Harry's High Hopes

The modern workshop is a hive of activity - full of components and locomotives, and buzzing with staff busy on various tasks. 

Harry Needle Railroad Company’s staff are returning a scrap locomotive to ‘as new’ condition, while modifying a Class 57 which is effectively a decade old. Also in the facility is a small industrial shunter, which is being equipped with a new engine. And overseeing this work is the boss… Harry Needle.

Back in the 1980s, Needle purchased several shunting locomotives, and main line locomotives, and it was this that led him into the engineering sector. He has since bought and sold numerous vehicles, while a core fleet remains in use including two Class 20s main line-certified. 

A cheerful man, it is hard to get a word in edgeways as he shows RAIL around his facility, which is leased from Barrow Hill’s owners. It is easy to see why HNRC is well connected within the industry, with his likeable, hands-on approach. His phone rings constantly with customers and suppliers trying to reach him, a sure sign that his business is being taken seriously. 

The misconception is that HNRC is a specialist in heritage locomotives, but that is not the main thrust of the business. Restoring Class 37s to a high standard for Network Rail may be an important part of the business portfolio, but a potentially far more lucrative business opportunity could be just around the corner. 

Shunting locomotives are a valuable part of the HNRC business at its Barrow Hill facility; in fact, they play the biggest part within the company. HNRC owns the largest collection of industrial shunting locomotives in Europe, with the fleet totalling 75 examples. Many are on hire, and others stored. Some will run again, others won’t, but some will have an exciting future, Needle believes. 

His fleet ranges from 34-tonne to 75-tonne locomotives, and there is a huge demand for new locomotives, he says. However, they could cost more than £600,000, so he has a cost-effective solution: re-engining the shunting locomotives.

With examples from all the major operators, including Andrew Barclay, Hunslet, English Electric and Thomas Hill, all manners of shunters are catered for. But HNRC believes there is a huge market for rebuilding machines, and even says the work could be undertaken on a Class 20, first introduced in 1957.

“What we are saying is: why buy new? We can offer a complete redesign, superstructure, modern cab and latest green efficiencies for a third of the price of a brand new shunter,” says Needle. Modern features include remote control, black boxes and slow speed control, with traction controls also available, he says. 

A 1979 Andrew Barclay shunter is currently being re-engined at Barrow Hill (RAIL 627), and fitted with an uprated 450hp Cummins engine (it was previously fitted with a 375hp Rolls Royce engine, although the largest it could be fitted with is 750hp). Cummins and MTU engines could be used, says Needle. Composite braking (more reliable, according to Needle), computer-controlled electronics and a hydrostatic compressor is also being fitted to the prototype. 

Needle says there are five or six shunters at Barrow Hill that could be put into the programme quickly. They are mainly industrial designs, but there are some former British Rail locomotives also available following a stint in industrial use. “We have had enquiries,” Needle confirms. 

The first locomotive should be ready at Easter 2010, and HNRC can get others ready inside six months. “We have locomotives that can go from 200hp to 750hp, and we have Class 20s that can also go to 1,500hp if the customer requires,” says Needle. There is a smaller version of the project under way at Barrow Hill for Lafarge, which is having a shunter fitted with a 425hp Cummins engine. But no other work is being done; this is simply uprating the power of the locomotive. 

HNRC’s shunter fleet also includes Class 07s and ‘08s’ that are available to rail operators, but the main focus is the industrial fleet.  

The Class 20s could also be offered with a slow-speed limit control that is also fitted to HNRC shunters. “This means they only go at 7mph,” Needle explains. Two ‘20s’ at Corus’ Scunthorpe steelworks facility are fitted with this equipment and, according to Needle: “The locomotives are achieving 98% miles per casualty. They are the most utilised ‘20s’ in the UK.” 

It is that type of work HNRC is seeking for
its fleet. Three ‘20s’ are currently on contracts, 20056 and 20066 at Scunthorpe, and 20168 at Lafarge’s Hope Quarry. HNRC has undertaken significant work on all three machines to make them usable, and several modifications have also been undertaken, including fitting a silencer to 20168. All this was designed and carried out by HNRC at its Barrow Hill facility.

Remote control is also on offer for the locomotives, including the ‘20s’. Indeed, 20092 is being fitted with the equipment as part of its overhaul, after which it will move to Hope Quarry to haul cement trains. It will be possible to use the veteran Type 1 on these trains without a driver in the cab. It will be able to operate slowly, and unlike previous remote-control fitted Class 20s it will be able to operate in more than one direction. 

