Van Elle is an award winning British contractor that has been delivering geotechnical solutions to the industry for more than 33 years. It has grown gradually and now has a directly employed workforce of over 550 and a turnover of £84 million in 2015/16.

The business is now the UK’s largest company specialising in ground engineering and uses the latest plant, technologies and innovations to deliver value-engineered solutions to the market.

A recent open day attracted around 30 companies to Pinxton, Nottinghamshire, including Network Rail, Murphy, Carillion, Capita Symonds and VolkerRail. Rail Engineer was there to find out what had drawn them.

Skilled staff

In common with all other concerns, Van Elle’s business and reputation hangs on the quality of its staff. Rail technical and innovation director Andy Howard explained that Van Elle’​s philosophy is to employ direct rather than through agencies, to pick people with the required capabilities and attitudes and to train them fully. Evidence of Van Elle’s seriousness about training was clear to all, as a new training academy was under construction adjacent to the guests’ marquee.

Health and safety is also a key focus for the company, and the strapline “Think safely, Act safely” aims to convey this to staff and clients. Hazard reports are seen as positive, showing that people in the company are taking safety seriously as well as opening up safety issues to the senior management team so that they may be appropriately resolved. The company is a POS (Plant Operators Scheme) member, a CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) Platinum Award winner and a Network Rail principal contractor license holder.

Van Elle believes in positive engagement with its staff, its clients and also with the community. It has a specific involvement with education, partnering with a number of local and regional educational establishments. This year will see the launch of the inaugural “Van Elle Challenge” as part of which several educational establishments will attempt to solve some real problems that the industry has encountered in its work.

Mark Williams, Van Elle’s group development director, outlined the company’s history in rail engineering and, in particular, on-track works. Although involved as a company within the rail sector for over 15 years, the Rail division began to evolve in 2010 when the VolkerFitzpatrick Birmingham New Street management team suggested that Van Elle should deliver the same products and quality of service on the rail infrastructure that it currently did on platforms.

Success on subsequent projects led to the formation of the company’s specialist Rail Division in 2013. Van Elle now owns and operates one of the UK’s largest fleets of state-of-the-art Colmar road/rail vehicles (RRVs). The Rail division now has around 70 direct employees, although the group has over 160 PTS accredited staff in total. Work undertaken ranges from GI (ground investigation); anchor, soil-nail and pile installation for OLE (overhead line equipment); platform extensions; embankment and trackbed stabilisation through to the lifting and erection of structures.

Extensive fleet

The plant owned is extensive in number and variety, including sophisticated piling rigs, drills and hybrid ancillary attachments – Van Elle has also invested in Europe’s first rail mounted volumetric concrete mixer. This should soon clear the Network Rail approvals process, enabling the company to deliver up to 7.2 cubic metres of mixed concrete when fully laden although it’s material components can be replenished on site by rail, or taken by rail to a road-rail access point (RRAP).

Many of the company’s latest plant purchases and developments were on display with a number being shown in action. Several of these demonstrations were undertaken on the rail test track, claimed to be one of the UK’s longest private examples, where not only is the innovative plant built and tested, but also employees are trained and mentored.

The first new machines shown, however, were two new road mounted piling rigs, Soilmec STM20s that take only about 20 minutes to set up after arrival on site.

Next up were their two brand new Colmar T10000FSCG tracked road-rail cranes. One was in a static display showing how it can lift sheet piles up to 14 metres in length over a 15-metre radius. The other gave a working demonstration of its capabilities, first erecting an OLE mast on a piled base from on-track and then showing how its caterpillar tracks can be widened and lowered onto the ballast shoulders (suitably protected as required) to increase the capacity of the crane at greater radii, enabling it to pick up an Unwin Super Kitten mini piling rig which would be used for mini piling platforms or working under live OLE.

Throughout the day, all the demonstrated lifting and drilling operations were controlled by a trackside operator (crane controller) using an Athena DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) system, manufactured by dBD Communications. This ensured full safety and communication with the experienced RRV Operators.

Piling on the innovation

A special piling mast, developed especially for the installation of the company’s unique trackbed stabilisation solution Smartpile, was also remotely controlled whilst mounted upon one of the new Colmar T12000FS RRVs.

