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At massive Bailey Yard, every minute counts for coal trains. And UP is saving hundreds of hours with in-train wheel replacements

From 12 days to 12 minutes? I have to admit I was skeptical when three Union Pacific Railroad senior executives said Bailey Yard cut the time to change wheelsets on empty coal cars that much by performing the work in the field instead of in a shop.

The execs mentioned the in-train wheel replacements while I was at UP’s Omaha, Neb., headquarters Nov. 6 and asked them for an example of how the railroad’s “lean” process improvement push had taken time out of a work event. I’ve heard about railroads’ time savings from lean management methodologies many times before, but never this dramatic. Even UP President and CEO Jim Young said he did a double-take when told about the more than 11-day time difference.

I got a chance to see the in-train process for myself the next day after making the four-hour-plus drive on I-80 to North Platte to the world’s largest rail yard — yes, folks, Bailey Yard is that massive, as in 3,097-football-fields-can-fit-inside-it big. Casey Dyer, the yard’s director of mechanical maintenance, had a demonstration set up for me at the westbound run-through tracks, where empty coal trains are serviced before heading back to the Powder River Basin.

As Bailey Yarders will tell you, coal is king there. A majority of the 150 trains and more than 13,000 cars handled at the yard each day are coal-related. Workers try to get empty trains through the yard in less than three hours to keep UP’s coal assembly line going.

Dyer admitted the 12-days-to-12-minutes time savings isn’t quite accurate — it’s more like 12 days to eight minutes (but the 12-to-12 comparison is catchy). He also confessed that the faster wheel changeout process didn’t necessarily evolve because of lean techniques — a trivial matter since the driving force behind the change isn’t as important to UP as speeding up a critical task.

But I digress. Here’s how the changeout works: Two workers slide a hydraulic jack under the couplers between two cars and attach chains to the parts of the trucks they want to raise. After the jack elevates, another worker operates a forklift-like Combilift to remove the old wheelset — the only part of the truck that doesn’t raise — and place a new wheelset on the track. As the jack lowers, one worker guides the new wheelset to its proper position under the truck. Then the wheelset is locked in place.

The process took about seven minutes — fast enough to impress me and a NASCAR pit crew, who last year praised the speed and coordination of the changeouts while touring the yard to help UP with a lean initiative, said Dyer. Earlier this year, BNSF Railway Co. began employing a similar in-train wheel changeout process at its Alliance, Neb., yard that takes about 30 minutes to complete.

UP’s in-train process might never have happened if yard managers didn’t find the right equipment to replace wheels trackside. It took a while to search for a telehandler/lift that could function in the limited space between and near the run-through tracks, said Dyer. Last year, managers found the Combilift, a specialized lift manufactured in Monaghan, Ireland, that’s designed to function in tight warehouse spaces.

Bailey Yard workers began performing in-train changeouts in July 2006. Since January, the yard has devoted two three-man crews to the process.

Before, a car with a bad wheelset was removed from a train and switched from one part of the yard to another until it arrived at the shop, then was repaired and handed off several times to return to the westbound run-through tracks — a process that could take 12 days. Now, instead of changing out 30 wheelsets a day at the shop, crews replace up to 30 sets per shift in the field, said Dyer. And the yard saves time by not having to switch out a bad-order car and switch in a fill car to keep a coal trainset intact.

UP plans to employ the in-train process at other yards. Earlier this year, crews at Dupo Yard near East St. Louis, Ill., began changing out wheelsets in the field, but they only replace four to 10 sets a day, said Dyer.

Posted by: Jeff Stagl | Date posted: 11/16/2007

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Posted by Bob R. Tucker on 11/16/2007 2:15:39 PM

I would like to know why this number of wheel sets are changed out. In other words, what has caused these wheel sets to be declared defective? Are these sets becoming "bad ordered" due to improper train handling? In particular power braking, or what? If I were involved in UP Mechanical Department Management, I sure would be in conference with train operation managers to make an in-depth study of what is causing this high number of wheel sets to be changed out. Bob R. Tucker, Retired Manager of Train Handling (Former Santa Fe)

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Posted by John on 11/19/2007 8:33:17 PM

Perhaps I missed something. Lets see. 30 wheels per trick are changed out. Three tricks per day equal 90 wheels sets. 90 wheels sets divided by the 13,000 cars handled daily by the Bailey Yard equals .7 of 1%. Considering the long distance that most of the unit trains, (handled by the Bailey Yard), traveled, it does not sound excessive.

