This is a Pandrol rail clip. Not only does it play a critically important role in making sure that railway track all over the world stays where it should, it’s also an actual piece of sculptural art, as I intend to convince you later on. Not only that, but it’s a rare example of Britain developing a good idea ignored in a different country, rather than the usual process of British innovations being ignored at home and successfully exploited by other countries.
Made of rough-finished steel, a Pandrol clip spirals through a complete 360° turn, looping over itself in the process. It’s about 12cm long by 9cm wide, conveniently hand-sized, very heavy, and extremely tactile.
Its day job is to hold rails to the sleepers which support them, and keep them there even as mainline express trains and heavy freight trains thunder along the tracks, exerting extraordinary stresses on the track underneath their wheels. There must be millions and millions of them in use around the world with hardly anyone giving them a second thought.
Before the Pandrol rail clip, there was a variety of methods for holding track in place on its sleepers. These ranged from spikes or screw spikes driven or screwed into the wooden sleepers, to rail chairs fitted with wooden wedges or steel springs.
As Jackson (2013: p125-126) explains, the Pandrol clip was invented Per Pande-Rolfsen, an employee of the Norwegian State Railway, and the man from whom the Pandrol clip draws its name. He had offered his employer the clip, but it had shown no interest, not least because the company’s chief permanent way engineer had also designed a new rail clip. The Elastic Spike Company, on the look out for the next great rail-securing product, considered the latter inferior to the former, and took Pande-Rolfson’s clip to British Rail. Its research department undertook further testing and development and in 1965, it became BR’s standard rail clip just at a time when the company was beginning to focus on the development of its InterCity product; frequent high speed express passenger trains. It was the right product at the right time, something that would stand up to the stresses of faster trains on the British rail network.
After that, the Pandrol rail clip was unleashed upon the world. It swiftly became a best-seller and you can now see Pandrol clips practically everywhere. Though Pandrol Track Systems has become part of the French Delachaux Group, its head office remains in the UK, in Addlestone, Surrey, the very same county in which I live. Surrey isn’t the most wildly exciting of places to live (precisely the reason most of its residents continue to live here) so I count this as a particular achievement.
The Pandrol rail clip’s design is absolute genius. It is easy to install, simply being slid into place in a socket on a baseplate attached to the sleeper. With one end in the socket, one of the curves of the clip rests on the rail itself, and when the clip is put under stress by the passage of a train, its design means that it grips the rail even harder. Compared to earlier track fastening systems, it also significantly reduces rail ‘creep’, the tendency of rails to move longitudinally over time. It has played a fundamental part in the safe operation of high speed trains ever since.
Pandrol Track Systems has continued to refine the product over time, and you’ll now see Pandrol clips with coatings rather than being finished in bare metal, and insulating materials between the clip and the rail. The original PR clip has been superseded by the E clip, which has a slightly different shape. On the E clip, the non-socket end of the clip grips the rail, rather than one of the curves as in the PR clip. Then there’s the Fastclip, a clip which is pre-assembled on the sleeper and driven into position once the rails are laid. The Fastclip is a completely different shape, and has a butterfly-like symmetrical form.
But it was the PR clip which started it all. Like many pieces of pure engineering, the underlying physics and mathematics result in something which attains beauty through the expression of its fundamental properties. The Pandrol clip is a work of art just as much as (and indeed because of the fact) it is a work of pure engineering. It might be replicated in its millions around the world, but that doesn’t make it any less of a sculptural wonder. Look at it for a while and you’ll begin to think of art like this, Henry Moore’s “Sheep Piece”
Or perhaps this:
If only the Pandrol clip was the size of one of these sculptures, perhaps the world would more easily recognise its artistic, as well as its engineering, qualities. Well, I have news. Thanks to the splendid efforts of Calagary, Canada, there is an actual giant Pandrol PR clip on display as a piece of public art, where it appears as dramatic and distinctive as any other abstract modern sculpture.
Just as Moore’s sculpture expresses the underlying qualities of ovinity (is that a word? it is now), the Pandrol clip is the physical expression of the forces generated on railway tracks by the movement of trains. Its exquisite form can also be appreciated in special highly polished versions of the clip (see one here) which I assume were created for promotion purposes.
But surely the greatest tribute to the Pandrol clip is the countless miles of them, stretching off into the distance on railway networks around the world, keeping the rails exactly where they should be; passengers in trains cheerfully unaware that underneath them, there are some little clips doing a really big job.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Jackson, Tanya (2013): British Rail: The Nation’s Railway. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press
Pandrol Track Systems’ website, here