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Ninjas of the yellow trains

‘Like little ninjas,’ said Katie Tingle, describing her team’s role within Network Rail. ‘If you can be a little ninja in a big yellow train? I’m not sure.’

The big yellow train in question is a Mobile Maintenance Train (MMT) – one of Network Rail’s new toys. Katie manages one of two MMT units currently operating in the East Midlands. Specially designed by German manufacturer Robel, the trains can be used to provide everything that’s needed on a railway worksite in a safer, more convenient, more efficient

MMT units will revolutionise the way maintenance is done on the railway, Network Rail believes. Workers can be taken directly to site without needing to drive and they are protected from poor weather while they’re there. There’s better lighting, better tooling and better welfare facilities than on a typical site.

Why a ninja? One of the main benefits of the MMT is that it can carry out maintenance work quicker than a track possession, without closing the railway and with less disruption to passengers.

‘It’s really focussing on the benefits that we can bring,’ said Katie. ‘Not just to our production levels, not just to getting jobs done quicker, so I’m not disturbing our passengers that rely on these lines to get to and from work, to get to see their friends, to get to and from job interviews, and that kind of thing. I’m also benefitting our staff that are actually out there on the front line making the track safer for people.’


Katie joined Network Rail in 2009 as an apprentice. Back then she had to split her time between a depot in Nottingham and Network Rail’s training centre in Portsmouth. She applied for the scheme after it was recommended to her by a family friend. ‘I’d always had the background interest in engineering and it was looking at what route I wanted to follow,’ said Katie. ‘I’m a massive believer in learning whilst you’re doing and gaining that experience to back up the theory that goes with it.’

Mobile Maintenance Train (MMT) - 1

After completing her apprenticeship in 2012, she was offered the chance by Network Rail to study for a degree at Sheffield Hallam University and was subsequently seconded to the MMT project team. Having laid the foundations for the introduction of the MMTs, she applied for one of the section manager roles.

‘It was a good natural progression because when I was doing the project management role, it was heavily to do with the actual machine itself, and the train, how it works, the new concepts it’s going to bring onto the infrastructure, and that kind of thing. It just seemed like a nice natural progression to then manage the train and keep that ethos that we were trying to embed.’

The MMT is made up of three sections. At the front is the Traction & Supply Unit, which drives the train and powers the MMT. The middle section is the Intermediate Car (IC), which stores all the materials, tools and the welfare facilities. And at the end is the MMT itself.

As well as offering Network Rail a more efficient way of completing track maintenance, the MMTs provide a much safer working environment for track technicians. Hoists within the vehicle allow heavy materials to be easily transported and moved around site, hydraulic and pneumatic powered tools on board reduce the risk of hand arm vibration and its mobility removes the need for workers to drive to and from site.


Network Rail began exploring the idea of introducing MMTs in 2013. There are now five on the network, with the final unit expected to be in use by August. ‘This is three years in the making,’ said Katie, who has been involved in the project since the very beginning.

‘We’re now at the forefront of Network Rail’s technological advances. There’s only going to be eight machines on the infrastructure anyway and we’ve got the third one. We were the second machine on our route, so we’re really leading the way in revolutionising how we deliver track maintenance and how we better what we’re already doing.’

Katie currently manages a team of 11 people. As well as operating her own MMT, she’s also heavily involved in the wider project, dealing with any issues with the machines and looking at how the MMTs could be used by other parts of Network Rail.

‘For me, it really is quite exciting because it’s something new, and we are at the very beginning of this MMT journey, without trying to sound really cheesy.

‘With us being at the start of it, I can be instrumental in the way it goes and its success… I’m quite passionate about it, and it’s passing that on as well around the business and changing the mindsets and the culture that we have embedded in Network Rail.’

Mobile Maintenance Train (MMT) - internal 1

Will the MMTs eventually replace possessions entirely?

‘I don’t think we’ll ever be able to completely remove the human interface with the track,’ said Katie. ‘We’re always going to need that and there’s going to be a need for people to be out there doing a job manually, but it’s looking at ways we can reduce it more and more. And upskilling our people, as well, to be able to do that.’


There are three women in Katie’s team, including her. ‘I can probably count my number of female engineering colleagues on one hand,’ said Katie, when asked about her experience as a woman in the rail industry.

‘But it’s breaking that barrier and breaking that stereotype, that engineering as a whole is a place for females, and we can offer just as much to a department as a male can…’

She believes the industry is making progress. ‘We’re getting there, it’s happening but it’s happening quite slowly.’

Ninjas were secret warriors of Japanese legend. As imaginative a job description as a ninja in a big yellow train might be, Katie had another go at describing her role. ‘It’s hard to explain your job when people ask you what you do. I just get on with it,’ she summed up.