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Meeting every requirement: MATISA celebrates 75 years

As MATISA celebrates its 75th anniversary, the Swiss manufacturer is looking at how it can continue to provide the rail maintenance and renewal machines of the future.

At the end of WWII, the railway lines that had crisscrossed Europe were in terrible shape. By some estimates, over 70 per cent of all track and bridges were destroyed in France. To rebuild the continent, a new way of constructing and maintaining track was needed so that people and goods could easily be transported, and connections could be created between nations that were previously at war.

Prior to the 1940s, most track construction and maintenance was conducted manually, requiring large gangs of workers to complete the heavy tasks. To meet the scale of what was required in 1945, a new way of working needed to be found.

In Switzerland, a contractor by the name of Auguste Scheuchzer saw this need and developed the prototypes of three machines that would overcome these challenges.

These were a weeder, which could scrape the surface of the ballast; a combined excavating and screening machine that would clean the ballast; and a tamping machine, which could compact the ballast under the sleepers.

A newly formed Swiss company bought Scheuchzer’s designs, and these became the foundation of modern track renewal and maintenance as it is known today. That company, Matériel Industriel S.A., commonly known as MATISA, is now celebrating its 75th anniversary and has continued to build on this history of product innovation and unique solutions designed for the rail environment.

Having begun to produce and manufacture machines that were based on Scheuchzer’s original designs, current CEO Franz Messerli tells Rail Express that MATISA saw a need for these machines to better fit the needs of rail operators.

“The tamping machines in the early days were machines similar to those used for civil engineering jobs. MATISA turned them into railway vehicles that can also be incorporated into trains and this was quite a job from a mentality point of view – to make these early machines more like a locomotive than just a working machine.”

With the renewal and maintenance of ballast now able to be mechanised, the next step was to come up with a solution for the rails and sleepers. Again, MATISA took the visionary ideas of Valditerra, an Italian contractor, and turned them into a solution for the rail industry.

“He had this brilliant idea of how you can change the rails and sleepers in one continuous go,” said Messerli. “MATISA also bought this licence from him and then from them moved this technology quite a bit further.”

From these beginnings, MATISA is now known as one of the leaders in the manufacture of track renewal machines. Other innovations that the company has produced include the introduction of high-frequency elliptical tamping, continuous action tampers, the NEMO light-based guiding system and turnout installation wagons. Being able to produce machines that meet the varied requirements of rail operators around the world has led to MATISA becoming the manufacturer of choice for challenging tasks, said Messerli.

“We produced some large machines for the French market that work around Paris where they have very little access to the track. These machines can not only do track renewal but also ballast cleaning, compacting and tamping the track, all within one machine. Combining these functions makes it very important that all systems are working properly because if somewhere in the whole production line fails, then the whole machine is stopped.”

By responding to customer requirements, MATISA can make machines that survive in harsh conditions.

Some of these MATISA machines have made their way to Australia over the years, However, in 2018, the company returned to the Australia and New Zealand market with the creation of a local subsidiary. MATISA’s ability overseas to meet varied requirements sets up the company well for the Australian environment, said Steven Johnson, managing director of MATISA Australia.

“From MATISA’s perspective we have three different railways in Australia. We have a heavy haul environment, which is similar to UIC/European standards from the perspective of vehicle size. While the interstate ARTC network is similar to the UIC standard as well, there’s constraints on the network around Sydney and Melbourne which, when taken collectively, means we have to conform to the Narrow Non-Electric envelope. Then there’s narrow gauge networks in Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.”

These constraints mean that even when equipment is gauge convertible, machines such as tampers, ballast regulators and track laying machines in Australia must fit within one of the three envelopes.

With the increasing demand for track construction and renewal, the supply of equipment is becoming a bottleneck.

“I do think there is the potential for a constraint in equipment. Now that the government is talking about stimulus and how that is going to roll out. It’s going to coincide with Inland Rail as well as current construction projects in the Pilbara,” said Johnson.

With ageing plant fleets currently in service, there may be a need for contractors to upgrade their machinery.

“Tampers and regulators, they start to age. These machines have a limited life; 25 years, and 30-40 years if it’s looked after really well. While some operators are refurbishing equipment to a high standard, there’s lots of that older equipment but that has a limited remaining lifespan,” said Johnson.

Unlike other manufacturers of track construction and renewal equipment, MATISA does not expect to produce a high volume of machinery. Rather, as the company has done in the UK, MATISA will work with a local partner to provide the specialised and reliable equipment that is needed in rail environments.

“Historically, MATISA has grown through working with specialist service providers and providing them with tools and equipment to deliver high quality services to their customer,” said Johnson.

MATISA has been a long-term partner with the Rhomberg Sersa Group, who have used MATISA’s equipment.

In urban rail environments, where systems are becoming more complex with the introduction of new signalling systems and dense networks of lines, MATISA has developed equipment that confronts these challenges.