All the re-engining and modification work will be undertaken at the Barrow Hill facility.

But there is more to HNRC than the re-engining of locomotives. “We are trying to mimic Brush Traction,” says Needle. 

The workshop, which has two roads and can house four vehicles, is one of several new buildings at Barrow Hill, a far cry from the rundown site it was ten years ago. It is fully equipped with jacks and overhead cranes, and allows the company to undertake every engineering job the railway requires, with the exception of wheelset overhauls. Intermediate overhauls have been conducted on Class 47s and ‘57s’ while some vehicles have been stripped others completely rebuilt, including the four Class 37s in use with Network Rail (97301-304).  

Barrow Hill is thriving, and one of the biggest firms there is HNRC. The engineering company has also taken a third line in a different building, while its locomotives are scattered around the yard, most as strategic reserves although some are destined for scrap.

Inside HNRC’s facility during RAIL’s visit was a small industrial locomotive being fitted the new engine (not to the same level or work as that proposed by HNRC on future projects), plus 37409 and 57009. The Class 57 was one of two DRS examples on site. Both are ‘test-beds’ for a number of modifications designed by DRS and HNRC and which it is hoped will improve the reliability of the ‘57s’. These are former Class 47s that were fitted with General Motors engines in the late-1990s for Freightliner and Porterbrook, in a similar vein to that on offer by HNRC for shunters.

The Class 37/4 is a taster of what HNRC can do. This locomotive arrived at Barrow Hill earlier this year having been bought by Direct Rail Services. It is one of three Class 37/4s owned by DRS, but having been withdrawn in 2000, it has not worked since. 

EWS and latterly DB Schenker stored the locomotive at Motherwell, but it has been left outside for that period, and the Lanarkshire weather (often rain) has taken its toll. The locomotive, to the untrained eye, looks a wreck. 

“Come on, let’s have a look,” says Needle, keen to show the skills of his 14-strong workforce. The locomotive has been stripped back to bare metal, and is nearly empty when we walk through it. The attention to detail has been painstaking - even the window handles have been replaced allowing easier use of the window. The engine has been sent to an off-site facility for a full rebuild - this has finished, but other work on the ‘37’ is not yet complete to allow it to be refitted. 

“This is the best way to do these locomotives, strip them back and start all over again,” Needle tells RAIL, pointing at the body of 37409. It is hard to disagree. “You can make sure everything has been thoroughly repaired, that nothing has been missed, but that means all the equipment must come out.” 

The number of components on shelves behind me suggests there is still quite a lot to be refitted to 37409. It is undergoing a traditional ‘F’ exam (which means everything is overhauled) as well as ‘abnormal repairs’ specified by DRS (which basically means everything is checked, bodywork repairs are carried out and the locomotive is delivered to DRS in ‘as new’ condition).

Needle thinks the locomotive was withdrawn with wheelset problems, and that “its engine was OK”. But it was completely stripped anyway. It has several new components, including a new crank, and should be ready to enter traffic before Christmas. “Effectively we have added ten years to its life,” says Needle.

Over the years an excellent relationship has been built up between HNRC and DRS, and several Class 37s have been overhauled by
the engineering firm before entering traffic with the Cumbrian-based company. Ownership of locomotives has swapped between the two companies several times, and that is likely to continue. A pool of Class 20 components is shared by both firms, while HNRC is one of three companies that maintains DRS’s large Class 37 fleet, undertaking the biggest tasks. It is also HNRC that reactivates Class 47s for use with DRS. 

The next locomotive to move to Barrow Hill is expected to be 37682, once owned by HNRC, to receive new wheelsets. The wheelsets destined for 37682 are currently at Barrow Hill undergoing an extensive overhaul. 

When it was overhauled, the ‘37/5’ was fitted with overhauled bogies from a different ‘37’ while its original set were removed, and HNRC has really gone to town on these. They have been completely stripped back and alignment checks were taking place as RAIL was shown around. The level of work on the bogies is such that HNRC is rewriting the overhaul specifications for Class 37 bogies that will be used across the industry. More bogies will follow.

Tim Bralesford works for HNRC, and is a partner in HN Rail Projects (HNRP), and contracted to undertake the engineering tasks. He is one of two directors, Needle is the other, and was previously at Brush before setting up his own firm, Tim Bralesford Engineering Services Ltd.

“The Class 37 bogies are a problem to overhaul,” Bralesford explains. “Whereas the Class 47s have documents explaining what is faulty, the ‘37s’ do not. We have to produce new documentation, and this means measuring frames. We are also required to recover any frames we can.” 

