Back in the day, when railways were the best way of transporting heavy freight and large numbers of people over distances (some say that time is here again!), railways had a strategic military importance. They were fought over, bombed to disrupt lines of communication, rebuilt to restore them, and then bombed again. The Army had several specialist units to rebuild railways, rebuild locomotives and rolling stock, and then run them.
Squads of engineers trained to do this at the Longmoor Military Railway in Hampshire, which was active between 1903 and 1969. It was up to 70 miles long, but as it was continually being built and rebuilt for training it was always changing. During World War Two, there was even a second training railway established in the Midlands, running from Derby to Ashby de la Zouch.
Those days are long gone. Today, 507 Specialist Team Royal Engineers (Rail Infrastructure) (507 STRE) is the Army’s only railway infrastructure specialists. It is an Army Reserve sub-unit with the majority of the team working in the rail industry for their day job.
All Reservists conduct a two-week training exercise as part of their annual commitment and, in 2017, 507 STRE’s took place at MOD Kineton, Warwickshire and Ayrshire Barracks, Monchengladbach, Germany. It consisted of numerous work packages to enable the team members to get the maximum benefit from the limited time available.
The tasks consisted of design work, construction of a new Rail Training Area and a training stand facility, rail maintenance and providing an insight into railway construction to Regular Royal Engineers.
Week 1 – MOD Kineton
The design team, headed up by Lieutenant Matt Lowe, had been working on a number of tasks for DIO (Defence Infrastructure Organisation) Rail. While these tasks stretched both the knowledge and capacity of the reservists, by carrying them out, they gained new experience and DIO Rail had work completed in the current financial year that otherwise wouldn’t have been delivered.
The first task was a track alignment survey of a new connecting lead from MOD Kineton to the Network Rail main line and a new turnout. The work required surveying, data processing and a validation exercise that resulted in the re-issue of rail site plans to the client.
Next task was the relaying of a turnout due to its poor condition and also an obsolete/substandard rail section. Another turnout on the site was identified as a possible replacement, and a survey and analysis was undertaken which concluded that replacement was appropriate.
Task three involved the assessment of derailment risk and associated protection on two under-bridges on the Graven Hill to Arncott Link line. The work involved bridge surveys, a risk assessment conforming to Network Rail standards and outline designs being produced to mitigate the risks identified. Whilst the risk of derailment was found to be small, due to the location of the structures and the environmental impact that a derailment may cause, the potential consequences of such an event was found to be high. As such, a number of preventative measures have been put forward to DIO Rail for consideration, ranging from minor track realignment to the replacement of bridge decks.
The final task consisted of amendments of MOD Rail track category and track construction type drawings, as well as schematic track diagrams. These works were undertaken at MOD Kineton using AutoCAD software. At the end of this phase, Lt Lowe said “Overall, the week has been hugely beneficial for the junior members involved in the design team. The exercises provided opportunities to build on theory and provide a meaningful service to the MOD.
“Going forward, this ATX (annual training exercise) will provide a firm foundation for the future development of the team, its capabilities and the specialist support that it can provide to the wider Armed Forces.”
A task for other members of 507 STRE was the construction of a new Rail Training Area (RTA) at MOD Kineton. This is adjacent to the existing network and was constructed using reclaimed material gathered from redundant areas of the MOD rail network. This new area will increase the capacity for the team to deliver specialist training for the military platelayers’ trade training syllabus and for Regular Royal Engineer units to receive low-level training in repair and maintenance of railway infrastructure. It is hoped to further expand this area to deliver more in-depth training elements over a wider site.
This first week was not all about building the team’s own knowledge, but helping to share this knowledge with others. As such, the team was invited to Rock Barracks, Woodbridge, Suffolk, to give an appreciation of track management and maintenance from a military perspective; this included the management of damage caused by sabotage and bomb strikes. A presentation was made detailing the typical life of track, from design and construction, through operation and maintenance, on to renewal and removal.
