Make way for the tamping machines

Headlights cut through the damp air; the sound swells to a roar. A giant vehicle is drawing near. The machine is 30 metres long, 4 metres tall and weighs as much as 20 grown elephants. It steadily edges along the sleeper bed, until it suddenly comes to a halt directly in front of us and opens its flanks. Welcome on board CSM 09-3X. A renewal project in the autumn of 2014.

Apeldoorn Station is completely empty. There are no passengers – just two tamping machines and a ballast train. Outside, it’s wet and chilly. But in the front cab of CSM 09-3X, Strukton Rail’s largest tamping machine, the heater is on. Machine operator Henk Geurts has made it nice and warm. And if we’d like a cup of coffee: the machine has a coffeemaker on board – in fact, it even has a microwave. A lot of maintenance work is done at night, and then it’s nice to be able to have a hot meal.

“The front cab serves as the machine’s command centre.”

Today, the machine is working on a special project: by 2020, all stations in the EU will need to have a standard platform height of 76 cm, so that passengers can easily get on and off existing and future trains. This weekend, it’s Apeldoorn’s turn. The station platforms have already been lowered previously, and now the team is working on raising the track. The tamping machines, which are used to correct both the track’s height and alignment, have their work cut out for them. The machine lifts up the track itself, after which the tamping tines known as pickels (from the German Stopfpickel) pack ballast under the sleepers until the railway track has the required height and alignment.

Flickering lights

Flickering lights, moving gauges, beeps, charts rolling out of the on-board printer: it’s clear that the 3X’s front cab serves as a command centre, and it is Henk’s favourite workplace of all. He opens a file listing the measured data on the ALC computer. Track 2 needs to be shifted 8 mm to the left and raised by 32 mm. “We should be able to do this in one go,” says Henk. “It wouldn’t be a problem for the machine, that’s for sure. It can easily lift the track one metre into the air. But we adhere to the German standards, meaning that we lift the track a maximum of 6 cm at a time. If you pack the ballast layer by layer, you get a nice, tight track bed.” It’s all about getting the track perfectly level. Henk keeps a close eye on the different monitoring instruments. These devices, which are connected to a satellite, indicate whether the track’s position conforms to previously-entered measurement data. Henk loves his job: “Here, at the front of the machine, is where we schedule the work. Everything would mess up if I stopped paying attention.”

In the tamping cabin

In the tamping cabin, tamper Rudi Neihof’s view is restricted to the pickels: the machine’s moving parts. The noise here is a lot louder than in the front cabin, and we’re shaken about quite a bit. Sitting in a state-of-the-art chair that has been completely separated from the surrounding machine, Rudi isn’t bothered in the least. The Strukton Rail employee is responsible for operating the pickels. Whenever he pushes down a pedal with his foot, one of the tamping tines is lowered into the track bed. It’s a nerve-wracking business. “If you’re a split second late, you get an enormous thud, as well as three broken sleepers,” explains Rudi. “And that won’t be appreciated, because digging up and replacing sleepers is a hell of a job.” And that’s why Rudi keeps a close eye on the pickels. Still, he’s aware that every tamper fouls up occasionally. “Particularly in the case of track renovation projects: they dump so much ballast on the track that it covers the sleepers, so you end up tamping blind.”

Pot-bellied pig

Team leader Olaf Kee informs us over the walkie-talkie that we will be switching from wooden to concrete sleepers. This is important to know, since the concrete sleepers are thicker – meaning that the pickels need to go deeper into the subgrade. A bit later on, Olaf discovers a ‘pot-bellied pig’: jargon for a weld. He expertly guides tamper Rudi past the thickened piece of track. “That fellow forms the eyes and ears of our team,” explains Rudi. “He warns us about cables, signs and other obstacles. This includes cable collectors that cost around EUR 10,000, so whenever we get near one of those we slow things down for a moment.”

“It’s all about getting the track perfectly level.”

Waving to the Unimat

Hurray! This is the third time we’ve passed the Unimat working on the adjacent track. “That Dinky toy is still stuck on the first track,” Rudi says with a smile. It’s a point tamping machine – while it can work on a straight section of track, it can only lift the sleepers one by one. We lift three at a time, and can cover up to 1,700 metres of track per hour.” So the Unimat is slower, but it can do more things? “Well… it can tamp points,” Rudi admits grudgingly. That he’s joking around more than anything becomes clear when the Unimat’s afternoon crew arrives. Before the men set to work, they hop onto the 3X to enthusiastically greet their colleagues.

Rollercoaster

Olaf, Henk, Rudi and Willem are the 3X’s regular crew. The men are proud of ‘their’ machine: a truly formidable ‘toy’, worth several million euros. They handle regular maintenance on the 3X themselves, and they also keep a close eye on the machine when it’s at the Zutphen workshop for servicing. It is undoubtedly one of the giants of the rail network, and is frequently booked for international projects too. Only yesterday, the machine could be found working on German track, says Olaf. That was a precision job, because trains there reach speeds of 200 km per hour – meaning that the work needs to be done according to very tight margins. But even more interesting are the projects in Scandinavia, where Strukton works on the construction or renovation of local tracks. “The tracks literally twist this way and that – worse than a rollercoaster. It’s a wonderful job to work on: after three runs, we’ve got them straight as an arrow again!” And this evening, the same can be said of the rail track at Apeldoorn Station. Another track spick and span, ready for 2020.

By Helen van den Broek. Image: Tjitske Sluis

Project 76: Boarding in comfort

By 2020, platform heights at all Dutch stations need to comply with the European standard of 76 cm, allowing passengers to easily step in and out existing and future trains.
The work at Apeldoorn Station is part of a four-year contract, under which Strukton will be adapting 40 stations throughout the country.