At 21.30 on a cold crisp February night in Lisduff sidings in Laois, Willie Spollen Senior One Technician with Rhomberg Sersa Ireland is already on duty on IÉ Ballast Tamper 743 carrying out pre-start checks with his colleague Brian Lloyd.
Willie has been an On Track Machine (OTM) driver/ operator for over 18 years.
His journey to becoming a On Track Machine Driver Operator (OTMDO) began as a young boy, as he was brought up on a farm and had a passion for tractors and machinery. He left school at 16 but his parents were keen for him to learn a trade and a paid apprenticeship with Irish Rail was a good opportunity.
At 17 he left Tullamore and headed to Dublin to start his apprenticeship as an fitter/ turner with Irish Rail at the Inchicore Engineering works. After five years in Inchicore he was keen to transfer closer to home and an opportunity and a position arose as a driver/ operator in Kildare. After obtaining his European Driving Train License (EDTL) and route knowledge he began his career working with On Track Machines.
From working the night shift for so many years, Willie is now hardwired to nightwork. It is part of his DNA and he enjoys it and prefers this as it suits his personality and his lifestyle.
A typical day sees Willie get up at about 13.00, all his family and friends know not to disturb him before that. Working nights gives him the flexibility to spend time with his two younger children during the day, to collect them from School and look after them until around 19.00.
Willie has a routine that he follows to prepare for the night ahead. He winds down for an hour and uses meditation to relax. He naturally graduated towards meditation a few years ago, feeling refreshed afterwards and this gives him the right mindset to start his evening shift. At 20.00 Willie is ready for the off and hits the road to get to the worksite. Travel time to the worksite can vary from one hour to an hour and half and is par for the course.
After the pre-start checks and inputting the ALC geometry files, the crew await clearance and at 23.10 they get the call to enter possession on the Irish Rail Network. The machine travels to the 61 milepost to commence work to tamp a section of track to assist IÉ Division 3 with the Cork Line Rehabilitation Project (CLRP).
As a two person crew there is a lot of different elements going on simultaneously during the shift. They have a lot of responsibility for these large machines. They need to be vigilant, aware and must follow the safety rules and regulations at all times. They are part of much larger operation and planning within IÉ that goes on behind the scenes.
Since heading out on his first shift, Willie has seen many changes over the years. The culture has changed, and he says it is a very positive work environment under RSIE. The machines have changed, and he has seen the advances in technology on the Ballast Tamper which has gone from manual to ALC geometry to Smart ALC.
Willie says “there is a certain mindset that goes with being a OTM driver/ operator, you need to have some technical ability but also able to solve problems, it’s a unique skill set on the railway. As Willie is also a fitter he is called upon to carry out repairs at times. Variety plays a key role in the job, as he is rostered on different machines in different locations around the country.”
As a senior operator he is also qualified as a trainer. He gets the opportunity to mentor and train the new recruits that have come onboard in recent years and pass on his knowledge. He finds it rewarding to see the trainees come up through the training programme and obtain their competency on the different machines and become part of the resource pool, who he then gets to work alongside.
Once the machine reaches the worksite the crew have a short window to carry out the planned work. They work under possession so there is no other rail traffic on their section of track, which allows for safe working conditions. It’s a busy night and the pace is fast and they are in constant contact with IÉ operational staff during the shift to ensure the work carried out is to the required standard.
The crew will switch around every ¼ mile tamped which takes about 50 mins. One person operates the tamping banks and drives, while the other crew member observes and looks out for obstructions and monitors the Smart ALC. There is also paperwork to complete to record the full extent of the nights work.
During the shift the planned output of 1040 yards/ 0.6 mile was achieved and at 04.30 the crew return to the stabling point in Lisduff, power down the machine, exit and head for home.