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Aspin has trackside work pinned down


A young ground engineering firm is planning on propelling its innovative steel piling system into the big time.

Emma Forrest reports

AS ONE of the more traditional sectors of the industry, one would not naturally think of piling as an area that was ripe for the entry of young engineers with new ideas.

But the opening of new markets - in the rail industry in particular - has prompted one firm to focus on the area. Aspin Foundations, founded by contracts director Barry McMahon and technical director Andrew Hoffman in 2000, specialises in rail piling.

Aspin can provide a variety of concrete-free piling solutions; a lateral loaded steel pin foundation system, steel cased driven piles, open auger piles and vibrated steel piles. It is the steel pin foundation that the firm believes is set to make its name.

Developed after buying a patent that was originally created for the housing market, the steel pin is intended to be a quick and easy solution for railway superstructures.

Using a German rail-based piling rig - the only one in the country, says Aspin - the piles are twisted into the ground with only the ground to support them. The rig, which is placed on the end of a 19-tonne excavator, can pile up to 6 m from the rail line.

'One of the steel pins consists of four 1 m lengths that are held down by a steel top hat. You line up all the holes together and that is pretty much the finished structure, ' says Mr McMahon.

It is believed that if ground conditions change, the piles could be driven deeper to accommodate the changes. Studies undertaken by Aspin with Railtrack have shown the foundation to have a capacity of 350 KNm bending moment. Mr McMahon claims that there can be no water penetration into the pile, which has a 125year design life.

Providing a product that can be installed with speed is clearly part of the Aspin ethos. As it takes an hour to get a rail site down (safe to work on) and another hour to get it up again for services to begin running, every minute counts.

'With the road-rail rig we can get a day's work done in an hour and a month's work done in one weekend. Normally it would take up to 40 minutes to prepare, but it takes us five minutes. The average possession is six hours, and we can do one foundation every two hours. We have done up to 17 piles in one weekend, ' says Mr McMahon, referring to the firm's most recent job, in Dorset (see box).

'We find it easy to compete against the big boys, ' he adds, confidently. 'We get a lot of resentment from people who think steel pins could be taking over. In the railway industry it is not so much about price as about customer service.'

Only seven workers are kept on full-time by the firm. Extra labour is hired in from other piling specialists when needed; the Southern coast zone job for example uses an average of 17 workers per possession (see box).

Mr McMahon explains that it is the unsociable hours required to work during railway possession times, weekend nights, that make keeping more staff on during the week pointless.

'Some piling contractors find it difficult to gear themselves up for working on Saturday nights. We are always geared up for working on Saturday nights, ' he says. 'It is our intention to be a specialist contractor, providing a competent service at a satisfactory cost.'

It is this drive - and an intention to build last year's turnover of around £600,000 to over £1 million this year - that has motivated Mr McMahon to take just four days off in two years. He says he now has enough confidence in his staff 's expertise to perhaps take the odd weekend off. Perhaps remarkably, his personal life has not suffered. In August he will take two weeks off after getting married.

The client's view WITH ASPIN currently working in the South-East, the 12-week Dorset Coast Resignalling Scheme in the Southern zone for Interserve Rail is its biggest job to date. Mark Stacey, Interserve Rail civils installation manager, says the Aspin steel foundation pin was chosen for use because it seemed the 'logical next step'.

'The whole outline of the project is to challenge existing standards. These are all programme-led jobs so you have to see the benefit from the client perspective, ' he says.

Work is carried out to construct the piles for rail side signals during weekend possessions, while the first two days of the week are spent bolting together the installed piles. Piles with a 320 mm diameter have been used; any wider and the work would have meant moving in situ high-voltage cables.

Wednesday is a day off and Thursday and Friday are spent preparing for the next set of possessions.

'We went towards prefabrication on this job because we are only working on Saturday night. Otherwise we have to get the ready mix plant out just for one evening, and you are talking about spending thousands of pounds, ' says Aspin's Mr McMahon.