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SIFER a French success

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The French railway supply industry has its own national exhibition – SIFER – which takes place every two years in Lille. Delayed only by six months from its regular date in March, the show is organised by Mack-Brooks Exhibitions, part of RX and the same company that organises Railtex/Infrarail in the UK.

However, to call SIFER ‘the French Railtex’ would be to do both exhibitions a disservice.  SIFER has its own character though, on the face of it, SIFER does look like many other exhibitions.

Some of the larger exhibitors had taken space-only stands at the front of the hall, where they had built impressive constructions displaying well-known names. SNCF Réseau, the state-owned organisation that manages, maintains and develops the French rail network (similar to the role Network Rail has in the UK) was directly opposite the entrance, ABB and Acksys in the next row back.

One noticeable difference to Railtex was that everyone wore a face mask – exhibitors and visitors alike.

Face masks were much in evidence.

A look at the list of exhibitors showed one major change this year – the exhibitors were mainly French. In previous years, perhaps one quarter of the exhibitors were overseas companies – this year, just 51 of the 308 exhibitors (16 per cent) were not French. Even more disappointingly, just four manufacturers were listed as British – Cubis Systems, Forbo Flooring, Pandrol and Portaramp.

The British contingent

Cubis is based in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Northern Ireland. The stand was staffed by the company’s French office, from where an Italian, specification manager Dario Zagnelli, explained that France was an important market for under-track crossings, buried cable route systems, drainage catch pits and fixed telecommunications network solutions.

Portaramp’s offices are in Thetford, Norfolk, where it designs and manufactures lightweight, portable access ramps and safety covers for inspection pits. You will have seen their folding, bright yellow ramps at stations, handily located to be used getting wheelchair-bound passengers – as well as catering trolleys – on and off trains.

General manager Mandy Lancaster commented that French visitors had told her that wheelchair-users didn’t use trains in France.  Her response was that was perhaps because there were no ramps at stations!

However, the company’s covers for depot inspection pits, keeping staff safe when moving around the workshop, were proving more popular.

Forbo Flooring, based in Ripley, Derbyshire, was the next stand visited. It was busy all day, the salesman in charge constantly in deep discussions with current and potential customers.

Pandrol’s stand was large and attracted a great amount of attention. The company was right at home at SIFER as, though being based in the UK, it is part of the family-owned Delachaux group from Colombes in France, which incidentally also owns Frauscher.

British-located companies employ British people and bring wealth to the UK by their exports, so perhaps what is more important is where the products are manufactured, rather than who owns the factory. The Rail Supply Group is pushing hard to increase exports, and those are UK-made products rather than products of UK-owned companies.

There was one surprise. Stand 2-430 was occupied by the French company Welding Alloys France SAS. The very-English name is explained by the fact that Welding Alloys Group is headquartered in Hertfordshire. Add one to the UK list!

Welding Alloys repairs costly and safety-critical track components used in crossings and turnouts, offering a wide range of products, services and equipment to fulfil the maintenance requirements of the rail industry. Its strategically located Integra™ Service Centres provide economical solutions to wear problems resulting from abrasion, impact and corrosion.

Other ‘foreigners’

A number of the other exhibitors are well-known to Rail Insider readers. Linsinger, manufacturer of rail milling machines, had a stand and details of its new hydrogen-powered unit, useful both to reduce overall emissions and to remove completely diesel exhaust gases which can affect workers when operating in tunnels and confined spaces.

Westermo had a mix of Swedish and French representation on its stand. They readily acknowledged that their aim wasn’t really to sell their onboard data equipment to new customers, although they doubtless would if the opportunity arose, but to re-establish relationships with existing ones and answer questions.

Schweizer (Switzerland) displayed its track worker protection systems which provide automatic warnings of approaching trains. Robel (Germany) was showing its battery-operated hand-held tools for track maintenance and both Vossloh and Voestalpine presented their abilities in track construction and maintenance.

TE Connectivity (USA) manufactures insulators and resistors normally used on pantograph connections on electric trains and locomotives, while Voith and ZF (both Germany) were at SIFER to talk about transmissions and drive systems.

Harting (Germany), another exhibitor familiar from Railtex and RSN, had a stand with both connectors and a bar while Liebherr was there to talk about vehicle air-conditioners – there wasn’t room for one of its large excavators (though there was a photograph of one).

Home-grown talent

French rolling-stock and signalling manufacturer Alstom had a stand – but it was a shell-scheme one towards the back of the hall. Staffed by people from the Crespin plant formerly owned by Bombardier Transportation, there were several detailed models of recent trains in plastic cases.

Cable manufacturer Nexans had a large stand but admitted most of its market was in continental Europe and not the UK.

The European Union Agency for Railways (formerly the European Railway Association) discussed approving trains and other machines for use on the railway, and the complications with those approvals now that the UK is no longer in the European Union.

Shift2Rail also had a stand – with a Network Rail logo on it as the UK participant – and there were the usual large number of clusters and associations present.  The UK may have the Rail Alliance, and the RBD Community ran the Eagle Lab at Railtex, but SIFER has the Hauts-de-France, the Association Technopôle du Valenciennes, Cluster Totem, Dev’Up Centre – Val de Loire, Région Occitanie and several more clusters.  Even the Germans got in on the act, with the Berlin Partner für Wirtschaft und Technologie.

To sum up, it was well worth a visit.  Mack-Brooks Exhibitions director Olaf Freier commented: “I am very satisfied. The show is full, the crowds have returned and the future for the rail industry looks good. Not only in France, but also in the UK and in Italy, as we could see at Railtex/Infrarail and EXPO Ferroviaria.”

With the French government, like every other European administration, spending billions on its railways, it wasn’t difficult to feel the confidence the sector is displaying. It was just a shame there weren’t more British faces there, trying to boost UK exports.

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