Tower cranes in London City

By Heinz-Gert Kessel21 December 2021

Tower cranes are again dominating the London skyline, and there is a rich mix of models on show. Special correspondent Heinz-Gert Kessel takes us on a tour of the city

A morning walk around London City quickly reveals the capital’s tower crane busin­ess is picking up again – welcome news after the serious recession that followed the boom in the 1980s.

The heart of London has proved fertile ground for folding jib Tornborgs tower cranes

There are thought to be around 200 tower cranes working in the capital. A boom in apartment block construction along the so called “Thames corri­dor” has led, in particular, to an influx of various top slewing, saddle jib tower cranes suitable for use on low to medium height towers.

If tower crane owners are happier with utilisation rates, they also point out that today’s market is quite dif­ferent from that in the 1980s and early 1990s. Eric Freake of Potain UK Ltd, for exam­ple, estimates that crane utilisation in London is running at about 45 per cent of the level found in 1990.

Although utilisation rates are up, rental rates could be better. As a result, price is a dominant factor in choosing equipment, making it hard for companies to introduce new equipment.

One way for rental companies to cope with the fierce competition is to offer used equipment. It is not unusual to see refur­bished 20 to 30 year old cranes, with a new coat of paint of course.

For example, there is a dozen or so Liebherr 50 HC tower cranes operated by Falcon Crane Hire and Gainsford Cranes. The design of the 50 HC dates back to 1958, but the hydraulically operated luffers meet the demand for small sized, low capacity lifters for inner city use. Another veteran filling an important role is the Linden 5000 series of saddle jib cranes operated by Vertical Transportation Ltd. There are also huge numbers of refur­bished, second hand Tornborgs and BPR ­Richier cranes still in operation.

Others compete by stressing the com­prehensive service they provide to cover all aspects of crane operation. This starts with crane operators, can include banksman and their equipment but will also encom­pass total risk responsibility.

Company colours

Another service provided by many rental companies, and one that is said to make an important difference, is the supply of cranes in customers’ house colours – something that is in high demand as contractors maximise the publicity opportunities.

Big suppliers include Select Plant Hire, the plant hire division of O’Rourke, which sup­plied the distinctive Comedil CTL 400 luffers working on the Royal Opera House project. Select also rents to other com­panies. it recently supplied a Comedil CTL 250 luffer and a Wolff WK 262 in Hammerson’s dark blue for use on the Globe House project at Temple. 

Hewden Stuart Wolff, meanwhile, has many of the prestigious contracts running in London and is thought to have had as much as half of its fleet working in the capital over the last few years.

Falcon Crane Hire operates this unusual Peiner SKK 140 articulated jib crane with a maximum capacity of 6.3 tonnes seen here at Lamb Street

Restricted site conditions and the well established air rights licensing system, which seems to allow unlimited fees to be demanded when cranes oversail neigh­bouring property, have led to intensive use of luffing jib cranes.

Tom Newell at Vertical Transportation Ltd predicts that in three or four years time, virtually all jobs performed in London will need luffers. Other crane rental companies think saddle jib cranes will continue to be used wherever possible.

Paul Phillips at Hewden Stuart Wolff estimates about 30 % of all jobs are only open to luffing jib cranes. He notes that in comparison to saddle jib cranes, luffers are generally heavier, slower, more expensive and need more energy.

One trend apparent in London is a move toward property owners co-operat­ing with neighbours on air space rights – ”You let me oversail now and I’ll let you oversail on your next project”, is how one site manager described the arrangements.

Certainly, there is an incredible number of luffing jib cranes in evidence, ranging from 40 tonne-metre to 1,300 tonne-metre models, from a Tornborgs Magni 40 to the eyecatching Wolff 60140 B next to Big Ben.

This unusual Potain MR 300 dominates Sir Alfred McAlpine’s site at Fenchurch Street Station

The 60140 B Wolffs – which were first used for the massive Black Pump power sta­tion construction project in Germany – have 40 metre jibs and offer a capacity of 45 tonnes at 29 metres in three-fall operation and 30 tonnes with two falls.

Another unusually large luffer, towering 70 metres high at Fenchurch Street Station, is a Potain MR 300 with capacity of 12 tonnes. This oversails an MR 150 which was due to be joined by a second MR 150 when this article was written.

The MR 300 has a movable machinery deck and rope operated counterweight which was purpose built when the crane first entered the UK in 1989. The luffers were chosen for the project by contractor Sir Alfred McAlpine because, of the site’s proximity to a busy railway line.

At nearby London Wall, the massive Shelley House construction site meanwhile features a number of special tower cranes. The Liebherr 220 HC on this site is sup­posed to be the highest free standing tower crane in the City of London. Its height under hook is 96.5 metres. Next to it is the unusual looking Krøll K 103 V 1093 level luffing crane. This has a 6.6 metre counterweight jib which is exactly the same length as the main jib. This allows it to fit into compact sites and be oversailed by saddle jib cranes working on the same site. Vertical Transportation Ltd operates three of these unusual cranes which give a respectable capacity of 8 tonnes at 14.2 metres radius and 2 tonnes at 35 metres.

Another section of the site is home to two Peiner SN 86s from Delta, now part of Baldwins. They are on hire to Kvaerner Trollope & Collis. One is fitted with the lE 14 internal climbing system for 1.2m x 1.2m wide TS14 tower sections. This crane reached a height of 60 metres and then erected the second SN 86 on an upper floor before itself being dis­mantled by the second SN 86.

A refurbished Liebherr 50 HB being used by Try on a typical inner-city site. It has been an extremely short counterweight jib and luffing jib

A total of 25 Tornborgs gooseneck Magni S-40 and S-46 cranes are at work around London. These extraordinary cranes have an articulating joint mid-way along the boom. If the crane cannot over­sail obstacles, the operator simply folds the boom to get past.

What about the smallest tower cranes operating in London? Proving popular is the Tomborgs Magni S-1000/6 remote controlled crane, which weighs just 850 kilograms and provides a maximum capac­ity of 1 tonne at 6 metres. Also in favour is the Ferro FC 6.23 H city crane with a maximum capacity of 1.3 tonnes and a maximum saddle jib of 22.9 metres are popular.

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