Cookies on this site

We use cookies to provide you with better performance and a better experience. If you continue without changing your settings, we assume that you agree to the use of these cookies. To learn more about cookie management, click here.


Real men

A kitchen-living room, two bedrooms with bunk beds – this is where Jörg Kramer and his colleagues live when they are “on the road”. These men transport transformers for their employer, Amprion, by train, and with a feeling they do one of the most unusual jobs Amprion has to offer.

Putting their backs into it: Frank Bierwagen, Jörg Kramer and Olaf Häberle (left to right) push the wagon into position. Then it’s no longer brawn but fine motor skills that are required – handling bolts and wrenches.

Knocking-off time. Jörg Kramer takes off his oily work clothes, under which he’s wearing a fleece sweater and jeans. He fishes a pack of pre-cooked fried potatoes out of the fridge and cuts a sausage into slices. A splash of oil in the pan and shortly afterwards dinner is sizzling on the stove. The smell of food wafts through the kitchen. A table, three chairs, next door in the two side rooms two bunk beds – this is the domain of Jörg Kramer and his two colleagues Olaf Häberle and Frank Bierwagen. “And a bit like our second home,” says Kramer.

But this home has neither a garden nor a hobby room. It’s a railway carriage, of sorts. The three men cook, sleep and spend their work breaks and evenings there when they’re “on the road”. And that’s often for weeks on end. That’s because their job is to transport transformers to new, often remote locations. These machines, that weigh more than just a few tonnes, are usually located in transformer stations and are indispensable for the power supply system. “At Amprion, as well as installing new transformers, we also replace older ones with younger models,” says Kramer. “It’s a bit like car tyres that are swapped from the front axle to the back and vice versa, so they wear evenly.”

On the way from Koblenz to Duisburg

Around 15 times a year, Kramer and his colleagues go off on a big trip. Today, they are transporting a transformer that weighs a massive 240 tonnes. They have picked it up in Koblenz and are taking it to a transformer station in Duisburg. Kramer has been doing the job for almost 25 years and is seen as the “elder statesman” of transformer transportation at Amprion. “I probably have the most unusual position in the whole company,” says the 56-year-old. He’s powerfully built, has upper arms like most ­people’s thighs, and alert eyes. A skilled fitter, he used to work underground as a miner.

“You have to want to live like this”

Railway fans with a penchant for nostalgia will get all teary-eyed at the sight of their accommodation. The carriage in which the three men live when working dates from the 1960s. The centrepiece of the train, however, is a heavy-duty wagon called a “Schnabel car” or “Schnabel wagon”, designed to carry heavy and oversized loads and equipped with lifting arms. It was built in 1956, weighs 110 tonnes unladen and can carry a load of 240 tonnes.

Afternoon coffee break: Olaf Häberle (left) and Frank Bierwagen take a breather in the kitchen of the accommodation carriage. They have furnished their mobile home in line with their own taste – lace curtains and all. Next door are bedrooms with bunk beds.

When loaded to fully capacity, the train’s maximum speed is no more than 40 km/h or 26 mph. As a result, the train often has to switch to secondary lines in order not to hold up traffic on the rail network. But it can also be the case that Kramer and his colleagues end up having to spend a weekend waiting in a freight depot. This means that before each assignment, the men say goodbye to their families without knowing exactly when they will return. “2019 was the first time in four years that I celebrated my birthday at home,” says Kramer. Olaf Häberle nods his head. “You have to want to live like this.”

On some days, time passes infinitely slowly, on ­others the men race from one exciting situation to the next. Because a transformer is wider than a normal train: is the curve too tight for the train? Does the transformer fit into this tunnel? Are those signals too close to the track? At critical locations, the train rolls at no more than walking pace. When it’s dark, the men have to illuminate the embankment with a lamp. “There’s no modern technology that can help us in such situations, just experience and a good eye,” says Kramer.

Rolling at walking pace: progress is slow at critical locations. It’s at such moments that the men need to trust in their own experience and good eye.

“There’s no modern technology­
­that can help us in such
situations, just experience
and a good eye.”
Jörg Kramer
works for Amprion
in the railways and
transformer transportation
works for Amprionin the railways andtransformer transportation department.

It’s a DIY job if the heating packs in

When out on assignment, the men are for the most part on their own. For instance, a few years ago during the winter, the heater unit of the accommodation carriage packed in. “I was lying under the carriage for hours,” Kramer remembers. Early next morning, he had finally fixed it.

Sometimes, the Amprion transformer team receives some unexpected help. Like at the marshalling yard Cologne-Kalk North, where, after several turning manoeuvres, the train was standing the wrong way round. Kramer described the problem to a Deutsche Bahn foreman who he happened to meet. Without further ado, the foreman alerted a shunting engine driver and a few hours later, the three men were able to continue their journey as planned.

Three guys cooped up together for weeks on end – how well does that work out? Jörg Kramer ponders briefly over that one. “Sometimes we have to sit down over a beer and talk things over.” They rarely leave the train. “There’s always a risk of thieves coming,” says Frank Bierwagen. This eve­ning, too, while parked at Duisburg-Walsum train station, the men remain in their carriage after dinner, chatting, with the TV on in the background. A typical evening out on assignment. Anyhow, at least they won’t have to live in their 1960s carriage for much longer. Since the number of transport ­assignments is ­increasing and the transformers are getting heavier and heavier, Amprion has ordered a new heavy-duty Schnabel wagon and a new accommodation carriage as well. This new Schnabel wagon can carry transformers weighing up to 500 tonnes, and the living quarters will also offer significantly greater comfort.

The next morning, they set off on the final section of this latest transformer transport assignment. The diesel locomotive sounds its horn, while the engine roars into life. Slowly the locomotive pulls the train out of the station, through the neighbouring coal-fired power station and into Amprion’s transformer station. At a railway crossing, Jörg Kramer, Olaf Häberle and Frank Bierwagen have to raise the transformer using hydraulic equipment, so that it does not touch the ground. They also temporarily remove a switch point lantern, because it is too close to the track. Routine procedures.

Once unloaded, the 240-tonne transformer must be positioned to the nearest millimetre. The precise position is determined with the aid of a plumb line. The colossus then slowly slides into its final position on transport rails positioned at right angles to the direction of travel.

Transformers on tour

Each transformer delivery is carefully planned. In order to disrupt regular rail traffic as little as possible, Amprion’s logistics teams go by the timetables and track closure times of Deutsche Bahn. To meticulously plan a transport assignment and to obtain all ­necessary permits takes at least eight to 12 months.

Amprion has around 100 kilometres of its own track and 60 private sidings to transformer substations. Add to this 70 trans-shipment yards. Transformers being transported to substations that do not have their own railway siding are unloaded here from the rail wagon onto a heavy-duty truck and cover the final few miles by road.

The 240-tonne transformer has reached its ­destination

Once inside the compound of the transformer substation, and as if in slow motion, they lower the 240-tonne transformer onto two low-loader ­wagons that are positioned on transport rails at right angles to the track. Shortly afterwards the transformer is standing where it should be. In the coming weeks, it will be fitted with side walls and roofed over, before it is connected to the electricity grid.

But Jörg Kramer and his colleagues play no part in this. They’re looking forward to the journey home – and to their real homes.

Text  Heimo Fischer
Photos  Jan P. Baldus