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Home Guest Writers London Waterloo’s new lubrication solution: a lesson in innovation

London Waterloo’s new lubrication solution: a lesson in innovation

Jonathan Paragreen, general manager for Friction Management in Europe at L.B. Foster, discusses the new lubrication dispenser that has transformed friction management at Britain’s busiest station

L.B. Foster is renowned for developing innovative solutions to rail’s most challenging friction management problems – and our latest lubrication system is a case in point. Designed in collaboration with Network Rail, this hydraulic friction management dispenser has helped to reduce track maintenance requirements at London Waterloo Station – leading to major cost economies and safety enhancements. The project also provided several takeaways about rail industry innovation – namely, that good ideas can come from any corner of the supply chain, incremental changes are often the most impactful, and collaboration is key.

Friction management challenges


Without collaboration, the project would never have come about. It was a conversation between Norman Monk, L.B. Foster’s lead field service engineer, and the Network Rail lubrication team that led us to re-engineer our existing PW Series hydraulic lubricator for restricted spaces. Network Rail had introduced a maintenance-heavy lubrication regime (relying on 24 automatic lubrication dispensers) to combat the high number of S&C (switches and crossings) defects at London’s busy Waterloo Station. While these dispensers led to a large reduction in defects, they were onerous to maintain.

Keen to reduce the maintenance cycle – and find a lubrication solution that would be suitable for Waterloo Station’s space-restricted platform entries and exits – Network Rail raised the issue with our field service team. Together, they came up with the idea of embedding L.B. Foster’s PW applicator into the ballast; it would be accessible to maintenance teams, while not impinging on the structural gauge.

A collaborative process

The field service engineer brought this idea back to L.B. Foster’s engineering team in Sheffield; there, they confirmed it was viable, carried out modelling, and established how deep the unit would need to be buried to achieve gauge clearance.

Working closely with Network Rail and our field service and sales teams, they then installed a trial unit, complete with vertical lubricant reservoir. The system was partially buried, but the actuator and other track components were installed normally, meaning that, as trains passed over it, a plunger could be depressed and a pump activated, pushing grease onto the rail. The grease would then be picked up by the train wheels and picked up and carried down the rail.

The reimagined system performed well during this six-month trial, and Network Rail now hopes to install further PW units in the Waterloo area – enabling it to remove more automatic dispensers and reduce the number of Maintenance Standard Tasks required. It estimates that installing a single 12.5kg capacity PW (rather than three automatic lubrication systems) on two sets of switches and crossings could lead to cost savings of £18,547.48 over five years.

It will also help Network Rail to reduce Maintenance Standard Tasks in the area, removing boots from ballast and improving safety.

And collaboration was key to this transformative innovation. Just as L.B. Foster couldn’t have proposed and implemented the new system without Network Rail’s input, so Network Rail relied on our engineering, sales, and field service teams to bring its idea to life.

Taking ideas on board

As is so often the case, the idea itself was generated onsite, during a conversation between industry professionals. At L.B. Foster, we believe that these conversations are crucial, giving rise to great innovations.

And they’re often fairly informal – a maintenance engineer might mention a problem they’ve encountered while chatting to our field service team, who quickly realise they could help.

Indeed, L.B. Foster’s field service engineers are an invaluable resource, working closely with maintenance teams, striving to understand their pain points, and feeding back ideas and issues.

When it comes to innovation, we also look to the wider rail industry, collaborating with relevant working groups and organisations like RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board). It’s all about understanding the network’s problems and developing appropriate solutions.

The lesson here is clear – anyone can have a great idea, with those ‘lightbulb’ moments often occurring, not in the boardroom, but on the ground.

Incremental changes

And the innovations they lead to aren’t always radical. Rather than developing an entirely new system, L.B.Foster reworked its existing PW unit, which had already gained Network Rail approval. This meant that implementation was quicker and less complex.

We believe that innovation is often about iterative changes – developing existing technologies, rather than starting from scratch. This approach enabled us to deliver major cost economies for Network Rail, transforming friction management at Britain’s largest and busiest station. It’s also seen us add remote performance monitoring technology to our electric trackside lubricators, allowing teams to carry out diagnostic work from the safety of an office, rather than sending engineers to site.

And relatively simple changes can have a significant impact on safety and efficiency. Neil Cassidy, Network Rail’s project manager at London Waterloo, stated: “Initial feedback from the trial is extremely positive and it looks like the L.B. Foster units are possibly the solution to the complicated and onerous lubrication problem at London Waterloo.”

Ultimately, their success is testament to the fact that true rail innovation rarely happens in a vacuum – and doesn’t always involve radical change. Instead, it pays to take a joined-up, collaborative approach, building on past success.

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