Following the presentation, arrangements were made for a contingent of 36 Engineer Regiment to visit the new RTA at MOD Kineton. The visit consisted of a site brief, followed by specialist tool familiarisation and training (rail drill, rail saw, sleeper drill, impact wrenches, ballast packers to name a few). Once complete, work was undertaken to build a new turnout. The task was well received by the regiment and the intention is to carry out further training together in the future.
Colonel Peter Fisk, Deputy Commander (Reserve) of 170 Engr Gp and the senior Reservist, said: “It was impressive to see Reservists training Regulars in the use of railway equipment and the individuals in the team gained from sharing their experiences and knowledge. This should increase the visibility of the capabilities of 507 STRE in the future as the team look to work further with Regular forces.”
Running concurrently to the rail works, DEODS (Defence Explosive Ordnance Disposal School) Kineton approached 507 STRE to construct a car storage facility. After the trees originally covering the site were felled, 507 STRE had a maximum of six days to complete this task.
After a scan of the area for buried services, de-stumping could commence, which removed any potential hard spots. Once the whole area had been cleared, the team took the area down to a base level, whereupon edging was laid along three sides of the area with concrete sleepers acting as retaining kerbs. To complete the area to the finished surface, a geotextile was laid and topped with 280 tonnes of type 1 sub-base which was then compacted and levelled.
Major Chris Judge, Officer Commanding 507 STRE, said: “This type of activity shows the diverse skill sets within 507 STRE. Regardless of not being a railway activity, the team pulled together to plan and execute the task”.
Week 2 – Germany
On the team’s arrival at Ayrshire Barracks in Mönchengladbach, Germany, a Rail Construction Troop of three sections was formed to carry out essential maintenance of the railway infrastructure that had largely been neglected for some 25 years.
One section’s task was to clear out the debris and vegetation that had set into the rail channels at two level crossings and to enhance rail movement safety by painting the switch point tips neatly in white so that they can be more easily seen.
A second section’s task included loosening the sleeper bolts to de-stress the rails using a socket power wrench. The third section’s repair tasks included uncoupling the fishplates at the joints using hand wrenches so that they could be re-greased to allow for movements in the rails due to thermal changes. The first section also backfilled for the fishplate-greasing task, which allowed more men to operate the hand wrenches. The whole procedure meant that DIO Rail received a real benefit in the form of badly needed track maintenance which also provided a training benefit to 507 STRE.
Whilst the Rail Construction Troop was kept busy, a smaller team of technical specialists was formed to complete construction assurance of works undertaken by civilian contractors at Ayrshire Barracks Railhead.
The volume of rail traffic to mainland Europe is insufficient to justify a permanent MOD rail engineering resource in Germany and these works provided a valuable service to monitor the condition of the infrastructure. 507 STRE therefore provides regular technical specialism and construction assurance to maintain its safe operation.
The visit to Germany was finished with Exercise Ayrshire Sapper. This planning exercise simulated the breakout of World War III, and the resulting wide spread damage to Ayrshire Barrack’s rail network. 507 STRE was split into two sections and given the task of planning the repair of the network to allow the first locomotive to enter the area safely within three days, and presenting the findings to 507 STRE officers.
The exercise was found to be insightful, particularly to the junior ranks who did not have much experience of these exercises, and demonstrated the team’s ability to produce a co-ordinated, technical and precise plan.
At the conclusion of the exercise, Major Judge commented: “The 16-day exercise has been an overwhelming success and provided great work to a number of clients as well as taking some time to build the knowledge of the team with some excellent technical training.
“It also provided the opportunity to secure the future direction of the STRE with the addition of the new RTA, which will undoubtedly act as a key asset going forward.”
507 STRE is a sub-unit of 170 (Infrastructure Support) Engineer Group, a Royal Engineers formation comprised of both Regular and Reserve personnel that are infrastructure experts and carry out work for the whole of the Armed Forces and other government departments when called upon.
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This article was written by Simon Killips.
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