Working on the railroad

25 January 2017

Sotiris Kanaris speaks to Richard Carr, CEO and MD of Mechan, about the company’s focus on the niche railway market.

Mechan started manufacturing jib cranes and other lifting equipment in 1969 at its factory in Sheffield. At the time, the company was serving the steel, mining and heavy engineering industries.

“All of these markets started to decline from the late 1970s onwards. Mechan needed to do something to survive. It had already sold some equipment into a couple of railway facilities and saw an opportunity to expand in this market,” says Mechan’s CEO and MD Richard Carr, who acquired the company from the founder in 2007 with his business partner.

Carr says the privatisation of the UK railway market in the 1990s boosted the demand for jib cranes and other lifting equipment for related applications.

“It has been a very active market for more than 20 years. There has been significant growth in new rolling stock being purchased, which means additional maintenance facilities or upgrades of existing ones. It looks like it will continue to grow for the next 10–20 years, hence why we are quite happy that it forms over 95% of our business,” he says.

Mechan jib cranes can be found in railway depots around the UK, where they are used to move bogies.

Carr explains: “Most depots don't maintain the bogies themselves, they take them off the train and then ship them out to a specialist bogie maintenance provider.

The cranes are used for loading the bogies on and off transport. They are typically outdoors because of the height, as the bogies tend to be stacked too high at the back of the truck.”

He says Mechan cranes can also be found inside depots, as they are used to lift equipment from the train roof that needs to be replaced or maintained. The equipment has been developed for spaces where there is limited room between the top of the train, the overhead wire and the ceiling.

“We have designed low profile arms which allow the arm to step down by halfway, to pass under any obstruction. We also produce various lifting attachments and frames specifically for handling within a depot environment. An example is lifting beams for taking the pantograph or air conditioning units off the top of the train.

We also do lifting beams for lifting the bogies, which are used in combination with jib cranes, overhead cranes or other lifting equipment,” Carr says.

A trio of Mechan cranes currently stand at Northern Rail’s Allerton depot in Liverpool, as part of a £23m project to increase its capacity.

Recently Mechan delivered two bespoke jib cranes for Allerton, to work alongside an existing unit used to remove train engines. At the request of the Buckingham Group, the main contractor overseeing the refurbishment, Mechan supplied a 12.5t Powermaster jib crane to work outside the depot, handling bogies off incoming transport and onto the rail line. A smaller 250kg Miniman jib crane was also supplied to work inside, removing pantographs from the roofs of electric vehicles.

Mechan equipment can also be found in train manufacturing facilities around the UK. Among the customers are Bombardier, Hitachi and Siemens.

Apart from the railway market, Mechan has provided equipment to a cross section of industries, including nuclear, and oil and gas. For example, the ATEX jib cranes are suitable for an environment with an explosive atmosphere.

Mechan designs and manufactures all the jib cranes at its Sheffield factory, and buys the hoists from other manufacturers.

The in-house design team specifies the cranes according to customer needs. Carr says: “We produce everything to order. The bigger volume producers have a range of equipment that generally try to fit the customer into their range. What we do is the complete opposite. We basically say to the client: ‘Give us your specification, tell us what capacity you want, how big you want it, how far you want it to reach, how far you want it to rotate, what you want to do with it.’ We will design a crane to their specification.

“We don’t design something from scratch, it is a variation on something we have done before, but we offer that bespoke service as opposed to make the customer match our product range.”

He says the fact that they produce the jib cranes to order gives Mechan a competitive advantage for particular applications.

“If somebody wants a 500kg jib crane that is 3m high and 3m long for standard warehouse work, they are not going to buy that from us. We still make that to order, therefore our costs are significantly higher than international manufacturers that effectively produce stock equipment.

“However, if the client wants for example a 10t-capacity, 8m-high, 10m-long arm, outdoors, in an aggressive environment, then the competitive advantage swings back our way because we can design that as a one-off. Some of the international manufacturers can do that as well but then their costs to design one piece of kit as opposed to thousands are significantly higher than ours and they become more expensive.”

Mechan also offers after-sales services, having engineers permanently for preventative and reactive maintenance throughout the UK. The engineers maintain the Mechan equipment as well as some of their competitors’.

In terms of competition, Carr says they have a number of European competitors but that Mechan holds a significant share of the UK railway industry crane market.

“Our unique selling points are that we design to customer specifications, we are based in the UK and we offer the after-sales maintenance service as well. Our overseas competitors can’t offer all of these.”

The largest chain of rail lifting jacks Mechan has ever produced, at work in the Longsight depot, near Manchester.
Mechan’s ATEX hose handling jib crane, installed at BP Neath, Port Talbot
A 10t jib crane constructed for Alstom’s Oxley depot in Wolverhampton