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Posted by Sankarnarayan on 11/20/2007 12:50:43 AM

This is in reference to to Mr. Tucker's comments. Being a mech. engr myself, 13,000 cars per day having four wheel sets each, total up to 52,000 wheel sets passing through. Thirty sets per shift means 90 sets per day. Ninety sets out of 52,000 sets works out to be 0.17 percent, which is quite normal for the heavy haul coal trains across the UP system in Canada.

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Posted by Cal on 11/20/2007 4:03:04 PM

So, if there is no element of profit per OM rule 111.9, where is the private car owner recovering the $140.00 in excessive billing?

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Posted by Casey J on 11/28/2007 1:14:24 AM

Mr. Tucker, train handling involving power braking has nothing to do with defective wheel sets. The flat spots or defects usually develop from constant use and bad track joints or frogs. They can also occur when hand brakes aren't released on empty cars which may cause the wheels to slide over the rails instead of rolling freely. There are still situations where supplemental train braking with dynamic is necessary. GPS ERAD monitoring is now used to manage train handling. The days of power braking and simply blaming the crews are over.

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Posted by Glen Lynch on 11/28/2007 9:43:44 AM

I saw an intrain wheel changeout going on at the Intermodal yard in Phoenix on the BNSF. I don't know how long it takes them. They have doubled their inventory of spare wheelsets. They use a forklift to lift the empty car.

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Posted by James Swidergal on 1/16/2008 11:37:02 AM

See, there we go again! The UP run there big mouth like they invented in train wheel replacement. Progress rail has been doing that sort of thing for the past 5 years since they established it at Rochele,Il global 3 on the UP. This is just another PR move by the UPRR to try and buffalo its shareholders that the ceo and its board of directors are a creative lot. So much more to be said but no time or audience to listen to it.

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Overriding circumstances: However obliquely, Congress' reversal of Bush's water bill veto put infrastructure needs front and center for a moment, anyway

From the who'd-have-thunk-it file: The first Congressional override of a President George W. Bush veto was about infrastructure funding. At least partly.

Now, a majority of U.S. senators and congressmen didn't believe the $2.3 billion Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) was worth preserving simply because they wanted to do something about our deteriorating water resources infrastructure. WRDA includes enough pork to feed a not-so-small small army, which is at least partly why the president vetoed it on Nov. 2.

But just because congressmen bless politically important projects for their respective states doesn't mean the projects (or at least some of them) aren't worth funding in the bigger-picture scheme of things, which is why many links in the transport chain were out there pushing hard for Congress to override the Bush veto.

There was the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), which had been pleading with anybody who'd listen that it won't be long before our unwillingness to fund the burgeoning backlog of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers programs — from navigation system and flood-control improvements to wetlands restoration projects to hurricane-related damage repairs — starts doing a number on international trade. ("The legislation is supposed to be biennial, [but] the last WRDA bill was signed into law in 2000," AAPA argued last week.)

Then there was the agriculture lobby the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), National Corn Growers Association and American Farm Bureau, among others — which supported WRDA because it'd authorize funds for inland waterway projects that have been delayed more than a dozen years. NGFA, in particular, cited $3.6 billion worth of construction and renovation of dilapidated locks on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway. "If the United States fails to modernize its inland waterways system, U.S. agricultural exports will be further undermined as competing foreign countries continue to invest in their own transportation infrastructures," said NGFA President Kendell Keith early last week.

Perhaps the pro-WRDA lobby swayed some of the senators and congressmen. Maybe the pork did. Or maybe the majority of them believed it was time to spend more (as in a lot more) on water resources infrastructure. On Nov. 6, 138 Republicans joined 223 Democrats in the House to vote 361-54 to override the veto. On Nov. 8, the Senate easily cleared the two-thirds majority needed to override with a 79-14 vote.

What's next? Likely, more lobbying. WRDA doesn't provide any funding — it merely authorizes the projects and policy revisions in the bill. Funding appropriations for specific provisions require separate action and further congressional review.

So: How much ultimately will be spent on water resources infrastructure isn't clear. Equally cloudy is just how much this Congress will go to bat for infrastructure development in other contexts and for other modes. The override certainly doesn't suggest anything about the prospects of rail-specific infrastructure programs seeing the light of day on the Hill. But given the inter-modal connectedness that permeates the Rail Renaissance era, one mode's capacity gain is another's ... well, potential capacity gain. As NGFA's Keith put it: "If U.S. transportation capacity cannot be efficiently expanded through improved waterways, increasing congestion on the highway and rail network will hamper overall U.S. economic growth."

I wouldn't call the override a win-win-win ... in part because I'm not sure it is (the devil's in the project/funding details) and in part because I would never ever use that phrase unless I could say it out loud while batting my eyelashes and pausing for (hopefully) humorous effect (it's a phrase that doesn't ... well ... mean anything). But I'll take the veto and the potential for infrastructure development (and congestion relief) on faith. And I know it means a lot to the ag and port folks, so that's a good thing. On to the next infrastructure needs program, then ...

