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Lifting the colossus! The exceptional work of “Mr. Heavy Haulage”

Hauling 140 tons: Using hydraulic equipment, the men from DB SCHENKERspecial lifted a giant converter off one track and rerailed it onto another. Video: Michael Neuhaus

He has managed heavy and special transport operations for 30 years now. In this job, the distance to be covered is only 30 meters. But this very small distance between two parallel rail lines presents a real challenge for logistics specialist Karl Hammerschmidt, despite all his experience. The task at hand during this rainy week in the late summer of 2019: to move a 140-ton colossus on wheels from one track to the other. Lack of space means using a crane is not an option. And there are obstacles in the way, too. “I had never done anything like that before!”


As the Head of Heavy & Special Transport at DB Schenker in Hagen, Germany, Karl Hammerschmidt is responsible for about 200 jobs in an average month. The nine-member team specializes in transporting extra-large and extra-heavy items, and items that are often both extra large and extra heavy: construction equipment, locomotives, turbines, tank vessels and many more.


“We are broadcasting live, after all,

and there is zero tolerance

for mistakes on our part”

Karl Hammerschmidt, Head of Heavy & Special Transport, DB Schenker Hagen

The specialists can be deployed anywhere in Germany – in the case of the colossus the location is Bützow in the country’s northeast – and sometimes even outside Germany. “With our own fleet of vehicles we can handle any transportation of items weighing up to 200 tons,” says the 64-year-old. Yet equipment alone does not get the job done, not by a long shot. “Having an enquiring mind is all-important,” says Karl Hammerschmidt. “I need to analyze the freight in detail, and the same goes for the route to be traveled. There aren’t any ready-made checklists for this, so I have to ask detailed questions.”


His findings in this case were that the 140-ton colossus – 12 meters long, 5 meters high, 3.4 meters wide – is a converter designed to convert grid-supplied electricity into “traction power.” It is mounted on wheels so that it can be transported by rail to different deployment sites. Pretty soon the converter is supposed to be put into operation in Sweden by the local railway operator. But the piece of railway track the colossus currently sits on was disconnected from the rail network a long time ago. Which is why the team from DBSCHENKERspecial was called in, tasked with transferring the converter to a railway track that is still in use. (For more information on this assignment, see “Three questions for ...”– info box below!)

Routine alone is not enough! For Karl Hammerschmidt and his team of heavy haulage specialists every job comes with its own set of challenges. Photos: Michael Neuhaus

Anyone in charge of preparations for heavy & special transport operations must be prepared to go the extra mile – often quite literally. Even though Karl Hammerschmidt – unlike in the early days of his career at Schenker some 45 years ago – can today make use of digital aids like software to calculate loads, and digital road maps, there are times when he can not be certain that an overlength heavy haulage vehicle will be able to negotiate a roundabout. “Which means I need to get out there and see it with my own eyes.” Nothing worse that getting stuck somewhere in the middle of a transport operation. “We are broadcasting live, after all, and there is zero tolerance for mistakes on our part.”

Three questions to ...

Daniel Hagel, Project Manager, DB Energie


So what is the story with this colossus?

It is a converter that converts electricity coming from the national grid into the traction power needed for rail operations. In Germany the grid supply has a frequency of 50 Hertz (Hz); in the railway network the frequency is16.7 Hz. The converter was built in 1991, the last of its kind, at a plant that was first established in the GDR era. Because nowadays we use inverter technology based on power electronics, we sold the converter to Sweden’s state-owned railway operator Trafikverket. They are going to give it a thorough overhaul, and then it will easily be good for another ten years of service.


Why was transferring it from one track to another so complicated?

The converter was part of a transformer station. There was not enough clear space around it to bring in a heavy-duty crane to lift it. Between where it sat and the track on which we wanted to place it for transportation to Sweden, there are the transformers from two still active converter lines shielded by narrow fire protection walls. We had to maneuver around these obstacles. Also, just a few meters along, there is theconverter building. This only left us with a narrow passage, and we had to turn the converter through 90 degrees – twice.


How did DB Schenker overcome this challenge?

We worked together on the preparations for the operation for months in the lead-up. Karl Hammerschmidt went there for a close look at the site, and to measure all the distances. From there on, he and his team coordinated everything on their own. All we had to do was to make sure that the so-called transformer lines above the target track that are still in use did not carry any electricity during operation. It took a bit longer in the end than we had anticipated, but that did not matter. The bottom line is that it all went smoothly. It was a top performance!

In the case of the colossus, Hammerschmidt and the customer DB Energie, the business unit responsible for Deutsche Bahn AG’s entire energy management operations, agreed on the type of solution that is normally used to rerail trains on railway tracks: “We lifted the converter using hydraulic jacks and then moved it along two sliding tracks, again by means of hydraulics.”


This calls for teamwork! And – as is true for so many jobs – for an extensive network, of the kind this old hand and his colleagues have built over time. “Just before we got started, we realized that we needed someone who could cut hardwood pieces to put under the load.” A quick call on the mobile phone, and a carpenter with all the right equipment turned up on site in no time.


Even if quick solutions are sometimes called for, patience is one of the most important virtues in his business, says Hammerschmidt. This was particularly true in this case: because the available space was too small to allow for extensive maneuvering, the converter had to be transferred in a semi-circular sweeping movement. Sometimes they could only cover a distance of ten centimeters before the team had to realign the hydraulic equipment. A Sisyphean task, even if the total distance was “only” 30 meters! “In the end it took us three days. Then again, we don’t get paid to be quick, but to make it work!”

Specialists for extra-large gear as well as for the small print: Karl Hammerschmidt and his team must produce comprehensive documentation for every operation, and usually also coordinate with the relevant authorities. Shown here is the transportation of a 90-ton gas cooler at the beginning of 2019

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