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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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