Bralesford says new tooling has to be constructed for tasks never undertaken before. Such is the level of detail being undertaken on these overhauls, arm guides are being removed. This has never been done before, even when 37682 was converted from a Class 37/0 in 1985 at Crewe Works. This enables welding to take place, making the bogies stronger as cracks are repaired, but it is a massive challenge. 

One of HNRC’s staff showed RAIL a simple looking box that has been handcrafted to allow the guides to be removed. “This has not been done before, so there was no tool. We need to move the axle boxes - they weigh 11 stone, so the box helps with that,” he explains. A simple, yet effective method. 

“The idea behind the overhauls is to get the bogies back to ‘as new’ condition. This means they will have ‘as new’ tolerances,” Bralesford tells RAIL. “The main thing to check is: is it twisted or bent? If it is, there is a problem. DRS has seen a high level of scrappage because of this.” 

But there are other tasks that need looking at. “We need to understand where the horn guide plates on the bogies are, for instance, as this is where the most wear and tear seems to take place as this is not really lubricated properly,” says Bralesford. “After that we have made sure the frames are not twisted.” This is important work, as bogies are becoming scare for Class 37s. “At the moment we have the option of parts available for these, but the number of ‘37s’ being scrapped is dropping.” 

HNRC is looking at acquiring more of the Type 3s, with 37077 and 37377 mentioned. With the need to stockpile components, it would be foolish to suggest HNRC will not buy more ‘37s’, but DB Schenker only has 38 stored examples left. Could locomotives previously considered preserved be purchased?  

The bogies destined for 37682 are also being recalibrated to ensure they fit the DRS exam plans, which differ from other companies. “DRS is the long-term future for ‘37s’,” says Bralesford, stressing the need to get this done correctly. Part of the work with DRS, he says, is to update the overhaul specifications. A further pair of bogies is to be overhauled, and it is likely more will head in HNRC’s direction.  

37683 will also return to traffic with DRS following an extensive overhaul by HNRC. Like others, it was bought by HNRC and sold on, but it has been stored at Barrow Hill for more than a year. Before it enters traffic it will also be rebuilt, having been out of traffic for a decade. It has been repainted, but that does not tell the full tale of the work undertaken on the veteran Type 3. It too has undergone an ‘F’ exam, and will form part of DRS’s core fleet when it returns to traffic.

The Class 57 inside the shed, 57009, is one of two to move to Barrow Hill earlier this year, 57004 was the other, and they are forming something of a testbed for DRS. Both have undergone an intermediate overhaul and had wheelset changes, but other modifications have also been implemented. These include intercooler and turbo changes, while the louvers have been removed from the roofs of the ‘57s’. The fans on the locomotives did not operate when the louvers were closed, so they have been removed and replaced with a stainless steel mesh, which allows the fans to work better. These two ‘57s’ will enter traffic with this modification, which, if successful, will be rolled out across DRS’s Class 57 fleet.

But what really caught the industry’s eye, and earn HNRC and HNRP prominence, was its ERTMS contract. In February 2007, Network Rail named HNRC the preferred bidder for a contract to overhaul and modify four Class 37s for use on the Cambrian Line. They would be fitted with ERTMS equipment, with HNRC also maintaining the locomotives for a designated period. However, the goalposts were moved slightly when NR decided it wanted a single contractor to provide the locomotives and operate them, so Serco was awarded the deal. The overhaul work was then sub-contracted to HNRP, which had been set up in March 2007.

The work involved four Class 37/0s from the HNRC fleet, with those in the best condition selected. This included 37100 and 37178, which had been rescued from scrapyards, and 37217, which was withdrawn by EWS in 1998 and had been stored at Ayr for several years. 

“This opened us up to the industry,” said Needle. “Previously we were about repairs, not full overhauls. HNRC had done several repairs for DRS, but this was the first detailed overhaul for a customer.” 

The work was extensive. The locomotives were stripped to bare metal, and completely rebuilt. NR plans to use the locomotives until at least 2019, and they are effectively brand new, each one having had easily more than £500,000 spent on it. HNRC is on call-out to maintain any of the locomotives, but Needle says that there has yet to be a mechanical failure on any of the machines, and that they are nearly due for tyre-turning already. That is despite a period in store, and having only entered traffic last year. 

The NR contract sums up what HNRC can do. It has reactivated a number of locomotives deemed no longer useful by other operators and returned them to frontline traffic. This has opened doors for a small firm with big ideas and massive ambition.

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