by Jeff Stagl, managing editor
A state of good repair. The term that’s used extensively by passenger railroads has a new meaning for Class Is this year. They’re focusing their maintenance-of-way (MOW) resources on repair needs to ensure track and other infrastructure is in the best-possible condition.
That means large roads will complete quite a few rail, tie, surfacing and bridge projects, but not nearly as many double-track, siding or other capacity expansion projects as they have the past few years. With traffic at five-year-low levels and the recession in full swing, Class Is are trying to be frugal with their MOW spending plans.
Five of the eight large roads are budgeting less compared with last year, and seven cited a need to pour most of their resources into infrastructure maintenance, primarily to prepare for more traffic when the economy rebounds.
“We look at the current economic climate as an opportunity to focus on parameters we control, our costs, efficiencies and operations,” said officials at Canadian Pacific — which has reduced total ’09 capex about $160 million vs. last year — in their survey. “Our ongoing reinvestment in our physical plant ensures the railroad is ready to accept increased volumes when the economy improves.”
To be able to respond quickly to economic changes, BNSF Railway Co. has woven flexibility into its MOW program, says Vice President of Engineering Dave Freeman.
“We can take advantage of available gang capacity and move resources around,” he says. “At the same time, we can take full advantage of reduced traffic levels to minimize our unit costs and maximize the program work we can accomplish with our authorized funding.”
Because of the weak economy, BNSF has stretched out the construction schedules for two capacity expansion projects originally expected to be budgeted and completed this year. On its Abo Canyon line southeast of Albuquerque, N.M., the railroad now expects to complete 5.5 miles of double track in early 2011. Crews will complete grading work this year, and bridge and signaling work next year.
And instead of completing more than eight miles of triple track in Missouri in ‘09, BNSF will build a 3.4-mile section near Cement City this year (beginning in August), and a five-mile segment between Congo and Eton next year.
In terms of its overall MOW program, the Class I has budgeted a slightly lower $1.557 billion vs. last year’s $1.561 billion. BNSF will focus maintenance work evenly on rail and ties, says Freeman. If first-quarter track windows and productivity are indications, the railroad should have no problems completing the work.
“In the first quarter, we had the best gang productivity in the eight years that I’ve been here,” says Freeman, adding that rail gang productivity reached 115 percent and tie gang productivity climbed to 118 percent. “Clearly, we are benefiting from [open] windows.”
CSX Transportation is taking advantage of additional track time, too. But the Class I is wringing even more productivity benefits from a Trackworks program implemented last year.
The program calls for implementing industrial engineering techniques and standardizing operating procedures to boost productivity, and offset labor and material cost increases.
“We can do the same amount of work with the same amount of money by keeping total unit costs down,” says CSXT VP of Engineering John West, adding that the Class I’s labor and material costs increased 6 percent compared with last year.
With the help of a consultant, the railroad performed computer simulations to determine how to best operate machinery and map out MOW work, and installed GPS devices on all equipment, he says. The simulations helped eliminate equipment bottlenecks — a frequent problem with tie handlers.
“To me, ‘www’ doesn’t mean World Wide Web, it means work without waiting,” says West.
In addition, crew members, equipment mechanics, and signal and transportation department workers meet frequently each day to discuss what work still needs to be done, what operations went well and what could have been done better, he says.
Overall, CSXT has increased its MOW budget 6 percent year over year to $765 million. The railroad will install 200,000 more ties vs. last year, primarily on spurs and yard tracks. The Class I also will install 100,000 borate-treated ties in its southern region to “see how they work out,” says West.
In addition, CSXT increased its bridge program budget 10 percent to $55 million. Major projects include upgrades to a bridge over the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C., and span replacements on a bridge over the Mahoning River in Youngstown, Ohio.
Crews are rebuilding one track on the double-track D.C. bridge, which was built in the 1970s. CSXT plans to rebuild the second track and fully restore the bridge by fall 2010. The railroad also expects to replace three truss spans on the Youngstown bridge by mid-2010.
2009 MOW Plans (by budget amount)
Union Pacific Railroad
BNSF Railway Co.
Norfolk Southern Railway
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