Recycling recovered railway materials at our Whitemoor facility

An old marshalling yard has a new life as a recycling plant that’s helping the railway to save money.

In the Second World War, Whitemoor was an important marshalling yard in the Cambridgeshire countryside, where freight trains would bring, or load up with, goods for distribution. It was so vital for the supply chain that a decoy site, March down yard, was set up locally in case German bombers tried to attack it.

Whitemoor continued as a marshalling yard from the 1920s to the 1980s, but then lay dormant until 2004, when a phased reintroduction of the site began. The marshalling yard reopened, and in 2011 so did a recycling plant, bringing with it a new approach to used railway materials. 

It was Network Rail’s National Delivery Service (now Route Services) that took the decision to open this new facility. Previously, various contractors dealt with different recovered materials, but the National Delivery Service realised it could co-ordinate this nationally to get the best value for Network Rail, and Whitemoor was chosen as an ideal site for the facilities required.


Modern site

Today, recycling plant and marshalling yard have a symbiotic relationship at Whitemoor. The marshalling yard is run by GB Railfreight and serves the Anglia route down to London. Railway work sites run by Network Rail’s Infrastructure Projects division place orders for materials, and wagons are loaded up in the marshalling yard ready to be taken to where they’re needed.

While Network Rail also has two other materials handling depots, at Crewe and Westbury, Whitemoor is the largest and has facilities that the others don’t. This includes a ballast washer and specialised equipment and expertise to refurbish switches and crossings (see the video).

How do the recovered railway materials get to Whitemoor?

There are eight material recovery specialists across the rail network. They work with contractors and delivery units (local work teams) in their route to remove scrap materials from work sites nationwide to Whitemoor or one of the other materials handling depots. Planning in advance means the materials can be collected as they are removed during a project.

Every day, there are deliveries of track panels, sleepers, rails, small steel components and switches and crossings units to Whitemoor. Typically 40 to 50 wagons loaded with materials arrive each week, but sometimes as much as 90 to 100.

The materials are graded and sorted into what can be reused on the network and what can be sold on to approved external dealers. The construction industry buys our aggregate, for example.

A dedicated team at Network Rail co-ordinates the sale and reuse of any redundant railway assets, ensuring all sales are logged, measured and controlled.

Ballast – the stones beneath the track – is removed from the railway, from conventional work sites and by our High Output Ballast Cleaner Systems. These high-tech machines travel along the railway at night removing dirty, worn ballast and replacing it with clean, more angular pieces. The dirty ballast is taken to a High Output Operations Base, and from here it is delivered to Whitemoor by rail.

Watch the video to find out more about the work that goes on at Whitemoor.

What happens to recovered rail and sleepers?

High-tech tests are used to grade the rail once it has arrived at Whitemoor, including ultrasonic testing and magnetic particle testing (see the video above). Some of it will be suitable for reuse on mainline track; other rails can be reused for sidings and areas where trains travel at slow speeds. If not crushed for aggregate, concrete sleepers might be cut in half for use on miniature railways.

For all materials recovered by a delivery unit, the Route Services arm of Network Rail credits the delivery unit’s cost centre. This directly benefits the railway in the area where it was collected. 

Recycling is so important to us, not only as a company but as a country too. To be able to reuse the materials that we receive here in the ways that we do makes me feel incredibly proud to be part of the process. The team at Whitemoor work really hard to create a service that allows us to visibly clear line sides of redundant materials, making it a tidier and safer railway for the public.

Natalie Whitehead, Whitemoor MHD site manager, Network Rail

How is ballast recycled at Whitemoor?

Over time, ballast, the stones beneath the track, becomes worn and dirty, covered in oil and other contaminants. Our High Output Ballast Cleaner System is on the railway every night, filtering through the ballast on the track. The dirty ballast it removes is stored in its wagons and will eventually be taken to Whitemoor.

A common sight at aggregates yards, there is only one ballast washer on the railway – and it’s at Whitemoor. This decontaminates the ballast and is able to clean its own water.

Washing the ballast means we can take it back to a High Output Operations Base for it to eventually be reused on the track. Being able to reuse materials saves money, and means waste doesn’t have to be sent to landfill, which is expensive and not good for the environment. If it’s not possible to reuse it, we sell it, saving money for the railway.

How does Whitemoor refurbish switches and crossings?

Switches and crossings (S&C) allow trains to change line and direction and are among the most expensive elements of the track to replace.

The facility for fixing and refurbishing switches and crossings is one of the key functions at Whitemoor. How much refurbishment is needed determines whether S&C are dealt with in situ or brought to Whitemoor.

Ordering the build of a new switch can take a long time. Whitemoor has an array of un-used switches and crossings received from jobs across the country, which the team can use to offer quicker solutions. On occasions they’ve been able to utilise their effective stock levels to refurbish what they have and solve a problem on the network. This takes less time to do than wait for a new one to be made and in effect can reduce the length of speed restrictions out on the network.

One of the bits of kit that’s only available at Whitemoor is a Nencki press, which is used to straighten switch blades and running rail using an integral hydraulic pump. This can manipulate rail horizontally and fits a wide range of rail profiles. It has also been deployed from Whitemoor to other areas of the country when needed.

S&Cs come in a range of standard sizes and designs. However, how they are installed in track and the geometry of S&C layouts is what makes reusing them challenging. When S&Cs come to be replaced, they can be sent to us and we assess their suitability for refurbishment.

Very often they can still have a productive life on lower track categories – effectively slower parts of the network. When maintenance teams need to replace S&Cs in the case of sudden failures and potential for train delays, we want to be their first port of call and can often provide solutions far more quickly.

Patrick Nightingale, Whitemoor depot technician, Network Rail

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