Posted by: Pat Foran | Date posted: 11/12/2007

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Posted by Dave Smith on 11/12/2007 6:25:35 PM

Don't forget though. Waterways, like highways, are open access. North American railroads are not, rather they are the opposite of open access ("closed access" anyone?) It is thus easier to justify throwing public (read: non-user fee) money at infrastructure projects that will benefit multiple users than it is to justify throwing that sane money at projects that benefit a sole recipient. The railroads are fooling themselves if they think they have just as much right to the public trough as those other transportation modes. Giving railroads equal weight for such expenditures would require a major shakeup of the current "closed access" integrated model of operations, and the current crop of railroad management has shown no inclination to evolve in that direction, prefering instead the partially unregulated status of a natural monopoly.

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Posted by Adron on 11/13/2007 11:49:38 AM

I don't see why someone should be forced to open up something THEY built. Don't give me any crap about the stupid land grants... the crap was a loan for all intents and purposes. The railroads have no interest because they fork every practical penny for their infrastructure and then get nickeled and dimed in taxes... so WTF?!?! As for the roadways, most freight carriers on roadways get away with a huge part of the costs defrayed to the taxpayers. So why are they getting a free ride, so why wouldn't the railroads want a cut of that? None of it is fair as long as there is subsidies and federal/government manipulation of transportation.

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Posted by Alan Enderson on 11/13/2007 5:09:41 PM

Public funding of rail infrastructure projects do not “benefit a sole recipient.” Rather, the primary beneficiary of public funding of rail infrastructure projects is the public, through things such as less pollution, lower energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and reduced highway gridlock and highway spending. And, of course, the rail network is available for use by any shipper who wants to use it. The demand for freight transportation will grow sharply in the future. To meet this demand, rail infrastructure investment must grow sharply too. Since 1980, railroads have invested some $400 billion (of private dollars) in this network, and railroads will continue to provide the vast majority of infrastructure funding in the future. However, railroads’ own funding capabilities will not be enough to take full advantage of their full potential to meet the nation’s transportation needs. Public participation would help bridge the funding gap by leveraging private investment. And the public benefits would far exceed the cost of financing. Traffic will move one way or another. From a public policy point of view, it makes good sense to help ensure that as much of this traffic moves by rail as possible.

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Posted by Dave Smith on 11/17/2007 12:35:15 PM

Adron: Why should railroads get something for nothing? If you recieve public funding, you should expect a more tangible public benefit in return than theorectical (and unquantifiable) "benefits," such as supposed cleaner air, etc. Public funding demands public access, pure and simple. PS — How do you justify stating that the land grants were "really just loans"? Did the lands in question all return to the public sector? Alan: If Highway Trust Funds were given directly to a few trucking companies rather than for highway maintenance, you would admit that those few trucking companies were the "sole recipients", even if there is some trickle down benefits to the customers of those few companies or some "public benefit" of cleaner air, etc. That is the blatant hypocrasy of public funding of private rail firms — the money doesn't benefit all rail companies, just the ones who get the funds. How does the $95 million in taxpayer funding for Norfolk Southern's double-stack project benefit CSX? It doesn't, but $95 million for a highway project does benefit all highway users, not just a few.

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Posted by Adron on 11/20/2007 11:06:54 AM

Subsidized funding is a manipulation of the economy, plain and simple. I'm against it. It destroyed our passenger rail, created far too much reliance on the auto and created a largely inflated oil industry. None of these things does us any good in the long run and we're starting to deal directly with more and more of these manipulations day by day. The founding of the country let people organize themselves, they did a far better job than any urban planner, subsidized roadway, or other catastrophy did. Thus, per a stringent and intense study of the history of the United States, I am against subsidies of any type to the various industry sectors. If the highways & trucking competed one to one with the freight railroads everyone would have better pricing control and could build their own infrastructure. In the sense of the freight railroads and trucking, we'd have a very different infrastructure if it wasn't so heavily one-sided toward trucking. To say subsidies are needed, is an outright lie. If that were true, the U.S. would NEVER have existed. Simple cohesive logic would provide that answer.

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Fighting highway congestion: It doesn't have to be a losing battle


Forgive the untimeliness of this blog. I’ve spent the past two-and-a-half months at home with my new baby, blissfully unaware that life exists beyond dirty diapers and late-night feedings. So it wasn’t until this week that I saw the Texas Transportation Institute’s 2007 Urban Mobility Report, released back in September.

Funny that a link to that report should pop up in my email inbox. When I came back to work last week, I swore traffic in my hometown of Milwaukee had tripled since late August.

