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Compiled by Desiree J. Hanford
Freight-rail traffic is picking up along with the economy, and axle loads are getting heavier along with railroads' efforts to lengthen trains. Ridership at many transit-rail agencies is increasing, too, as employment levels rise and gasoline prices hover near $3 per gallon.
As a result, freight and passenger railroads' track is taking a pounding, although not quite to pre-recession levels experienced in 2008. More pounding could be coming in the next few years as U.S. high-speed rail operations gear up and the economy continues to strengthen.
To keep track in optimal condition while keeping pace with short-term traffic projections, railroads are replacing or installing new rails and ties. They're also using many captive fastening systems, direct-fixation fasteners, rail clips, spikes and other fasteners as part of trackwork projects.
To meet freight and passenger railroads' fastening needs, suppliers continue to stress research and development to design products that better stand up to today's and tomorrow's traffic demands. They also are attempting to upgrade more existing fasteners to satisfy railroads' requirements for longer-lasting and lower-cost options.
Last month, Progressive Railroading sent an email to seven suppliers seeking an update on their fastener lines and fastening systems, including recent product introductions and enhancements. Their responses follow.
Advanced Track Products Inc. (ATP) and UNIT RAIL, which are divisions of Amsted Rail Co. Inc., are stressing R&D to both develop and improve products.
ATP currently offers a "full range" of direct-fixation (DF) products, company officials said. In the past, ATP's DF designs focused on issues common to track locations with "significant ground-borne vibration problems," or those that require low stiffness combined with high attenuation performance. Now, the company has complemented its high-isolation designs with a Trackmaster line of system-wide resilient DF track fasteners, ATP officials said.
The company expects to release several new products during the next 12 months. The product developments primarily are the result of overseas projects and therefore will have the most impact in markets outside of North America, ATP officials said. However, the company plans to "selectively incorporate" some of the concepts into its existing domestic product line, including an improved design for high-isolation DF track fasteners and a HAL (heavy-axle load) resilient DF application for Class Is that has a proven history, according to ATP.
Last year, UNIT RAIL acquired ATP and its line of noise/vibration-control and DF products. The deal enabled UNIT RAIL to build upon its traditional rail anchor line and growing lineup of elastic fasteners for concrete and steel ties, the supplier said. This year, UNIT RAIL established its own test lab with a pulsating load test machine at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
In 2011, UNIT RAIL plans to open a new engineering building at its Atchison, Kan., main manufacturing facility that will feature state-of-the-art testing equipment for all types of ties and fasteners. In addition, the company is developing several products projected to launch next year, including a UNIT premium tie plate, U2000 elastic fasteners, screw spikes for wood-tie applications, and improved concrete- and steel-tie insulators and anti-abrasion rail seat pads featuring new proprietary "macro" material, UNIT RAIL officials said.
Several other tie/fastener projects also are under way at the firm's engineering department in Overland Park, Kan.
During the past year, L.B. Foster Co. has expanded its product line by adding a high-resilient direct-fixation fastener (DFF) designed to perform at stiffness levels of about 40,000 to 60,000 pounds.
In addition, the F21 DFF for 115-pound rail was independently qualified for MTA New York City Transit and the supplier custom-designed a new restraining rail DFF for Bay Area Rapid Transit, according to L.B. Foster, which supplies special trackwork DFFs, contact rail systems and other products to the heavy-, light- and commuter-rail markets.
"We were also able to land several important new contracts with transit agencies in Dallas, New York, Miami, San Francisco and Pittsburgh," company officials said.
This year, L.B. Foster tried to improve its marketplace position via collaborative R&D efforts. Using input from customers, consultants and suppliers in combination with in-house "finite element analysis and testing capabilities," the company is creating new products and enhancing existing ones to better serve specific market requirements, L.B. Foster officials said, adding that the company recently obtained a patent for a new product.
The company plans to introduce several new fasteners during the next year. For example, the firm is developing a new softer standard DFF design to enhance ground-borne noise and vibration dampening performance, company officials said. L.B. Foster also is custom-designing standard and special trackwork DFFs for optimal track performance under extreme temperatures.
The Evergrip™ spike continues to be rapidly adopted by a variety of customers, according to Lewis Bolt & Nut Co. Class Is, short lines, transit authorities and mining companies are realizing numerous benefits from the Evergrip compared with lagging of a typical screw spike, company officials said, adding that more than 8 million Evergrip spikes have been installed in track.
