Top Story

Electric titans

Around 250 transport operations are managed by DB SCHENKERspecial every month – the converter assignment in Frankfurt (Oder) definitely stood out in terms of scale and degree of difficulty

Video: Martin Schneider-Lau


When 139.4 metric tons are set in motion, the strain is palpable. The dark green colossus rolls forward one centimeter at a time, first along the slight incline on the low-bed trailer and then across the ramp. Although the colossus has wheels and can run on tracks, it does not have any brakes. It is held from the rear by the steel cable of a powerful winch. At the sides, workers continuously attach chains and place wedges underneath the giant. Maximum concentration is crucial for everyone on the DB Schenker team, nothing can be allowed to go wrong! And it doesn’t: just as planned, the electric titan rolls from the ramp onto the railway track in extreme slow motion, one axle after another.

Spearheading this major operation: Juliane Markgraf from DB Energie and Karl Hammerschmidt from DB Schenker. Photo: Martin Schneider-Lau
Spearheading this major operation: Juliane Markgraf from DB Energie and Karl Hammerschmidt from DB Schenker. Photo: Martin Schneider-Lau

This XXL piece of freight is a converter from the now defunct transformer plant in Frankfurt (Oder), in the far eastern region of Germany. The plant was in operation from the early 1990s until quite recently, with five of these behemoths being utilized as “workhorses” which transformed the electricity coming from the national grid into traction power needed for rail operations. “Unlike the general grid, which has voltage with a frequency of 50 Hertz (Hz), you need 16.7 Hz in the German railway network,” explains Juliane Markgraf, project manager at DB Energie (German), the business unit responsible for coordinating Deutsche Bahn AG’s entire energy management operations.

 

Currently, Germany is replacing the existing converter technology with the more modern inverter technology. The frequency is no longer converted by means of a mechanical process but with power electronics. A respective plant has been connected to the grid in Frankfurt (Oder) since late 2015, which is why the five converters, with a total weight of around 700 metric tons, are being decommissioned and transported to rail operators based in Sweden and Norway, who still rely on this technology.

The first stage of the journey is particularly challenging as it leads from the transformer plant through the streets of the inner city to the container terminal, where the converter is rolled across a ramp and onto the railway tracks. A job best left to the heavy-duty transport experts from DB SCHENKERspecial! “We have assigned a team of up to 25 people for this task,” says Karl Hammerschmidt, Head of Special Transports, who together with Juliane Markgraf has spearheaded the transport operation.

 

The mission gets underway on the evening prior to the first converter being set in motion. It is freezing cold and the colossus stands underneath a mast, bathed in the glare of floodlights. Resting on two cross members, the converter is raised hydraulically at the touch of a button. After just one minute, there is so much room under the converter that the low-loader truck is able to reverse underneath it. Ten minutes later, the titan stands on a track embedded in the load floor, where it is safely secured with chains by a dozen helping hands.

 

The next morning, patience is the order of the day: black ice! “As long as the streets aren’t ice-free, there’s no point calling the police, whose job it is to accompany us,” says Hammerschmidt – without a hint of concern in his voice. Responding to problems and eliminating obstacles is just part of his job, particularly as the team faces an additional task: one of the curves on the premises is too narrow for the truck pulling the 14-axle low-bed trailer. The solution is to broaden the street at the apex of the bend with a dredger by removing the turf and replacing it with slabs of concrete.

"Basically, they're spring chickens," says Juliane Markgraf. The converters are 30 years old at most and still fully operational. All the more reason to handle them with the utmost care during transport. Photo: Florian Oertel
"Basically, they're spring chickens," says Juliane Markgraf. The converters are 30 years old at most and still fully operational. All the more reason to handle them with the utmost care during transport. Photo: Florian Oertel

And then the convoy is ready to set off, first at walking pace and then at a brisk jog. A police car with flashing lights drives ahead, followed by a truck from the municipal transport authority with a platform-lift on its roof. From there, an employee caps overhanging boughs and swings traffic lights to one side at a crossing to prevent the 5.7-meter high load from becoming entangled.

 

Resolving issues like this, in addition to many others, took up a lot of time during the preparatory phase. “We had our first meeting at the end of 2014 so we could give some thought to the ins and outs of this assignment,” says Juliane Markgraf.

 

One of the most important questions was: How do we deal with the roll-off? The solution was a 26-meter long ramp with a very moderate incline leading from the low-bed trailer to the railway track. “To ensure the ramp was perfectly stable, we first had to prepare the subsoil by depositing and flattening 70 metric tons of gravel,” Hammerschmidt explains. A high-performance winch was needed to hold the converter in place so DB SCHENKERspecial booked a salvage truck along with a team that is usually employed to extract trucks from roadside ditches following an accident.

 

This just goes to show that heavy-duty transports are anything but “ready-made” service solutions. “Here at DB SCHENKERspecial, we always try to provide customized and reliable solutions,” says Karl Hammerschmidt. “Sometimes that might take a little longer. But ultimately it gives customers the virtual guarantee that in the end everything works out well – as it did here in Frankfurt (Oder).”

 

More information on heavy-duty and special transports as well as additional services provided under the banner of DB SCHENKERspecial are available here.    

Hoist, drive and roll-off: the heavy-duty transport in Frankfurt (Oder) is clearly structured but involves a great deal of groundwork. Focus and sure instincts are needed when working on site    

Photos: Florian Oertel,
Martin Schneider-Lau