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High ideas

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OLE is a rather specialist field of railway engineering. Not many people see it happening and, if they do, it’s so spread out that making sense of what’s going on is a little difficult. OLE – overhead line equipment – is the wires and a lot else that makes up the knitting that is overhead electrification. Even from track level, the components appear strangely delicate. That’s really because, in normal circumstances, it’s never possible to get right up close without being blown away in a flash of 25kV.

But at Rail Live this year, it was possible to get right up close to all that makes up the OLE – and delicate it is not! This is hardly surprising as it is, after all, railway engineering which, almost by definition, is always heavy.

Troublesome trains

Up until recently, most of this heavy kit has been offered up in the air using trains, and the fact that trains are used is a hint that something substantial is being manipulated.

Trains, though, have their disadvantages. They are, after all, trains. Heavy in their own right, confined to rails – although this is blindingly obvious – dependant on stabling, route capacity and staffing just to make the thing go. They also have to arrive the right way round and marshalled in the right order – something that is often overlooked.

Does it have to be this way? Well, no. As always there are people around who can think of other, perhaps better, ways of doing things. The people who succeed in bringing out a better solution, though, tend to be those who know what they are doing. Those with years of hands-on experience. Those who have seen what can and can’t be done. What is effective and what is useless. What is safe and what is dangerous.


No quiet retirement

One such guy is Les Blake (pictured left) who, by any measure, is of mature years and could have retired several years ago. But he chose not to because he loves OLE and loves rising to a challenge and making a difference.

With such a long career, it is inevitable that he cut his teeth on many of the iconic electrification schemes. The WCML for example – and that’s the one before the post- privatisation adventure.

Shift after shift, possession after possession, Les has seen it all – warts and all.

Where is this leading? After all, after so many projects it would be tempting to opt for a quiet retirement.

But there was unfinished business. With possessions getting shorter, sidings disappearing, logistics moving away from direct control, there had to be another way of doing things. A way that didn’t involve the strictures of using trains.


Employed now by Keltbray, Les had established himself as someone who knew what he was talking about. And, because of that, a request to call together a group of people to discuss a road-rail wiring consist concept was seen as an opportunity.

So, towards the end of May in 2013, in the Rugby depot, the concept was put forward.

Instead of using a train, how would it be if the whole operation was achieved using a main vehicle with supporting crews on follow-up vehicles.

What would this arrangement address?

Possession starts and wrap-ups. These have always been when time just slips by. Calling forward a train into position – again a time consuming process.

Limited possession times – can they be used for anything really productive?

The ideas began to crystallise. The advantages looked attractive – to the extent that 2,000-metre midweek wire runs could be on the cards. This was a seismic shift in productivity.


Designed from scratch

Where was this road-railer? It didn’t exist. It would have to be designed from scratch. All the equipment normally carried on a train would have to be condensed into the limited envelope of a street legal road vehicle.

That was quite a challenge as road-railers aren’t trains. They’re nothing like as heavy. There’s the issue of how to ensure that wiring tensions wouldn’t just stop the vehicle in its tracks. After all it would be paying out wire at 20kN.

In a typical chicken and egg design process, it was necessary to work up what kit had to be accommodated and then sort out the chassis and the road rail equipment. Discussions were held with SRS – well established in the field of road-rail engineering – to discover whether the vehicle would pull the wire or whether the wire would pull the vehicle. The feeling was that it would be best to go for traction on both front and rear sets of road rail gear. In the end, this was a decision that was vindicated during trials.

The UK rail loading gauge may be a limitation, but the Construction and Use regulations for road vehicles cause just as many restraints. Axle loading on a rail vehicle can be comparatively high, those for road vehicles are strictly limited. Whilst there are dispensations, the whole point of the concept was that it should be flexible and not require special movement orders or police escorts!

So, within the width, length and height of a UK street legal vehicle, Les and the team had to shoehorn winding gear capable of handling conventional wiring drums, a bull wheel – in effect a large capstan that is the intermediary between a free running wiring drum and the tensioned wiring – and with everything mounted on a scissors lift arrangement. It all had to work on 150mm cant and on gradients of 1 in 25. At the back of the vehicle there needed to be the control cabin with all the control electronics/electrics.

