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— by Jon Olson
Editor's note: Passenger and freight railroads continue to contract out for a range of infrastructure needs — from system extensions to project oversight to emergency repair work to general upkeep.
This month, Progressive Railroading focuses on work recently completed by five contractors: Balfour Beatty Rail Inc., Herzog Contracting Corp., Mass Electric Construction Co., PNR RailWorks Inc. and RJ Corman Railroad Group.
Four of the case studies detail work of the passenger-system extension variety; one explores a firm's foray into the emergency services realm. All reflect the vitality that's evident in today's railroad construction and maintenance segment, whatever the economic weather.
Lending a Linking Hand in the Twin Cities
Buses, light rail, commuter rail — they all come together in Minneapolis at Target Field. Located just blocks from the city's center, the new ballpark is not only an important destination in and of itself, but a convenient junction for commuters. And it was Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. that linked the rails — a crucial, $4.9 million piece of Metro Transit's $317 million commuter-rail development.
Since 2004, the Hiawatha light-rail line has snaked 12 miles south from downtown, bringing riders to and from the airport and Mall of America. And since Nov. 16, the 40-mile Northstar Commuter Rail Line has connected a string of northern communities to Minneapolis.
The lines now meet at an intermodal station at the base of the stadium.
"It's like an interchange, with a lower level line going one way, and the higher level line crossing it, perpendicular, at 90 degrees, and where the two cross is the intermodal station," says Steve Whitfield, Balfour Beatty Rail planning and technical support manager.
Hiawatha passengers now can disembark and go down a flight of stairs to board the Northstar commuter line going north, or travel the route in reverse.
The project is part of Metro Transit's plan to ease travel and lighten traffic in the burgeoning region. Population growth has been especially strong in the Northstar corridor, where five communities line up along Highway 10 like beads on a cord.
A coalition of these communities, along with counties and business organizations, conceived the Northstar line almost 13 years ago, says Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons. In a second phase, the city of St. Cloud would be added to bring the total length of the line to about 80 miles, he says.
Most of the line runs on BNSF Railway Co. track, and the Class I has granted Northstar "lifetime use" for a one-time payment of $107 million, Gibbons says.
BNSF staffs the trains, and because Amtrak and especially freight trains (about 50 per day, according to Gibbons) are active along the line, the freight road dispatches the Northstar trains from its Fort Worth, Texas, operations center. The commuter trains only run during rush hours.
Balfour Beatty linked the two lines by adding 2,400 feet of double track — less than half a mile — to the Hiawatha line, and about 3,100 feet of mixed single and double track (a total of 4,750 track feet) to the Northstar line.
Both tracks extend to bumping posts, with stretches of track where trains lay up for the return trip, and both tracks have turnouts, enabling trains to switch tracks and run in the other direction. The project also involved installing ballasted track and track in cement in different sections.
To complete the project, Balfour Beatty employed as many as 20 workers at a time.
"We had a couple of teams, one on the LRT and one on the commuter rail, but they moved around," Whitfield says.
Working piecemeal was the major challenge, he says.
"We would work on the LRT when we could get on there, we'd do a section, and then we'd have to wait for the civil guys to do some work, so we would go down and continue working on the commuter rail section until the next section was ready on the LRT."
Traffic demands also proved a puzzle. For example, a street that led to a bus stop couldn't be closed entirely.
"We had to build halfway into the road, while keeping the other half open, and then we had to shut down the other half of the road ... and then build the other half of the track," Whitfield says.
Balfour Beatty began the project in August 2008 and finished in September 2009, which helped the Northstar open two months ahead of schedule.
"The entire commuter-rail project was completed at about $10 million under budget," Gibbons says.
Facilitating the FasTracks Fast Lane in Denver
Denver dipped a toe into local rail transport in 1994 with a 5.3-mile swing through downtown. Three additions during the next dozen years netted about 25 additional miles, stretching light-rail lines to the southwest and southeast.
Since then, the Mile High City has committed to rail in a big way. The Regional Transportation District's (RTD) FasTracks initiative, a 12-year, $6.9 billion development approved in 2004, will add 122 miles of light and commuter rail, and a dedicated bus line in 11 separate projects. The 12.1-mile West Corridor light-rail line is the first under way.
Preliminary work began in the summer of 2008, says John West, project manager for the West Corridor contractor, Denver Transit Construction Group. Since then, "we've ramped up pretty aggressively," says West, who also is a project manager for Herzog Contracting Corp. Herzog and its Denver Transit partner, Stacy and Witbeck Inc., are aiming for a June 2012 completion date for the $350 million project, West says. The JV is on target, says Brenda Tierney, an RTD information manager. "At this time, they are on schedule and on budget," she said in late November.
It's a big job. About 200 workers were on site last month, and the total will peak at about 500 before the project is done.
And when it is, the corridor will stretch from just west of Denver Union Station downtown, through Denver neighborhoods and the city of Lakewood, to the Jefferson County Government Center. It touches at least a half-dozen jurisdictions.
