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Published: 20 July 2005      

The end of the line?

An innovative British rail /road intermodal transfer tool is heading for the scrap heap, unless last-ditch efforts to save it are successful.

 The rail-mounted Linercrane has been parked up in Woking for the past 14 years, but EWS now needs to clear the siding for reconstruction and it has given the machine's owner, Nigel Pool, until the end of August to take it away.

The Linercrane was developed by Ralph Blatchford for Freightliner (FL) in the early 1980s. The project was funded 20 per cent by the Blatchford family and 80 per cent by the DTI under its PPO (pre-production orders) scheme on the basis of commitments to use given by FL. At the time FL was looking to expand its inland operations and planning to convert a number of disused sidings to intermodal depots.

Anywere on W6A Linercrane, which fits below overhead catenaries in handling as well as in transport mode by virtue of its T-Lift cross travel design, could be hauled by the train on any W6A route between depots. Being self-powered, it could also be used instead of locos for shunting and marshalling in the depots as well as for handling containers.

The sidings were already there and no reinforced paving was needed as is the case when heavy mast trucks or reach stackers are used. The background work in favour of a self-handling, self-powered rail car had been prepared by BR's consultancy arm Transmark. Originally BR-FL looked at an extant German system, ULS, but plumped for the Blatchford design because it was more flexible.

FL duly acquired the Liner-crane but, apart from a few handlings in Bristol, could not find a use for it. There were some teething problems because the drivers were not used to the drive systes, but the real problem was that, by this time, BR had puts its freight expansion drive into sharp reverse in the light of increases in EU road vehicle gross weights (first from 32t to 38t), which were strongly supported by the "anti-rail" Thatcher government.

Now in political retreat, BR raised the bar for rail to compete with road from hauls of 60-80 miles to 200 miles. Instead of expanding the depot network, many depots were closed and the sole focus for FL became container block trains between ports and a handful of inland centres.

The need for Linercrane disappeared overnight and after lengthy DTI mediation, Blatch-ford's bought it back. Subsequently the rights to Linercrane and the Blatchford T-Lift designs and references passed to Herbert Pool Ltd. Later still Nigel Pool licensed T-Lift to Michael Blatchford and the right to offer Linercrane for sale (WorldCargo News, July 1999, pp30-31).

Devonport link-up Working in collaboration with the railway equipment division of Deveonport Royal Dockyard Ltd (DML Devonport) as the party to modernise and recommission the Linercrane, Blatchford offered it as a candidate for the SRA's intermodal prize scheme, but his proposal was turned down.

It would cost £5-10,000 to disassemble Linercrane and take it to DML Devonport for a complete overhaul. Electrical contactors and relays and cabling would be replaced by digital drives and fly-by-wire controls and new power-on-demand (load-sensing) hydraulics would be fitted. The engine would have to be replaced by one which complies with today's emission norms, at least for service in Europe.

The cost of renovation and recommissioning is not known, but is nothing compared to the benefits, says Blatchford, if only potential investors could see beyond next year's balance sheet. He has appealed to the DTI to step in and provide the necessary funds, but is adamant that this is not a "lame duck" exercise. Both Blatchford and Pool are convinced that the Linercrane has a future. Road congestion is endemic and set to get worse; oil prices are set to stay high and rail uses less oil per tonne moved; the shortage of truck drivers as a result of drivers's hours regulations is now estimated at around 35,000 nationwide, and so on.

"We don't want Linercrane to become discarded technology just when the wheel is about to turn full-circle," says Blatchford. The Linercrane concept can bring modal shift to the regions where gantry cranes or reach stackers and the associated civil engineering costs cannot be justified and it can be moved around the network to create "temporary" terminals as required.

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