And then there’s the money

This vehicle is not the end of it all of course, there are vehicles that service the operation and those that carry the support crews who join everything up as the wiring is paid out. Concept is one thing, production is another.

Keltbray Aspire, which is part of Keltbray Group and provides electrification services on the rail infrastructure, has invested nearly £6 million in new rail electrification plant over the last two years. Within this investment is a new and unique, multi-million pound overhead line electrification wiring unit that will provide increased safety, efficiencies and productivity to the UK’s national electrification programme.

Les’s road/rail concept is now that wiring unit and it is the only one of its kind in the UK. As he intended, it really can run out contact and catenary wires at full tension which means it halves the time it takes to install conductors for rail electrification using traditional methods.


The 32-tonne road rail chassis for the new Les Blake machine was built in Sweden by SRS Sjölanders AB while the wiring unit was developed by German-based company ZECK before being shipped to the UK.

To mark the successful commissioning of the vehicle, Keltbray named it the LB54 – LB = Les Blake; 54 = number of years of railway service.

“Traditionally, it requires three six-hour shifts to fully install and register the conductors on a tension length. The new wiring unit now allows a complete installation and full register in one six-hour working shift. Needless to say, this saves manpower and equipment but, more importantly, it enables us to reduce possession time and minimise track closures to the benefit of rail companies and passengers. Everybody wins!” explained Director of Keltbray Aspire, Martin Brown.

The new Les Blake machine is Network Rail approved and has been working to support installation of overhead line electrification for AmeyInabensa on Great Western, and will soon be relocated to Maidenhead for work on Crossrail.

What this whole exercise shows is that if you know what you’re doing and have a really practical idea, then there’s a good chance that someone with a chequebook will make sure it all happens.

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  1. It’s good to see such innovative kit being produced as a result of listening to highly trained and experienced engineers. I can see this hardware must have export potential. Hopefully it will help to reduce the high cost of future UK electrification projects too, it certainly is needed.

  2. Electrification is becoming a good thing but it’s costly but it helps to improve better journeys and is Eco-friendly.

    The Gospel Oak to Barking Line in London should be electrified in March or April next year with new London Overground Class 710’s to be built and other electrifications to be planned for London & the Southeast and electrification on the GWML to be completed in 2018 and MML is in plans to be electrified north of Bedford to Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and East Midlands.

    West Midlands could also see the pretential to have some lines to be electrified including the Coventry-Nuneaton line and lines coming in & out of Birmingham New Street (except the WCML and other Suburban lines which is already been electrified) that could be electrified to Cotswolds and the rest of West Midlands and beyond.

    Electrification in Eastern England could also happen with some rural lines to be electrified such as Ipswich-Felixstowe, Ipswich-Lowestoft, Norwich-Great Yarmouth, Norwich-Lowestoft, Norwich-Cromer-Sheringham, Norwich-Ely-Peterborough, Ipswich-Cambridge, Ipswich-Ely-Peterborough and Marks Tey-Sudbury lines that could also be planned to be electrified but new bi-trains are to be built in few years time.

    The North Downs line is also to be electrified with DC 750v 3rd Rail with some parts already electrified and the Hurst Green-Uckfield line and Ore-Ashford International line in East Sussex could also be planned to be electrified with DC 3rd rail.

    The North of England could also see the main Transpennine route to be electrified linking from Manchester to Leeds, Hull, York, Sheffield and to Derby, Lincoln & Nottingham.

    South Wales would also see electrification to happen because of the GWML is to be electrified and some other lines could also be planned for electrification.

    And in Scotland. Electrification is already happening with the Glasgow-Edinburgh line to be electrified with new trains to be built including the Class 385’s.

    • Aswell local and rural lines coming in & out of Birmingham Moor Street and Birmingham Snow Hill that could also be planned to be electrified and the Chiltern Route to/from London Marybolne could also have plans to be electrified.

      London’s railways are already electrified (apart from Gospel Oak-Barking line which is undergoing electrification works which is due to be electrified in March next year).


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