This odd looking and brightly coloured rail mounted contraption is a Herzog Railroad Services “MPM” or Multi-Purpose Machine. It’s a specialized piece of equipment hired out under contract to rail carriers across the continent for maintenance of way work, travelling about as the need dictates. Highly adaptable it’s able to do a wide range of tasks, that the railways themselves once did in-house, but now farm out to private firms.
This machine was spotted in small town Alberta, under threatening skies. We did not trespass on railway property, nor should anyone, and shot from public crossings instead.
The MPM can be used for the following jobs: ditch cleaning, tie pick-up and distribution, tree thinning and removal, brush cutting, ballast distribution, bridge deck maintenance, rail pickup and distribution, and countless other yeoman tasks. It’s a railway Swiss-Army Knife.
Herzog has several MPM sets – records are not completely clear but there seems to be lots of them out there. They’re all set up with a power unit at one end, all highly modified locomotives (on this set it’s an ex-EMD model GP38 from the late 60s or early 70s and is completely unrecognizable), and a remote control cab on the other. This setup makes it bidirectional. Between them are a series of well cars suitable for holding and transporting all manner of railway materials.
Riding atop the cars, on tracks and able to move from end to end independently, is a modified excavator. It can be outfitted with buckets, grapples, magnets, cutters and so on. Sometimes two excavators are used. The number of wells cars, it seems, can be varied. There was seven of them on the set we documented.
All MPMs are the same shade of “safety” yellow, a colour so bright that it almost hurts the eyes. Sun glasses mandatory!
Being self propelled gives the MPM a great deal of flexibility. It can bounce between job and supply sites, and as needed can quickly duck out of the way, by heading to the nearest siding, when a train is due. When we caught the MPM it was tied down for the night. It was seen along the CPR’s busy north/south mainline connecting Edmonton to Calgary.
For travelling long distances, say if the next job or set of jobs is far across the country, it’ll get tacked on to the end of a freight travelling that direction. Notice the warning “Rear end of train movement only” on the power unit. The instructions “Do not hump”, which almost always elicits a chuckle from people who don’t know trains that well, means it can’t be sent into large city yards. Specifically ones with a “hump”, a small hill where cars are classified using gravity.
Herzog is one of many private firms that provide railway maintenance services. They’ve been around for a good forty years and Canadian HQ is just north up the tracks, 200km north in fact, from where the MPM was sitting, in Nisku Alberta. The US base is Missouri. Beside the Multi-Purpose Machine they have specialized train-sets used for dumping ballast and laying rail, among other things. Based on what we dug up, the company is very busy and these MPMs seem to get around.
The maintenance work assigned to these contract firms was formerly done in-house by railway employees and equipment. Like everything today, it’s always more economical and simpler to just “contract it out”. I bet the railway maintenance-of-way unions were thrilled with that decision!
This very same day, we saw another very similar machine, the next town north up the line, belonging to another firm that does railway maintenance work just like Herzog. To read about it, go here:
GREX Slot Machine.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: May, 2015.
Location: Carstairs, AB.
We did not trespass on railway property to get our photos – we shot from public crossings.
Article references: Herzog Railroad Services Canada, Canadian Trackside Guides.