“The B 66 UC is a continuous action machine for plain track but also contains workheads designed for tamping turnouts. It has the flexibility to avoid obstacles, which especially in Sydney, there are lots of,” said Johnson.

The B 66 UC can tamp sleeper by sleeper in turnouts and includes a third arm for lifting the diverging track. On plain track, the machine achieves the high performance standards expected of modern tamping machines using high-frequency, elliptical tamping technology to ensure accuracy and compaction quality.

As urban networks adopt European Train Control System (ETCS) and Communications- Based Train Control (CBTC) technology with the associated balises and axle counters that sit between tracks, having a tamping machine that will not damage these pieces of technology is crucial.

“There are joints with cabling everywhere, lots of other equipment in and around the track and there’s going to be more. It starts to become more and more hazardous and you need flexibility with where you’re positioning the tamping tools, so having the universal machine or a combination machine, which is really good on plain track but also really good at turnouts, is important,” said Johnson.

The alternative is to miss critical sections of track.

“So they’re tamping and they miss two sleepers, right where the joint is, right where the train stop is, so the joint is going to get worn out quicker, the train stop is going to get damaged quicker. The point of failure has become an even greater point of failure, and that’s the consequence of just using plain line high-production machines in a congested environment,” said Johnson.

Being able to produce the machines that meet these technical demands is partly down to MATISA retaining its manufacturing base in Switzerland, said Messerli.

“We have good access to qualified personnel. I worked for a couple of years in the UK and you find engineers easily in the UK but an engineer that is also prepared to put an overall on and go alongside the machines and get their hands dirty, that’s more difficult to find. In Switzerland, we have a dual training system which is an apprenticeship scheme that normally goes for four years that also includes a theoretical component.”

Combining practical and theoretical knowledge means that those who work in the production side of MATISA can problem solve and find creative solutions to customer’s requirements.

“If we made hundreds and hundreds of identical machines then we would already have left Switzerland many years ago, but having the technical specialists next to the place where you produce and assemble the machine is kind of a key for these machines that you often tailor around customer needs,” said Messerli.

MATISA has had a collaborative relationship with companies such as Rhomberg-Sersa.

As MATISA reaches its 75th year it is continuing to innovate in its tradition of providing customer-focused solutions for rail track and maintenance. Although Switzerland has largely deindustrialised,

Messerli sees a future for MATISA in the country in providing high-quality, reliable machinery.

“We look back with pride on the last 75 years. We have established a reputation of being a reliable supplier that takes care of the special needs of difficult railways around the world,” said Messerli.

Avoiding dwelling on the past, however, is what will ensure MATISA survives. Messerli is keenly focused on upcoming challenges within the rail industry, and how MATISA will meet new requirements. One area the company is investigating is the digitalisation of track construction and renewal.

“Digitalisation is part of our agenda, but we have to do it in a clever way,” said Messerli. “We have to find a system that is helping to make our machines more reliable and to help in preventative maintenance. The worst thing that can happen to a yellow machine is if it breaks down on a major line, so implementing predictive maintenance technologies to make sure that this machine will not break down is very important.”

MATISA is also looking to develop machines with lower energy consumption. This includes investigating ways of using the braking energy from a discontinuous tamper to accelerate the machine to the next sleeper.

What could be the greatest shift, however, is the implementation of artificial intelligence. With autonomous trains already running in many regions, similar forces are at work in the field of track maintenance. Johnson sees three key reasons why automation will become the norm in trackwork.

“Firstly, people don’t want to work nights, in the rain, or in the heat, and the machines are getting more and more complex, so finding people that can fault find and do repairs and maintenance is getting harder,” said Johnson. “Secondly, customers are sick of the machines hitting equipment and these machines do hit stuff, regularly. So if we can find solutions that reduces the incidence of equipment getting hit then that makes everybody’s life simpler.

“The third reason is productivity. There is a real opportunity for industry to maximise the output from each of these pieces of equipment, be more consistent but also increase speed. If the machine knows what’s going on, where it is, and what it’s doing then it will be able to take over, preparing itself for the next function. Then, during the advance of the machine, all the tools are ready for the next insertion. That will deliver huge benefits in time and speed of tamping turnouts and plain track. A consequential benefit of all of that will be less wear and tear on the machine, fewer repairs to track equipment because it’s not getting hit, the guys that are operating aren’t as tired, and they’re not making mistakes.”

MATISA has developed its Human Assistance Track Intelligence (HATI) platform that can be used on multiple machine types. The sensor system is being developed to learn the track, identify where obstacles are located, and integrate this data with the control of the tamping tools and lifting clamp. The real-time, machine learning of HATI is an example of MATISA looking at the issues its customers and the rail industry are facing and developing a solution to meet this need.

“We have to continue listening to our customers,” said Messerli. “But we also have to talk to the railway administrations because they look at the needs of five, 10, even 20 years in the future.”

Having a history of being at the forefront of rail machinery, MATISA is prepared to provide the rail industry with solutions for the next 75 years.