Smartpiles were developed by Van Elle’s dedicated R&D team in response to Network Rail’s requirement to stabilise tracks in areas of particularly poor ground conditions. The concept is to drive piles through the track ballast between the sleepers, through any weak layers below the track, into better ground. Piles applied like this, in a designed pattern appropriate to the site conditions, can stiffen the track and eliminate stiffness variations, improving the quality and durability of the track geometry without the expense or disruption to trains that would be caused by conventional remedial methods.

Using this concept should also be quicker and less costly than techniques such as formation treatment, allowing more track to be treated in a given possession and without time consuming ‘wet works’ and curing times. Network Rail had proven the concept during trials, but had not been able to find a satisfactory practical means of applying the concept under real conditions. Once involved, Van Elle developed and proved the Smartpiles and the special piling attachment to drive them, and the company is now one of three contractors to have secured a share of the £45 million framework contract to install them on track stabilisation sites across the network.

New techniques

Another solution demonstrated was the formation of bored, concreted OLE piles. Firstly, a cylindrical casing is rotated and advanced into the ground enabling the material within to be augered out and removed from site. The void is then filled with concrete and a steel cage with a specific bolt design to enable the OLE stanchion to be easily mounted on top.

Where even this technique cannot penetrate the ground, uniquely, Van Elle was the first geotechnical engineering contractor to have the technology and equipment capable of drilling through difficult ground conditions (other than reinforced concrete/heavy timber) using the rotary-percussive Elemex solution from Atlas Copco. The bespoke RRV-mounted remote-control mast, VE-SPA, uses a specially designed rotary percussive hammer drill to advance the cutting shoe, whilst the pile’s 16mm thick casing is driven to design depth. The arising from the drill is brought to the surface and discharged neatly through a nozzle on one side of the
drilling rig such that they can be collected in bags or a skip as required.

The rig requires a very high volume of compressed air at a pressure of 14 bar, so Van Elle worked with Atlas Copco in Sweden to develop a compressor specifically for the task. This delivers up to 1,560 cubic feet/minute from a very quiet unit (the size of a Transit van) that can be pulled to site by an RRV on a rail trailer. As well as being able to penetrate virtually any ground conditions, a major advantage of the Elemex solution is the unequalled accuracy it delivers with minimal vibration and ground disturbance.

200 such piles were installed at Eden Brows in Cumbria, on the Settle to Carlisle
line, to depths of up to 20 metres, with vertical tolerances of less than 25mm, to
stabilise a problematic slip failure that had previously closed the line.

Unseen plant

Of course, much of Van Elle’s plant was out working and so not seen on the open
day. This included the company’s Llamada P160TT continuous flight auger (CFA)
piling rig, the largest CFA rig in the UK, and two smaller P140TTs.

In addition, Van Elle has recently bought two new Juntan PMx22 driven piling rigs
and the UK’s fi rst Soilmec SR95 rig with true CSP capability for installing cased
CFA, conventional CFA as well as rotary piles. The company has many Movax
side-grip vibratory piling hammers, but has recently also acquired Daedong
alternatives that are one third lighter, more manoeuvrable and offer greater control
and increased offsets for installation.

Extensive capabilities

Van Elle can also design, fabricate and supply specialist concrete products, making these at the Pinxton site utilising its own on-site concrete batching plant. Some examples were displayed alongside the plant demonstrations. They included Van Elle’s proprietary modular foundation system, Smartbase, which is suitable for all kinds of rail and road structures, whilst its Smartfoot product is regularly used for the foundations of commercial and industrial structures, as well as both private and social housing, where contamination, high water tables and excavation is difficult or speed is of the essence.

The company is also capable of working on specialist offshore, nearshore, coastal and inland waterways projects. It specialises in piling and has the capability to deal with this in restricted access situations as well as open access sites.

Rail projects or sites that Van Elle has been working on recently include the Eden Brows project, Walsall/Rugeley electrification, Stockley near Heathrow, the Great Western outer track infrastructure project and Great Western electrification. Most recently, the company has started work on Lot 1 of the Midland main line electrification (MMLE) alongside Carrilion Powerlines, using brand-new Colmar T12000FS RRVs that, again, are a world first and deliver more power and efficiency.

Having seen all of the equipment and technology on show, visitors to the open day were left in no doubt as to why Van Elle is a multi-award winning company, having collected, for example, the NCE 100 Awards’ Technology Trailblazer title in 2016 as well as Specialist Contractor of the Year 2015 from Construction News.


This article was written by Chris Parker.