bumped into Nick Matthews, Network Rail’s track engineering manager for the S&C Alliance, and once we had exchanged concerns over sun burn risks, he revealed that he was attending the show on the lookout for new technologies: “At the S&C North Alliance, we’re always looking for ways to improve delivery in the UK”, he said. “I’m ideally looking for an innovative solution for track panel lifting, but there’s always plenty of gems tucked away at a show like this.

With this in mind, one of Nick’s stops should have been PMC Rail. Not only did the blissfully air-conditioned training cabins provide some break from the heat, but the state-of- the-art simulation technology, which allows for realistic training on everything from tamping to track geometry, could offer a solution for getting operators up-to-speed on the great new equipment on offer at the show – perfect for any gems he tracked down. Additionally, the PMC Rail team won my entirely unofficial prize for the most enthusiastic and welcoming organisation at the show. I also (mentally) handed out a couple of prizes for the least enthusiastic and grumpiest organisations at the event, however I’ll keep these to myself… let’s put it down to heat and lack of access to PMC Rail’s air-conned units!

Tuesday afternoon saw a break in the summer weather with a downpour of biblical proportions. The poor team at Amberg Technologies fell victim to this sudden storm, with attendees of their off-site field trip getting a little more than they bargained for with regards to the rain. Whereas baseball caps (and bizarrely, toothbrushes) had been the order of the day on the freebie front, suddenly all eyes were on exhibitors giving away umbrellas – visitors to the SRS UK stand were certainly grateful for their sizable offerings (thanks Gethin)!

Happy birthday

The final day of the show marked one year of British Steel, and it was great to see the enthusiastic team members flying the flag for British manufacturing in Europe. They were strong in their key message of their dedication to “building a stronger future” and, certainly, the impressively structural stand was always busy, although the lack of British delicacies on the buffet table was concerning, not one Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake in sight.

In fact, birthday cakes were very thin on the ground generally. The show also played host to the 25th birthday of Swedish-based Railcare. However, instead of filling in a fire safety form and lighting some candles, the team celebrated by putting on a great show for visitors (including a number of key visitors from Network Rail) with their Railvac and newly launched ballast- feeding combo.

There was a fairly good party though – although it wasn’t necessarily thrown completely on behalf of British Steel and Railcare. Plasser & Theurer’s famous event saw the great and the good mingling together on Wednesday night, and enjoying an evening of networking, along with the opportunity to relax after a busy couple of days. However, it did lead to a fairly slow start and a few pairs of dark sunglasses on Thursday morning…

Good things, small(ish) packages

As well as visitors on the lookout for the ‘big kit’, the show was well attended by some familiar faces from the small plant world in the UK. So, in the interests of balance, I set myself a task to track down the most interesting attachments at the exhibition. Having dug through the buckets, and sieved through the flails, I decided on two likely candidates.

In pride of place on Colmar’s internal stand, I didn’t have to go very far before I found something that ‘undercut’ the competition… the Dymax Rail Ballast Blaster, an undercutter bar designed for use with all excavators with or without Tiltrotator technology. This scary creation wouldn’t look out of place on the poster for a horror film. With two sets of bi-directional blaster chains, each topped with carbine tipped teeth, this ballast beast boasts the “longest life chain in the rail industry”, and I’m certainly not going to argue with it!

A special mention must go to BSB- Saugbagger und Zweiwegetechnik’s TinBin TC2 – to be known as the TubeCube TC2 in the UK and distributed by Tasty Plant. Live demos showed the simple-but-brilliant suction excavation attachment in action, with its rotating head making hoovering up ground and gravel as easy as running a Dyson over the carpet, with the attached ‘bin’ meaning there’s minimal dust created. At one demonstration we spotted a young child crouched at eye-level – fascinated by the action unfolding – and he managed to remain relatively dust free until his mum hoicked him away!

Whilst searching for these hidden gems, I can’t have been the only person to have spotted a famous Pixar robot hiding in plain sight on the Zeppelin Power Systems stand? My sources assure me this Wall-E lookalike was in fact a Caterpillar engine, however I’m convinced that there’s more to this story… are Disney animators sneaking round rail shows looking for inspiration?

Working together

Although Brexit may be taking over the headlines in the UK, there was little evidence of a fractured Europe at the IAF show, with the industry proving exactly how much can be achieved with active collaboration.

At the Pandrol/Rosenqvist/Vortok/ Railtech stand, a family message was definitely in the air, with the four companies pulling together in an impressive united display. Their busy track section highlighted exactly how well their individual kit worked together as one united solution.

“It’s great to have the whole family here together, it’s our main theme for the event,” explained Nicole Lyons, Pandrol’s marketing coordinator. “We’re really innovative in our approach here, and are in the process of bringing everything even closer together than it has been previously. We’re becoming a lot more unified and synchronised.”

Talking of becoming unified, Rail Products UK was showcasing a pair of machines that have really hit the nail on the head for use across the worldwide market. The show saw the unveiling of the hefty TH21 road/ rail crane. However, for a European market, it was the organisation’s ART17TH MEWP, with its variable gauge (from one to 1.6 metres) and pantograph that really stood out.

A surprise guest was the appearance of Van Elle Rail, although not present under the company’s traditional piling guise. The rail team took delivery of two Colmar T10000FSCG cranes – the only two in the world in fact – just two weeks before the show and, despite only having their new toys for a few days, they decided to share nicely and joined forces with Colmar to make sure the crane’s presence was firmly felt at the show.

Another UK organisation proudly displaying its European reach at the show was Wales-based GOS Tools and Engineering. With a shiny Readypower machine sat in pride of place on the stand, highlighting GOS’ commitment to fleet investment, there was no underestimating the team which was showcasing UK engineering at its finest.

Not everyone was feeling the love though. Poor System 7 had a hefty hiccup at the show, when it was forced to cover its shiny new tamping bank up in the middle of day one, due to issues with the patent. After this, we weren’t allowed onto their stand, or to take any pictures of the front or end of the machine poking out of the huge tarpaulin. However, we did hear whispers that the embargoed machine has already been sold, despite the legal wranglings. Nothing like a bit of drama to spice things up a little!

In the course of three days, guests at IAF ran the full gamut of the emotions. We saw highs as Plasser & Theurer handed over its 16,000th track machine to the CEO of the Italian Rail Network. Lows, when the main coffee emporium ran out of apple cake just as the rain drove everyone inside. Laughter, when a grunt of acknowledgment from a seemingly benign air seat sent an over- enthusiastic tester jumping three feet into the air. Tears, with stories from numerous stands of burnt fingers achieved from polishing a machine in 35 degree sunshine on set up day (although these were tears of laughter in some cases…).

However, whether you left the show with burnt fingers or a burning desire for a hybrid tamper, everyone I spoke to is already making plans to revisit in four years’ time. My hotel is already booked for the 2021 show – see you there!


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