Engineers at War

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It’s 10 years since army rail engineers went into Iraq to resurrect its defunct railway. Ian Hammond, network Rail Senior Project Engineer and Territorial Army Captain, recalls a tough job.

Captain Ian Hammond, of the Royal Engineers’ 170 Infrastructure Support Engineer Group, looked around him approvingly from the Territorial Army (TA) recruiting stand at the National Track Plant Show.

“There’s a real buzz about the rail industry these days, and it’s been great walking around; seeing the latest technology and meeting old colleagues,” said the army reservist, whose day job with Network Rail involves developing safer working systems as part of the National Electrification Safety Improvement Programme.

Mission to Iraq

A decade earlier, Ian was one of the specialist rail engineers sent into the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The team’s task was to get the long-defunct rail line between the southern cities of Basra and Umm Qasr – Iraq’s only deep water port – back up and running.

“I’ve been in the TA for 25 years. It was always my aspiration to join the army, but marriage, mortgage and career made the TA the next best option,” said Ian.

Along with the other TA engineers, Ian was called up to join the 64 Works Group of the Royal Engineers, working alongside United States rail operator personnel and, in time, Iraqi locals.

Umm Qasr to Basrarail_repair3_hr [online]

“Our job was to reinstate 250km of defunct line, enabling trains to run on it again. Basically, it was the southern end of the Iraqi railway, from Umm Qasr to Basra,” he said.

Although the line had escaped significant damage from the war itself, the area was littered with unexploded ordnance. In addition, decades of neglect and lack of resources had left the infrastructure in a state of dilapidation.

Despite all this, the resourceful Iraqi railway employees had kept the system going – and were keen to help get it operational again.

Civilian hands

“Once the war fighting settled down, we found the Iraqi people who’d worked on the railway and gainfully employed them,” said Ian.

“In these situations, we get in and try to repair the infrastructure. Then, very quickly, we transfer it back into civilian hands. That’s the way to stabilise a country.

“If you take it over and run it yourself, it doesn’t work. For us, that meant training the Iraqis so they could run their own railway after we’d gone.”

Within two weeks of deployment, the engineers had an Iraqi workforce back on the books, and were starting to take over running the railway.

“They were very happy with this arrangement,” recalled Ian. “Railwaymen are railwaymen wherever you go, and the Iraqis were no exception. They were absolutely passionate about their railway, and took a real pride in it.”

Pride and determination

The Iraqi’s pride in their railway extended to a fierce determination to protect it and keep it running, added Ian. “After the war began, the train drivers, for example, were so frightened that people would rob the engines of valuable parts that they camped in the locomotives to make sure they were secure.

“They brought us back to basics as well. These guys had no power tools. They cut rail by hand, using the equivalent of a massive hacksaw, with handles at both ends. They drilled holes for fishplate bolts by hand as well.”

Desert engineering

“On top of that, they had simple engineering solutions to deal with the conditions they operated in, such as extreme rail temperatures.

“We tend to worry if rail temperatures get to 40 degrees. Out there, it regularly exceeds 50 – and drops below freezing in the winter.

“The Iraqis didn’t have a breather rail system. Instead, they inserted ‘noggins’ of rail, of various thicknesses, in the joints between the rails. When the temperature reached a certain point, they took one noggin out and replaced it with another – thinner or thicker, depending on the expansion or contraction involved.”

Power tool legacy

Fortunately for Ian and his colleagues, manual working was not necessary.

“We travel with very simple power tools: tampers, disc cutters, rail drills, sleeper drills, impact wrenches – plus the usual hand tools such as sleeper/rail tongs, ballast shovels/forks, spanners, crowbars, and so on.

rail_repair2_hr [online]“If needs be, we can build a railway with them from scratch, as plant may not be available to us.

“One of the last things we did for our Iraqi colleagues was to negotiate some money for the railway. We secured them about £30,000, so they could get their own motorised tool kit.”

Job done

In May 2003, the first passenger service ran on the rebuilt line.

“People were going off to see relatives that they hadn’t seen in years,” said Ian.

“As for the railway people, they really didn’t want us to go!”

Army rail capability

Today, Ian serves as a part-time reservist with the 507 Specialist Teams Royal Engineers (STRE) Railways unit; part of the wider 170 Infrastructure Group.

The 507 is now the only unit of railway engineers in the regular army or TA with a specialised railway design and construction supervision capability, for all aspects of rail infrastructure and permanent way.

The unit also conducts railway training support for other units, and is able to carry out construction projects with its own resources, and support the Army in its operations worldwide.

Recruiting rail skills

“507 STRE recruits from Network Rail and some rail infrastructure contractors,” explained Ian.

“We’re adept at building things, project managing and so on. It’s a phenomenal range of skills.

“We can look at a bare bit of ground, and if someone says: ‘I want a railway from A to B, we can design that and cost it out, down to the last washer.

“Other volunteer STRE units have different infrastructure skills; such as people who can set up and run power systems, drill wells for water, or maintain port facilities.

“Their units recruit people from the wider civilian industries. We’re always looking for good people with the right experience.”

Army life

So would Ian recommend a part-time army life to his rail industry colleagues?

“It’s definitely worth it,” he said. “For one thing, you get so many management skills as you go up in rank, and that’s helped me in my role at Network Rail.

“At the National Track Plant Show at Long Marston, we had a lot of contractors coming to our stand. They were looking for top-end people, from sappers right up to officers. That’s says a lot for the way military engineers are regarded.

“If you’re interested in putting your skills to good use in a very different role – and developing your career at the same time – joining the TA’s rail engineers is definitely something worth thinking about.”

Report by Andrew Robbins

For more information about joining a Royal Engineers STRE team, email: 170ENGR-TArecruiting@mod.uk

train3_hr [online]