STORY Industrial

King of the hill

Posted on November 30, 2012 by Chuck Mahnken, Images by Bomag

Landfill compactors have just one task: flattening garbage to get as much waste as possible into a single site.
Riverview, USA

Maschen is actually a little known place. Hardly anyone stumbles across this small suburb of Hamburg with a population of 10,000 by chance. But there are very few railway goods wagons in Europe that have not passed through Maschen at some time. Because this is where Europe’s largest marshaling yard is located. Every day, between 3,500 and 4,000 wagons arrive here, are made up into new trains and set off again in a new direction.

Goods trains arriving from different places are re-sorted at the Maschen marshaling yard.

Goods trains arriving from different places are
re-sorted at the Maschen marshaling yard.

What is a person whose job is a hill supervisor doing in the lowlands of northern Germany – a place where the locals use the term ‘hill’ when all they are talking about is a dyke or a bridge over a motorway? The answer is, he is supervising a hill. Peter Bagdahn is that sort of hill supervisor. And the hill he supervises is the sorting hump at the Maschen marshaling yard.

It may be five meters high but it is still only a hill, even by north-German standards. It also has a decisive job. All trains that enter the yard from the south pass over it. Before they go over the hump, the wagons are individually uncoupled on the approach track and then roll down the other side onto one of the sorting tracks to be joined up into new trains. Peter Bagdahn and his colleague watch to see that the trucks roll onto the right tracks. To do so, he sits high up above the yard in a room with gigantic panoramic windows. But his glance rarely strays across the marshaling yard. Most of the time, he is looking at his monitor screen. There he can see precisely which wagons have to be directed onto which tracks. The points are already set electrically. As the hill supervisor, he only has to check whether the trucks actually do roll onto the right tracks.

All processes at the marshaling yard are electronically controlled. Hill supervisor, Peter Bagdahn, only has to check that the trucks roll onto the right sorting tracks.

All processes at the marshaling yard are electronically controlled. Hill supervisor,
Peter Bagdahn, only has to check that the trucks roll onto the right sorting tracks.

Trains from right across Europe
By the time the trains get to Maschen, they have already traveled long distances. Most of them come straight from Hamburg harbor, where the containers are loaded from ships onto trains. Every day, 120 goods trains head for Maschen from there. If global trade continues to expand at the present rate, it could be twice that figure by 2020. But freight trains arrive in Maschen from other parts of Germany and from right across Europe too. The problem is that the individual wagons are not arranged as they ought to be. A truck destined for Munich is coupled behind one carrying goods to Paris or Rome. In Maschen, all the wagons with the same destination are hooked up to the same locomotive.

Timetabled changes
As soon as a train leaves its departure point, the staff in Maschen know exactly when it will arrive, how many trucks it has, what they are carrying and how heavy they are. That information is essential for planning the composition of the re-sorted trains, because a train must not be longer than 700 meters or – depending on the route – weigh more than 1,600 tonnes. When a train arrives in Maschen, it is first of all parked on the approach track. Then it is time for the uncouplers. Around 30 of them work at Maschen – in shifts around the clock. Working from a sorting list which precisely specifies which wagon is to continue its journey on which track, they uncouple the individual trucks from one another and release the brakes. Wagon 2, loaded with grain, has to go to sorting track 43 for the train to Prague. Wagons 3 to 6 are carrying timber and need to be sent to track number 50 for the next stage of their journey. The locomotive is already there, waiting for all the wagons to be hitched up before departing for Munich. “Goods trains have an exact timetable too, stating when which train leaves here and when it reaches its destination,” relates Burkhard Nielsen. He is in charge of turnaround planning and coordinates the use of the 35 shunting locomotives at the Maschen yard – and he is an “old-fashioned railwayman”. When he walks across the yard, cheerful calls of “Mornin’” come his way from all sides.

“I know the sound well”
He directs a friendly greeting to train driver Wolfgang Paul as well. He is sitting in the cab of a red Class 296 shunter that is pushing the trucks unhitched by the uncouplers up the famous five-meter-high hump. He watches, apparently disinterested, as the locomotive pushes the long string of wagons in front of it. The train is so long he can hardly see the end of it. The shunter moves without Wolfgang Paul touching any of the controls. It is controlled remotely and the driver only has to intervene if something goes wrong. Isn’t that boring? Wolfgang Paul nods and admits, “Sometimes, yes”. But hill supervisor Peter Bagdahn relieves the monotony. Wolfgang Paul communicates with him by radio. “Clear to start,” crackles the message from the radio and the engine driver prepares to start moving. The throaty sound of the diesel reverberates distinctively. He can tell it is an mtu engine just from its tone. “I know the sound well,” he says with a mischievous laugh. The locomotive pushes the goods wagons up the five-meter-high sorting hump at 2.2 to 2.9 meters per second. And then the big moment for the trucks arrives: one at a time and with their brakes off, they roll down the other side of the hump into an apparent confusion of tracks. It looks rather worrying and somehow uncontrolled. But seemingly by magic, the wagons weave their way through numerous electrically controlled points and end up on the right one of the 88 tracks. Wagon after wagon rattles down the slope and through the tangle of tracks. The speed of the trucks is electronically monitored. If a wagon is rolling too quickly, the jaws of the track retarders grip its wheels and slow it down. So it arrives on its intended track at exactly the right speed to join up with its new fellow travelers with whom it will be embarking on the next stage of its journey.



And then the coupler starts his work. He couples the wagons of the newly formed trains together and puts the brakes on – and he does it all by hand because there is no standardized system across Europe for railway wagon couplings. Once the inspector has checked the function of the brakes and that the load is secure, the recompiled train leaves the Maschen marshaling yard. Behind, it leaves hill supervisor Peter Bagdahn high above the yard. On his monitor he can already see train driver Wolfgang Paul approaching the yard with the next train. He doesn’t actually need the monitor to do so, because real hills that might obscure his view don’t exist on the flat terrain of northern Germany.

Point of contact

David Combs
+1 248 560 8182
+ 1 248 560 8182