Volvo keeps operations on track for Swedish railway

In the misty distance, the huffs of a pulsing locomotive are muffled by cold, damp air and suddenly, out of the fog, a train rushes past, flashing the trademark pastel blue of Pågatåg, the regional operator in Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost county.

“Some of them go at 200 kmh,” says Conny Andersson, owner of contracting company Connys Entreprenad, which specializes in railway work. Thankfully, there’s a reassuring 50 meters and a safety barrier safeguarding Andersson from the railway line, linking the historic town of Helsingborg with Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city.

Near Helsingborg lies a railway depot, where Andersson has won a contract to lay an extra 300 meters of track. This opportunity is one to celebrate, as railway contractors typically have limited access to the tracks for renovation and repair, usually for just hours at a time and often in the middle of the night, at weekends or on public holidays. Because breakdowns result in punitive costs, machine reliability is vital. To reduce unplanned downtime on the new track, Andersson is traveling to the railway depot to demonstrate his solution: the Volvo L90F wheel loader. The robust machine was tailored exactly to the jobsite requirements by the Special Applications Solutions team at Volvo Construction Equipment to operate more efficiently on the railway tracks.

One such benefit of the modification means mounting the wheel loader on the rails takes barely a minute. Daniel Nilsson, one of 14 machine operators at Connys Entreprenad, easily fits the machine on to the tracks. “You need to drive a little backwards and a little forwards, and keep an eye on the wheels all the time,” Andersson explains, as Nilsson positions the vehicle.

“Volvo wheel loaders are just extremely good,” says Andersson. “That machine has worked 8,000 hours with very little downtime or breakdown.” He points to the rail wheel bracket: “It’s important that it doesn’t take up too much space, it has to be very compact,” he explains, indicating the gap underneath the chassis. “It is permanently on the machine, so you need to have ground clearance on both road and rail.”

On an roll

Two bogie assemblies mounted on the front and rear frames are hydraulically lowered onto the track, placing increasingly more of the machine’s weight onto the rail wheels until the rubber tires have optimal contact to power it. As the engine kicks into motion, Nilsson drives the wheel loader up and down the track with ease.

“That’s the way you operate one of these,” Andersson says with satisfaction as the machine rolls away. “And if we were using an excavator that is also exactly how it would climb on the rails.”

However, beyond the controlled conditions of the depot demonstration, the everyday operational process can encounter a range of different factors at any time, such as a load in the machine bucket, greatly affecting the machine’s output. These are the kinds of details that are taken into serious consideration by Volvo to develop machines that meet all of their customers’ needs.

For Perjohan Rosdahl, commercial project manager at Volvo Construction Equipment’s Special Applications Solutions, ‘pilot’ customers like Andersson are essential to the progression of innovative solutions. By customizing Volvo machines for specialist applications, Volvo broadens its reach by offering greater support to its customers with unusual requirements.

“Conny Andersson is at the forefront of developing this rail application,” says Rosdahl. “He keeps us on our toes – he is constantly looking for improvements that will increase efficiency, as do we.”

Andersson continues to collaborate with engineers at Volvo Construction Equipment and its partners to help design and develop a rail application for the new EWR150E short tail swing wheeled excavator. In doing so, he hopes to replace the existing excavators in his fleet of 20 machines with several new Volvo models after purchasing the first one.

With three Volvo rail-adapted wheel loaders – bought in 2008, 2010 and 2012 – Andersson’s first Volvo machine, acquired in 2006, clocked up an impressive 18,000 hours before finally retiring.

Although the adaptation of both wheel loaders and excavators responds to the needs of specialist contractors for on-rail applications, it does not prevent the utilization of these machines in conventional applications. The flexibility of owning ‘two-machines-in-one’ ensures that customers have full machine utilization and maximum return on investment.

Growing interest, growing business

A childhood spent exploring neighboring farms fostered Andersson’s interest in construction equipment. “My father drove a tree harvester and my grandmother had a farm with a number of tractors. When I was young and started working on a farm, the neighbor had a backhoe loader.”

With a lifetime of experience, Andersson launched his contracting company at the ripe age of 24. Two years later, he bought his first machine; several years on, he won a contract to build 16 train stations connecting towns and villages in the nearby countryside to Malmö and Copenhagen, a job that completed in 2014.

Based on his accomplishments, it’s safe to say that modifying wheel loaders for rail applications has paid off for Andersson. With a current count of eight active contracts, he says there is often a serious shortage of machines for the type of work he is asked to do. “There are maybe 150 wheel loaders operating in this region, but maybe only five of them can go on the rails,” he explains.

Working in tandem, two of his rail-adapted wheel loaders are capable of changing a 20-tonne set of railroad switches in an hour, a task that typically takes six hours with a conventional wheel loader. Additionally, his railroad machines allow operators to safely secure and efficiently carry aggregate and other materials to locations tens of kilometers away at a much faster rate.

However, to adapt Volvo machines for rail, stringent regulations, which differ from country to country and change from year to year, must be met. From 2017, for example, new EU rules will require Andersson to retrofit his excavators with rated capacity indicators, a load-management system that makes it more challenging to flip over an overloaded rail-going excavator.

The regulations also require height limitations for excavators and wheel loaders to prevent the arm and bucket from coming in contact with the 16,000 kV power lines above the rails, and to be grounded in case they do. Additionally, slew locks are mandatory, so that when an excavator is working on a track next to one in use, its operator cannot accidentally move the bucket into the path of a passing train. For the same reasons, there are limits as to how far the counterweight at the rear of the excavator can extend. Designed to increase safety and efficiency, so too is the new Volvo EWR150E, featuring a reduced tail swing radius, making it ideally suited to this application.

Hands on

Andersson himself spends much of his time behind the levers of a machine. In his opinion, it is where the company boss belongs.

“That’s where you should be for two reasons,” he says. “It helps keep you up to speed on developments, and it’s easier to get jobs when you’re out in the field than if you’re stuck at home.”

However, it does not leave him much time for rest. “Apart from keeping up with friends and family, I don’t do anything else,” he admits. “When I’m not out here working, I’m fixing machines. If you have 20 machines, there’s always something. It’s like my hobby as well as my work.”

And even when Andersson takes a break, it’s often in the company of his 14 operators. “We work unsocial hours and weekends and so on, so we try to do something together every year,” he says.  Last winter, they even went skiing together.

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