It’s a well-known fact that Britain’s railway network faces some sizable challenges concerning capacity, reliability and efficiency. As a result, billions of pounds are being spent on both rolling stock and infrastructure projects across the network.

With rising ticket prices and the current economy, budgets have never been under such heavy scrutiny, so it is now vital that all solutions are implemented, not just for the present, but for the future, taking into account projected growth which will have a measurable impact on efficiency.

Throughout the UK, rail passengers and the general public are aware of substantial station upgrades designed both to enhance the passenger experience and to develop new retail and dining opportunities for local people.

However, those same railway users are often completely unaware of work taking place behind the scenes, where huge investments are being made to upgrade depots across the country that house and maintain the new and improved trains.

As always, safety is at the forefront of all asset upgrades, with innovation the key to achieving the high standards the UK is known for across the world.

The use of composites

Traditional materials are becoming, in many instances, a thing of the past due to the emergence of composites that are now widely available and used across the network, providing a host of benefits that outweigh the use of such materials as timber, steel and concrete.

Composites UK, the industry’s trade association, defines a composite material as one which is “composed of at least two materials, which combine to give properties superior to those of the individual constituents”.

Glass and fibre-reinforced plastics (GRP and FRP) are examples of composite materials that have, over the past couple of decades, increasingly been used for railway projects across the UK. From end-of-platform steps to complete station platform refurbishments and huge multi-story maintenance depot walkways, GRP can solve problems associated with traditional materials and reduce cost at the same time.

A few of GRP’s key benefits include its light weight, high strength and non-corrosive, non-conductive, easy-to-cut nature. With careful planning and good design, costly heavy lifting equipment can be eliminated and installation time can be reduced considerably. Ongoing maintenance can also be minimal, saving both money and time.

Typical example

Selhurst Train Care Depot is one of many depots across the UK that have opted for Step On Safety’s composite GRP materials over traditional steel and aluminium, in this case when choosing access solutions for use with Class 377 trains.

In both the inspection and cleaning sheds, maintenance teams carry out work on HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) units and pantographs, located on the train’s roof alongside the door controls.

To access and service this equipment, the depot’s engineers were frequently utilising a range of non-permanent mobile aluminium access platforms and steps along with harnessed man-safe systems. This was deemed to be an unsafe method of access, one that should only be used as a last resort, as the possibility that an operative could be left stranded on the man-safe line required detailed rescue plans to be drawn up each time it was used.

This type of access also caused problems when dealing with heavy and cumbersome equipment, adding further risk to the operation.

Collaborative project

As a result of these concerns, a fast-track project was drawn up to reduce any hazards associated with the current access plan whilst also reducing the chance of slips, trips and falls, enabling depot engineers to access roof-mounted units on the Class 377 trains safely. Safe access to switchgear inside the door wells was also required.

Step On Safety, leading specialist in GRP and FRP composite solutions within the rail and construction industries, collaborated with train operator Southern (part of Govia Thameslink Railway – GTR) and rail maintenance assessor SGS to provide a turnkey solution to the problem. Together, they sought to design, deliver and install a number of permanent, static multi-story access platforms, replacing the hazardous mobile equipment and man-safe systems. The project was ambitious, with a very short turn around of only 10 weeks.

The material selected for the structures was Step On Safety’s Quartzgrip GRP composite, which offered a fast and effective turnkey solution. Permanent platforms provide engineers with easily identifiable and specific gated access points, to accommodate both four and five-car train units enabling simultaneous side access. All designs are to Network Rail standards, with a design load of 5kN/m2.

Two permanent double-story GRP access platforms, totalling 175 metres in length, were installed in the inspection shed. Various access points were included, giving safe access for maintenance to HVAC, pantograph and door-control units.

In the cleaning shed, due to ground restrictions, only one permanent GRP access platform could be installed – 87 metres long and 3.5 metres high with dual access stairs. Bespoke GRP suspended access pods were installed along the adjacent side, giving the maximum working area for the safe removal by crane, cleaning and replacement of roof-mounted units.

In both scenarios, the substructure was made from GRP channels, H-beams, box sections and angles, while the treads and deck boasted GRP anti-slip mini-mesh Quartzgrip gratings, providing the highest slip-resistance certification in accordance to BS 7976-2. Modular handrails and gates, also in GRP, are non-conductive, non-corrosive, and warm to the touch, ideal for depot environments.

The exacting 10-week deadline was met. Step On Safety’s ability to precision engineer a bespoke design and pre-fabricate complete units in its workshop meant that the fast-track installation programme was achieved while causing little disruptions to the live operating depot. No heavy lifting equipment was required as the team stuck to the methodical installation plan.

The designs at Selhurst depot utilised all of the space available while creating the most efficient working platforms, allowing engineers to keep the trains in top condition to deliver the best possible service. The success of the project demonstrates the benefits of collaborative working between Step On Safety, Southern, GTR and SGS.

The future

Further to these works, other depots across the country have adopted Step On Safety’s single and multi-story permanent access solutions. Managing director Mike Warren commented: “The rail industry is an extremely important part of what we do and an integral part of future growth strategy, which is why we apportion a high percentage of our R&D resource to it.”

The company is currently working on a contract at Stewarts Lane traction maintenance depot in Battersea, London, where its composite expertise will provide another turnkey solution for 230 metres of dual 3.5-metre-high GRP permanent access platforms with multiple emergency access points at set intervals. Once again, the bespoke design and installation will result in little disruption to the work of the live depot.

As a result of this success, a full-scale demonstration unit is being constructed at the company’s head office in Brantham, Suffolk. Here, visitors will be able to see the advantages of GRP access platforms for themselves and to discuss design and installation with Step On Safety experts.

Antony Theobald is business development manager at Step On Safety.


Read more: Rail Engineer April 2018 – Rolling stock and Infrarail preview