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MJ Church & Hitachi in Race against Time and Tide

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

For those living along the South West coastline of the United Kingdom, the month of February is one they will want to forget, as severe storms and huge waves claimed lives, caused chaos and in many cases, destruction. However, whilst the storms have subsided, the rescue and restoration mission has only just begun along the four-mile stretch of rail tracks at Dawlish that was decimated, along with the sea wall defence.

Dawlish, a well-known seaside resort on the south coast of Devon, carries the main line between Penzance and Exeter in the West Country. The line which has been in operation since May 1846, runs along the seafront and is famed for having some of the most beautiful, scenic stretches of track in Britain. However it is also one of the most expensive tracks to maintain, as Network Rail continually has to battle against sea erosion. Questions have been raised in the past about the vulnerability of the line, when a large proportion of the Dawlish Station’s platform was washed away by violent storms in 1974.

Fast forward 40 years, to February 4th 2014 and those concerns were realised as a relentless, unforgiving series of storms battered the sea defence, washing away 80 metres (260ft) of the South Devon Railway wall. As workmen arrived to assess the damage on the morning of the 5th February, they were greeted with a huge hole which left part of the track hanging in thin air. The impact was immediate, effectively cutting Devon and Cornwall off from the train network.

As a state of emergency was called, MJ Church were called upon to help with the rescue mission.  As one of the largest Civil Engineering, Earthworks and Waste Management Contractors in the South West of England, MJ Church have worked with the rail track transport sector for over 15 years, and have developed a reputation for providing immediate, reactive support in emergency situations. Within minutes of the emergency onsite meeting with Network Rail and Amco to decide on the recovery plan, MJ Church had despatched two of its Hitachi Excavators (ZX130-5 and ZX210-5) to aid the rescue plan.  From that afternoon, the excavators and their workers have been working back-to-back shifts onsite 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Managing Director of MJ Church, Steve Blower explains:

“The initial problem was to prevent any further damage to the properties and rail infrastructure. A quick fix water /wave break was required to prevent further damage and allow the recovery work to begin. This was achieved by installing a line of stone filled shipping containers along the sea shore line to protect the works. The extreme high tides have meant restricted periods of time when our excavators could work and it has been critical that we have been able to get 24 hour service support from HM Plant, as any sea water damage to the excavators computers would put progress on the scheme in jeopardy.”

Hitachi Excavators on site

Despite the rapid response, and the long hours, the recovery scheme suffered a setback when further storms hit the coast again on Valentine’s Day, taking a further 30 metres of the sea defence wall down.

As Alex Evason, a senior construction manager for Network Rail explains:  “on Valentine’s night I have never seen anything like the waves before in this country – you looked out and just saw this snarling beast – it wasn’t safe to work.”

Despite the setback, works have continued at an incredible rate, as engineers have managed to dig and lay concrete foundations along the track and station, clear and restore parapet walls and add steel reinforcements to the foundations.

Steve Blower explains why having HM plant and the Hitachi ZX-130LCN-5B & LC and the Hitachi ZX210LC-5B machines on the project has progressed the recovery mission:

“The ZX210-5 in particular has renowned all round capabilities, with its long under carriage enabling a greater lifting capacity.  These dash-5 machines are extremely reliable, working both day and night, delivering excellent productivity and efficiency to the job.  This coupled with the fact that we have HM plant’s service and support team on standby 24/7, ensures we are in the best position to complete the project in the shortest possible time.”

As things stand, Network Rail has told the government it hopes to reopen the railway line destroyed by storms at Dawlish before its target of mid-April.

Rail minister Steve Hammond said he had been given a “commitment” that “if they can beat that date, they will”.

You can see footage of the Hitachi excavators working non-stop on the Dawlish line, via the BBC website