Denver Transit isn't simply responsible for laying ties and track. With help from subcontractors, the joint venture is building heavy infrastructure, including 14 bridges, two tunnels, culverts and 16,000 lineal feet of sound walls.
Keeping track of it all is "very stimulating," West says with a chuckle.
So far, workers have met a number of challenges. The light-rail line "really gets shoe-horned into existing neighborhoods and such. It's not like a highway, [where] you're building out on new grade somewhere," West says. Among the issues: traffic control, storm water runoff, dust and noise, trash control and employee parking.
"You're working in people's backyards almost, and you have to be very sensitive to their concerns," he says.
The contractor divided the corridor into three geographic areas, and appointed an engineer in charge of each.
"We're working on all three areas concurrently," West says.
The joint venture has enlisted Lawrence Construction Co. and Edward Kraemer & Sons Inc. to serve as bridge builders; other subcontractors are responsible for a range of work, including pedestrian bridges, materials testing, water channeling, utility work, payroll, even public information.
The rest is up to the Denver Transit principals.
"We lay the track, the ballast, build all the stations, and put in the overhead catenary system foundations, and the foundations for the traction power substations and signals," West says.
Under a separate contract, Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. is handling the electrical systems: installing the catenary, overhead lines, communications lines and related items.
Herzog and Stacy and Witbeck have worked together before. In 2008, the team completed the 45-mile Salt Lake City-to-Ogden, Utah, FrontRunner commuter-rail line for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). Another 45-mile segment, which is still under construction, is scheduled for completion in 2012, says UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter.
Meanwhile, the partners are members of a separate joint venture bidding on a second RTD project to build and manage the Gold and East corridors — 34 miles of track — plus a light-rail vehicle maintenance facility.
"We're working on a proposal right now," West says.
Easing the D.C. Commute Crunch
Washington D.C.'s Metrorail gave almost 223 million rides in the fiscal year ended June 30, almost 2 million of them on Jan. 19 and 20 for inauguration festivities.
Not every day is as busy as Inauguration Day, but rush hours, baseball games and the capital's many special events can crowd the station platforms of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), which operates Metrorail.
Mass Electric Construction Co. has helped ease the crunch by providing electrical upgrades to 33 of WMATA's traction power stations.
"They were running all six-car trains," says Mike Cardoza, project manager for Mass Electric. "We've given them the capacity to run 50 percent eight-car trains."
Typically, the extra capacity only will be used in high-demand periods, WMATA says.
The $29 million project — which began in February 2006 and was completed last December — was half of an overall upgrade of WMATA's 66 power stations, which convert AC power provided by the local utility to the DC power required to run the trains. The project was finished well ahead of schedule and under budget, according to WMATA.
Washington, D.C.-based Truland Walker Seal handled the other 33 stations under a $25 million contract.
Working Sundays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., Mass Electric's electricians were required to complete each station within 60 calendar days, and sometimes had to install temporary wiring to keep the electricity flowing as they worked. Workers could shut off power completely only from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. WMATA runs trains on weekdays from 5 a.m. to midnight.
A few of the power stations are located at rider platforms, through limited-access entries, and others are underground, accessible through plates — many of them in the middle of streets, down ladders and stairwells, Cardoza says. To access the underground stations, streets were often shut down, and equipment to be installed had to be lowered, sometimes as deep as seven stories.
Mass Electric hired 20 local electricians who worked on two stations at a time, in roughly 10-man teams, Cardoza says. The work is dangerous; the electricity generated by a single station is enough to power 10,000 medium-sized homes, and the workers required special training to familiarize them with the equipment and DC power, says Tim Cooke, project manager for Truland Walker Seal.
"It's not a standard-type job," Cardoza says.
Some of the power stations brought the workers to within blocks of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, requiring cooperation with federal and District of Columbia authorities. Electricians underwent criminal background checks, according to WMATA.
In addition to the power-station upgrades, Mass Electric is building a $500,000 training simulator for WMATA, Cardoza says. The simulator, a full-scale power station wired with safe levels of current, enables technicians to learn how to fix various problems they might encounter in a station on the fritz.
Passenger trains are essential in the U.S. capital. Metrorail's 106 miles of track convey 42 percent of those who work in the heart of Washington and nearby Arlington County, and about half of its peak-period riders are government employees, according to WMATA. Extra capacity at rush hour even may help keep the government on schedule.
Icing on Edmonton's Rail-Extension Cake
As winter descends, residents from the south side of Edmonton, Alberta, now have a more efficient commute. Another 1.5-mile extension to the city's light-rail transit (LRT) line was recently completed. By April 2010, the full 4.9-mile expansion effort will be complete, enabling the transit system to double weekday ridership to 100,000, the city estimates.
Edmonton's LRT service has been a work in progress for three decades. Begun in 1978 for the Commonwealth Games, the system soon will extend 12.4 miles from south to northwest, with planned additions in several directions.
PNR RailWorks Inc. (PNR) is working with Edmonton on an LRT extension for the third time, says Vice President Peter Pearce. For the most recent project, the contractor employed a seasonal workforce that peaked at nearly 100. The job? To lay track and install signals.