Customers are seeking consistent, reliable performance from fastening systems. Screw spikes are "turned in" based on torque, with the required amount of torque "varying considerably" from tie to tie, Lewis Bolt officials said. The often result: over- or under-turning, resulting in potential premature failure, they said.
When used on curves, the Evergrip is driven into place by the Nordco Inc. CX or SS Spikers, "resulting in rapid, consistent installation every time," Lewis Bolt officials said. The Evergrip stops being driven when it meets the plate, providing consistency that enables a user to obtain maximum available holding power out of each tie, according to the supplier. The incorporation of locking fins helps the spike remain tight.
An Evergrip can be removed using Nordco pullers, or turned out via the square head or a new rectangular head option, the supplier said. The rectangle head uses the same socket as a current North American standard screw spike.
Last year, Pandrol USA introduced the PANDROL FASTCLIP FE, a newly designed fastening system offering a captive, high-strength and lower-cost assembly, according to the company. The new system is an evolution of the "proven technology" developed via the original FASTCLIP system, Pandrol officials said.
Later this year, the company expects the FASTCLIP FE system to be installed in track on both transit and commuter-rail systems. An optimized clip shape results in a cost savings, while the newly designed and strengthened shoulder reduces weight and provides a lower profile, Pandrol officials said.
Meanwhile, the Pandrol VICTOR system combines the durability of an American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) tie plate with the benefits of the supplier's resilient fastener line, according to Pandrol. The VICTOR system offers a maximum plate bearing area with an asymmetrical design that's 37 percent greater than existing tie plates with resilient fastenings, resulting in less plate cutting and reduced gauge widening under load, the company said. The system currently is available for use with Pandrol "e" clip and FASTCLIP designs.
Pandrol also recently introduced Vortok De-Stressing Rollers, which are used by freight and passenger railroads. The all-in-one under-roller, side roller and lifting device has reduced both the time it takes and number of workers needed to complete the de-stressing operation, Pandrol said.
"Vortok De-Stressing Rollers provide a low-friction system that improves the quality of the de-stressing operation with even distribution of tension along the length of the rail," they said. "The fact that the rail is supported over its entire length and that the system is self-locking adds to the overall safety."
This year, Pandrol plans to add versions of the rollers for left-hand requirements, and FASTCLIP and SAFELOK I concrete-tie applications.
United Steel & Fasteners Inc. (US&F) has obtained ISO 9001-2000 certification renewal for 2011 and 2012. Along with its National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program-approved lab and Association of American Railroads' M1003 certification, the company is "well-positioned for assured quality control" for all products, US&F officials said.
For bridges and crossings, the company is supplying a new three-quarter-inch diameter common standard self-tapping timber screw to complement the Beaver five-eighths- and three-quarter-inch screws. All the screws feature a washer head with "torx" drive and twin-lead threads that do not require pre-boring, according to the company.
In terms of track and trackwork fasteners, the company offers screw spikes; AREMA split washers; "G" clip elastic rail fasteners; all-metal heavy square locknuts; grade 8 frog bolts; and drilled switchbolts and shoulder bolts manufactured to standard and customer specifications.
US&F's R&D team "constantly is designing and developing improved fastening components and systems for testing, evaluation and eventual adoption in the marketplace by listening to customers," US&F officials said. The firm also offers various packaging types, weights and sizes based on customer requests.
Last year, Vossloh Fastening Systems America Corp. was "active in developing fastening systems for special applications and finding custom-made solutions," according to the company. For example, Vossloh developed retrofit fasteners to upgrade existing tie and fastener systems and extend tie life.
China continues to be an important market for the firm because of large high-speed rail projects; Vossloh supplies fasteners for a large portion of the projects, according to the company. Last month, Vossloh Fastening Systems (China) Co. Ltd. won a contract from China's Ministry of Railways to provide about 140 million high-speed rail fasteners for a major portion of the Lanzhou-to-Urumqi line in northwestern China next year. In 2009, the company obtained a similar contract to provide fasteners for the Beijing-to-Shanghai line.
Several product developments and adaptations were necessary because China is currently operating trains at the fastest operational speed worldwide, according to Vossloh.
The company constantly is striving to improve existing fasteners as well as develop new products, company officials said.Top priorities include finding solutions to avoid rail seat deterioration of concrete ties and developing fasteners for public transit providers' environmental requirements, such as noise and vibration damping, Vossloh officials said.
Desiree J. Hanford is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.