"Trams from Saxony-Anhalt will soon be trundling through Helsinki"

The grinding machine cuts screeching metal. Sparks fly. A man drags steel beams through the hall. Engineers are hunched over plans in one corner. A worker crawls through an empty tram carriage. There are old, run down carriages and trains on the tracks: there is a lot going on the Verkehrs Industrie Systeme GmbH (VIS) in Halberstadt. But it looked a lot different in October 2011: the former Reichsbahn-Ausbesserungswerk (RAW) [Railroad Improvement Plant] was faced with closure. No orders! Dirk Zeppenfeld, who had taken over the company with approximately 330 employees from Deutsche Bahn AG in 2002, told the remaining workforce that "We will be shutting in April."

But that did not happen, thanks to Dirk Ballerstein (47) and a big order from Helsinki. Mechanical engineer Dirk Ballerstein came to VIS at the start of 2011. The globetrotter, who has worked in America and Abu Dhabi, signed up after the recovery at rail vehicle manufacturer "Alstom Transport". Other postings included Siemens and Bombardier: "I ended up in Halberstadt one day by accident," says Dirk Ballerstein. "When I saw this factory I had lost my faith." The engineer had never heard of VIS, "although I worked in the same industry." At home the engineer, originally from Braunschweig, researched the company: "When I heard that VIS was facing closure, I thought that that shouldn't happen."

He used his initiative, made contact with the owners and impressed them with a new concept. "Until that point VIS had been concentrating on steel construction and repairing trains. I wanted us to also offer accident repairs as well as all services for rail carriage manufacturers and train operators." Quite understandable: 165,000 square metres of plot area, 45,000 m² of which had a roof over it. A traverser with a bearing load of 80 tonnes. The very modern in-house blasting and painting system for trains or carriages of up to 33 metres in length.

Steel construction hall and metal workmanship. Seven kilometres of rails on which the trains and carriages park: "We are optimally positioned and competitive," says Dirk Ballerstein: "Repairing carriages, building the centre sections of rail cars, complete renovation of trains and the restoration of historical trains. Anything is possible at VIS. Even large-scale revisions can be done." Revision, that is a super goods vehicle test certificate for rail vehicles, in which a train or carriage is stripped down to the individual parts, checked and then put back together.

Ballerstein's first job was to make VIS known amongst manufacturers: "I visited all railway manufacturers and introduced our factory." Six months later the order books were filling up with maintenance and repair orders. In its first year with Dirk Ballenstein the company turned over eight million euros.

Dirk Ballerstein wanted more: "A big order which would guarantee the survival of VIS for years." And it came: The Finnish tram operator HKL, which is responsible for public transportation services in Helsinki, needed to act: 90 new, modern trams were not working perfectly. HKL decided to have old trams, which were due to be scrapped, restored and to use these again. VIS got the contract for this in January 2012:

"By March 2013 we will have overhauled ten NRV1 trams," says Dirk Ballerstein. And that is not all: VIS also received an order from HKL to build new trailer vehicles for the trams and to provide these with low floor modules which "increase the passenger capacity and allow easier access for people with disabilities." Total order volume: four and a half million euros. In addition to this, two options were agreed for five vehicles which are to be delivered by 2014. A decision on this will be made in late summer. Even the first contract is a step in the right direction: "128 jobs have been secured and all fixed-term contracts were able to be made permanent," says Dirk Ballerstein.

At the start of March the first scrapped tram travelled from Helsinki to Halberstadt on a heavy goods vehicle. More trams will be coming to VIS every four weeks. Almost as soon as it arrived the tram was completely "gutted": seats and interiors taken out. Old cables removed. Windows taken out. The remaining paint scraped off, rust ground off - "other than the frame, not much remains of the tram," laughs Dirk Ballerstein.

At the same time work began on the new trailer vehicle: steel was shaped and handled in the in-house metal workshop, side parts were welded and low-floor sills were installed: "When everything is completed the carriages are taken into the paint shop and are painted green and yellow in a "spray application process". Then the interior fitting is done and the three tram parts are connected. "It takes 18 weeks for the dismantling and new construction of a tram,“ says Dirk Ballerstein. "In future we will be able to work on up to four carriages at the same time."

In July the first tram from Saxony-Anhalt will trundle through the streets of Helsinki: "We will be on board," says Dirk Ballerstein. That was agreed in the contract. There is another reason for the VIS managing director - a very personal one: "When I started in Halberstadt I had the vision that in a few years we would achieve a full occupancy rate of our systems and would employ more than 200 employees. The Finns laid the foundation stone for this. Therefore my presence in Helsinki is a given."

Author: Thomas Pfundtner
Photo: VIS Halberstadt

Verkehrs Industrie Systeme GmbH
Magdeburger Strasse 29
38820 Halberstadt
ph: +49 3941 52356
Fax: +49 3941 52335
Web: www.vis-hbs.de