"The track is finished all the way to the south end," Pearce said in early November. "On the signal side, all of the equipment will be installed in the field at the end of November — gates and whistles and bells, all that stuff will be installed."
PNR's trackwork contract is worth about $16.2 million, says city project engineer Shawn Ellsworth. PNR's share of the signal work — in a subcontract with GE Transportation — brings the total PNR bill to $25 million.
PNR's work is the icing on the cake. The complexity of laying new track in a metropolitan area of roughly 1 million pushed the total project cost to $641.7 million. The city purchased homes and other property, built two underpasses and erected a bridge. Track bed preparation, a pedestrian bridge and a multi-use trail were among the factors that drove the cost up. About 50 contractors were involved, Ellsworth says.
The project was on schedule and within budget as of early November, Ellsworth says. And the complicated logistics of the project gave PNR a chance to distinguish itself.
As contractors fell behind, a domino effect of delays came into play. "PNR actually did well during the summer to get our overall project back on schedule, because we were starting to fall behind a little bit, and they put some good effort into it," Ellsworth says.
Like every project, the Edmonton effort — among PNR's largest, Pearce says — had its own wrinkles.
"One of the challenges in this one [was] the restricted work area — it was a very narrow corridor for us to work in," he says.
Some of the track was installed in the middle of a divided roadway; other stretches were built along busy roads, backed up against private property. Bringing in cranes and other equipment meant "we probably had lane closures every day," Pearce says. Cross streets presented their own challenges.
"In the majority of cases, the intersection would have been closed for a period of seven days, so the city would set up detours," Pearce says.
By this coming April, when the extension is complete, passengers will be able to ride through 15 stations, covering more than 12 miles, in 34 minutes, without the bother of switching from bus to train, the city of Edmonton's Web site proclaims.
Meanwhile, the city is pursuing other extensions as part of its rail network master plan, which stresses the use of rail to promote revitalization, and community and business density, according to a city LRT Public Involvement Report. Construction will begin next year on a line that runs northwest from the city center, with lines to the east, west and southwest on the drawing board, Ellsworth says.
Filling a Post-Flooding Need in the Midwest
Track is stable in sunny weather, even in everyday storms. But when Mother Nature plays rough, track is more fragile and malleable than the land it lays on — it's subject to sliding, writhing, twisting, breaking and simply washing away. It happens often enough to keep RJ Corman Railroad Group's Storm Team busy.
When Hurricane Floyd hit the East Coast a decade ago, RJ Corman officials recognized an opportunity to expand the firm's derailment services unit to handle all kinds of disasters afflicting track. And the Storm Team was born.
"There were a number of washouts that CSX experienced, and that was our first formal immediate response to a natural disaster that affected the railroads, washed out track," says Noel Rush, vice president of strategic planning and development, and head of the Storm Team.
The team is not a dedicated unit so much as a service that as many as 100 or more of RJ Corman's 825 workers contribute to, depending on the crisis. The company has more than two dozen U.S. locations from which it can respond to emergencies.
The team's mettle was tested by the Midwest floods of 2008.
Heavy rains engorged rivers and wetlands, causing what the National Weather Service called a 500-year flood. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, officials estimated 100 city blocks were submerged, and a swollen river caused a railroad bridge to collapse, sending cars full of rocks into the water — just one of many track failures.
RJ Corman deployed 145 employees, and its subcontractors and client railroads added more. Workers lived on-site in sleeper coaches, were fed from an on-site kitchen, and worked 12-hour shifts for 42 days to rebuild track in Iowa, Indiana and Missouri. The work teams employed 195 pieces of equipment, including grapple trucks, front-end loaders, hi-rail track hoes and other rail-specific vehicles, and trucks and earthmovers of various kinds.
To survey damaged track, the company launched helicopters (it owns two, along with three jets) and airboats. The boats also helped teams capture floating railroad ties.
For the Storm Team, preparation is key, and RJ Corman watches the weather closely.
"When a national disaster could possibly develop, we respond by preparing for it . . . and we are able to inform the railroads where we have the resources," Rush says. "And in some cases, the railroads will actually stage us."
The Storm Team bills on a time-and-materials basis, Rush says, under terms worked out in advance with the railroads. RJ Corman handles projects for all Class Is and the major regional railroads, he adds.
In the '08 Midwest floods, the firm served several railroads, including the Indiana Southern Railroad, the Indiana Rail Road Co., BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad. Filling holes was a big part of the work. At Midwest sites, trucks carrying rock arrived around the clock. The rock was unloaded, then loaded onto rail cars, which carried them to the holes, dumped them and returned. One hole was estimated at 250 feet long and 46 feet deep.
"It [took about] 27,000 tons of rock just to fill that hole," Rush says.
On top of the rock fill, ballast was added, a track bed created, and then new or repaired track was laid.
But filling isn't always the answer. Sometimes, waiting is more efficient.
"We have actually taken a yardstick and placed [it] so that we daily watch the receding water and get some idea as to if it's going down," Rush says.
Jon Olson is a Milwaukee-based free-lance writer.