— Compiled by Howard Ande
Rail infrastructure is continually under heavy duress, especially as longer and heavier trains traverse more track. Railroads are trying to bolster their infrastructure so operations remain efficient and productive no matter the train length or weight.
Special trackwork components — such as turnouts, switch point guards and insulated joints — are an essential part of the efficiency/productivity equation. For example, high-speed turnouts can boost fluidity on a section of mainline by allowing trains to proceed at near track speed while navigating a crossover, or entering and exiting a passing siding.
Special trackwork suppliers continue to research and engineer better designs so their products hold up to wear and tear from heavier trainloads.
"Railroads have a goal that their insulated rail joints should last as long as the rail to which they are attached," said Jeff Kondis, manager of corporate marketing for special trackwork supplier L.B. Foster Co., in an email. "Our development efforts are pointed in that direction as we move even closer to that goal."
Suppliers also are addressing their manufacturing and distribution capabilities.
"We are making a concerted effort to better equip our facilities and better position ourselves to be more efficient, more productive and more innovative in order to best address and meet our customers' needs and expectations," said James Remington, vice president of engineering for Vossloh North America/Cleveland Track Material Inc., in an email.
To gauge their progress in developing long-lasting and more efficient products, Progressive Railroading contacted five special trackwork suppliers. Their emailed responses follow.
L.B. Foster Co. manufactures insulated rail joints (IJs) for special trackwork applications, including bonded and polyurethane insulated joints. The company also provides IJs in a double rail configuration for guarded turnouts and diamond crossings, as well as with clearance for rail clips.
L.B. Foster recently added two new items to its product line. One is a high-performance IJ system featuring a combination of "highly improved" design components, said Jeff Kondis, manager of corporate marketing. The other is a signal bond plate that's attached to a bonded insulated joint assembly. The plate can facilitate the attachment of various signal bonds.
"Our standard IJ products that are being used today have already achieved high levels of reliability and longevity in the most demanding applications," said Kondis. "We are continually pushing the envelope with our new high-performance design and are aiming to surpass the levels already met by our current designs."
The company also keeps investing in its plants to maintain state-of-the-art IJ manufacturing facilities, and incorporates design improvements in its products at the facilities, he said.
Constant improvements to materials and processes used to manufacture IJs are top of mind, as well.
"We made improvements to nearly every component that goes into building an IJ. Our improved adhesive TEMPRANGE® III is a tougher version of our standard TEMPRANGE® II without a compromise in other properties," said Kondis.
The company also has designed a new "Hi-Modulus" insulated joint bar featuring improved geometry and material properties.
"In addition, one of our latest innovations has been to take advantage of the endpost as a structural element in an IJ system. This has been accomplished by introducing a ceramic endpost that utilizes ceramics in the body of an endpost," said Kondis.
Progress Rail Services offers a line of special trackwork, including turnouts and replacement maintenance items for all sizes and designs, as well as crossing diamonds.
Turnout frogs and crossing diamonds continue to be the highest-impact areas for special trackwork components and require the most maintenance. Progress Rail Services has devoted resources to developing solutions that eliminate or minimize these impacts, said Patrick Jansen, vice president of engineering and track services.
"Since we first introduced the lift frog in March 2006, we have made great strides in developing other new products to achieve this goal. Most recently, we developed a switch to complement the lift frog design," he said. "The switch along with the lift frog makes the turnout invisible to mainline traffic. Testing has been completed and the turnout will be installed in revenue service shortly."
A Caterpillar subsidiary, Progress Rail Services also is leading the development of full flange bearing crossing diamond technology. Three of the crossing diamonds have been installed in track, while another is awaiting installation and one is on order, said Jansen.
Among the products the company previously has introduced: a taper heel conformal frog and Clamptite rail brace, which continue to perform well and are becoming industry standards, he said.
"Through our efforts to reduce turnout and crossing component impact, we are striving to achieve the railroad industry's goal of reduced maintenance and overall lower product lifecycle cost," said Jansen.