OK, so it hasn’t really tripled. But when you have a little one at home that you hate to leave in the morning and can’t wait to get back to in the evening, you suddenly become very aware of anything and everything that keeps you away from them — namely, my 15-mile, 45-minute drive home from work.

Go ahead, laugh. I realize that in many large cities, traveling 15 miles in 45 minutes is like running a four-minute mile. In fact, Milwaukee was ranked the 59th-most congested U.S. city in terms of annual delay per traveler, according to TTI’s report, so I realize I have drivers from 58 other cities playing me the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin.

But it’s got me wondering: How do drivers in those 58 cities handle it? In a day and age where “rush hour” is beginning earlier and lasting longer, and people are taking drastic measures to avoid sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic (one rail industry supply guy once told me that when he lived in L.A., he’d go to work in the wee hours of the morning, then catch another hour of sleep once he got there before starting his work day), you have to ask: Have we really resigned ourselves to the idea that 6 a.m. traffic jams on 24-lane highways will become a way of life? I sure hope not.

But then, what’s the answer to fighting today’s growing congestion problem? Encourage people to use public transit is an obvious one, but many of today’s systems are at or near capacity, too. Transit agencies struggle enough as it is to fund day-to-day operations, let alone large-scale expansion projects. Take more freight off the roads? Sure, but freight-rail networks are capacity-strained, as well. Expanding the highway system has always been a popular option, but in a lot of metropolitan areas, we’re running out of room for roads.

The only way we’re going to be able to solve the congestion problem is by taking a multi-modal approach — and very soon. As it is, traffic (both freight and passenger) is growing far faster than any one transportation mode can handle.

Next month, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission is expected to submit to Congress their recommendations for ensuring the nation’s freight and passenger railroads, ports and highways continue to serve the needs of the country. The commission was created under SAFETEA-LU to study the national surface transportation network and Highway Trust Fund, then develop a plan for preserving them.

The 12-member commission, chaired by U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, has held 10 field meetings since May 2006 to hear firsthand from national transportation advocates, policymakers, industry leaders, labor unions and the general. Their findings will serve as a reference for members of Congress as they consider SAFETEA-LU reauthorization in 2009.

Developing such a report is a huge undertaking and I, for one, am anxious to see what the commission has come up with. I hope that freight and passenger railroads will play a significant role in the plan — and that Congress then funds expansion plans accordingly.

Posted by: Angela Cotey | Date posted: 11/8/2007

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Posted by Dr. David Morris on 11/9/2007 2:32:38 PM

Highway congestion, highway maintainence costs and improved higway safety could be addressed by requiring that goods shipped more than 300 miles be transported by rail or air. Exceptions could be made by a fee of $50 per mile beyond the 300-mile limit. The fee would be put into a national fund used for the construction of new rails needed for the additional traffic. These NEW rails would be federally owned and maintained as are the federal highways.

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Posted by Dan Lauzon on 11/12/2007 8:56:44 PM

Did you know that the infamous "Big Dig" here in Boston started out as a Rail Link between North and South Stations? Back during the first Dukakis Administration the project was proposed as a joint highway/rail. The Duke was defeated by Ed King but then re-elected after one term, by then the rail component was gone. We still need the Rail Link but after the massive cost over runs and subsequent finger pointing this critical link may be setback decades. You should start a blog on the NTSB fatigue addition, it may prove enlightening to say the least!

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Posted by William Moorhead on 11/13/2007 9:03:19 AM

In cities with water separations of districts, such as here in the Norfolk, VA area, there should be serious consideration of passenger-only ferries integrated into a public transit system, with timetable and facilities meshed for easy transfers from one to the other. Is Norfolk considering such? Absolutely not; ferries are considered "old fashioned" as were streetcars up until twenty years ago. Perhaps the planners should consider the free water highways instead of more bridges and tunnels, which only encourage use of the private car.

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Posted by Sankar Narayan on 11/20/2007 2:28:23 AM

All the news in these columns are about the U.S. only. Please have a look at the European, Asian, Australian or South American scenerio. Many cities are going in for dramatic expansion of Mass Rapid Transport by rail mode. Smaller cities go in for Light Rail and Tram cars. If you can get hold of the International Railway Journal published from the U.K., you can have an idea of de-congestion being achieved in very large cities like London, Beijing, Shanghai, Manchester, etc. It is unfortunate that for those living in the U.S.A., there is no other world. God bless America!

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Posted by James Swidergal on 1/25/2008 3:05:52 PM

Dr. Morris...If those rails are federally owned then does that mean I could run on those tracks with my own equipment, and who would be the authorizing authority.

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