Special trackwork products supplied by Unitrac Railroad Materials Inc. include turnout packages, panelized turnouts, frogs, switch points, plating, switch stands and transition rails.
"Unitrac Railroad Materials typically can provide shorter lead times as compared to similar trackwork manufacturing companies," said Phil Pietrandrea, senior vice president of sales and marketing.
To continue attaining that goal, the company has added another CNC milling machine.
voestalpine Nortrak Inc. offers a range of special trackwork products designed for freight railroads, mass transit systems, streetcar lines and industrial applications. The company's portfolio includes concrete ties, machined components, manganese and ductile iron castings, and injection-molded synthetics.
Nortrak has eight ISO-certified manufacturing facilities across the U.S. and is "uniquely positioned" to satisfy "Buy America" requirements for publicly funded projects, said Brian Abbott, Nortrak's executive vice president of engineering.
The company has introduced a number of product innovations, such as plate mounted "Bluerolls," he said.
"These are marketed as an effective, cost-efficient method of reducing switch point friction and increasing service reliability," said Abbott. "Bluerolls are fabricated in the U.S., which in turn makes them a 'Buy America' compliant option for engineers specifying switch point rollers."
Nortrak also is working with key customers to field trial concrete ties fitted with resilient under-tie pads on high-tonnage heavy haul routes. The company anticipates that the controlled test will confirm that significant maintenance benefits accrue from the introduction of engineered resilience into the turnout, said Abbott.
To enhance the security of traditional manual switch installations, a RACOR brand switch point lock has been developed. The new lock is paired with manual switch stands to provide secure independent locking.
"With the addition of our 'Hytonics' switch drive and wayside monitoring products, Nortrak has truly become America's 'one-stop shop' for trackwork solutions," said Abbott.
The company also has introduced a line of advanced wayside detection systems from its sister company in Germany, Signal and System Technik (SST).
The SST's Phoenix MB is a state-of-the-art multi-infrared beam scanning system for any configuration of bearings and braking systems, said Abbott. Its integrated signal processor is designed to quickly and reliably detect abnormal rolling stock temperatures at operating speeds exceeding 250 mph, he added.
"Phoenix MB can also be housed in Nortrak's robust hollow steel tie in heavy axle load environments," said Abbott. "In addition to the Phoenix MB, we will be offering the Atlas system to detect wheel impact anomalies. Atlas' state-of-the-art instrumentation ensures reliable detection of faulty rolling stock at high speed."
Vossloh North America's Cleveland Track Material Inc. (CTM) subsidiary manufactures a line of trackwork products, including various switches, frogs, guard rails, crossings, complete panelized turnouts, lap turnouts and slip switches, switch point protectors, bridge joints, joint bars and compromise joint bars.
CTM aims to engineer and design products that not only meet existing track and traffic conditions, but address specific customer needs or preferences, said James Remington, vice president of engineering.
"Each of the product lines include several variations that are custom designed," he said.
Working with its European business partners, CTM recently added a variety of in-pavement design products for the light-rail markets in the United States and Canada. In a similar relationship with European partners, the company also recently added asymmetrical switch point rail design turnouts to its product line. The turnouts include cast manganese mono-block frogs with flash-butt welded leg rails.
In addition, CTM is nearing the end of a major product line improvement project that began about a year ago, said Remington.
"We've remodeled and re-equipped a large manufacturing bay at our Bessemer Plant in Cleveland and procured a new CNC switch point milling machine, a new switch point saw and drilling machine along with a new horizontal-vertical hydraulic press," he said. "Two new overhead cranes with other additional support equipment have been installed."
The result: The design and layout of the new equipment greatly shortens product flow through the shop, said Remington. The new equipment and production line provide a more accurate and consistent machining process that is more productive and efficient to provide a higher degree of cost containment, he added.
"We have similar plans to make major improvements to other product lines for the current year and beyond," said Remington.
Howard Ande is a Bartlett, Ill.-based free-lance writer. Email comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Browse articles on L.B. Foster Co. on Progressive Railroading