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— by Julie Sneider Assistant Editor
Freight and passenger railroad managers might still be catching their breath after digging out from this past winter's record-breaking snowfall. But it's not too early to start planning snow- and ice-removal strategies for next winter.
Taking stock now of what will be necessary to keep trains running and on time during cold and severe weather conditions will help snow and ice removal equipment suppliers ensure they have the products and services that railroads demand.
"Spring is the best time to start planning for winter," said Shannon Noble, director of specialty products for Midwest Industrial Supply, which manufactures various anti-icing and de-icing products for the mass transit industry.
The winter of 2010-11 was unusual not only for shattering snowfall records in cold-weather states, but also for the amount of ice and snow that fell in normally warm-weather states in the South. Railroad managers who planned early and adequately handled the severe weather without major glitches, Noble and other supplier executives said.
Now that spring has arrived, railroad operators are disassembling their snow-removal equipment, assessing how well that equipment functioned and whether repairs or replacements will be necessary for next winter.
"I've heard a lot of railroads tell us that they will do a fair amount of replacement this year because of so much inefficiency" in existing equipment, said Greg LaFrance, director of sales and marketing at Railway Equipment Co., which manufactures hot-air blowers, crossing gate arms, battery chargers and remote asset monitoring and control systems.
Following is a summary of 10 suppliers' latest snow and ice-removal products and services, and the other steps they're taking to address railroads' winter weather needs.
Customers have been requesting anti-icing and de-icing products and solutions that are safe for the environment, according to Midwest Industrial Supply. So, the company has been offering the Ice Barrier "in a couple of limited markets with great success," Noble said in an e-mail. The product can be used on transit systems' overhead power lines as well as on third rails to control ice. Ice Barrier features a glycerin-based agent, which is safer for the environment, said Noble. Midwest Industrial also offers an Ice Free Switch, an anti-icer that can be applied before snow falls to prevent track switches from icing over. The anti-icer is produced from renewable resources.
In response to customer demand, the company seeks to improve its application equipment, as well.
"Transit agencies look to us to design equipment to apply the chemicals we sell," Noble said.
One such design, which was brought to Midwest Industrial executives' attention by a customer, is a spray-system modification that applies product to the undercarriage of trains to prevent ice build-up.
"Masses of snow or ice can fall from the undercarriage, many times in very inappropriate areas such as switches or road crossings, causing safety concerns," Noble said. "The spray will minimize the ability of snow or ice from building up and will act as a release agent so snow pack releases at quicker intervals."
Nordco Inc. recently added a machine-rebuilding service to its product line, which includes the M-7 snowplow for mainline and yard clearing, said Marketing and Sales Director Bob Coakley in an e-mail.
"We are able to take machines that are 20-plus years old and upgrade them with new cabs, engines and hydraulic systems to bring the units up to a like-new condition," he said.
The M-7 is designed for dual purposes as a snowplow in winter and a ballast regulator in summer. As a snowplow, it's equipped with snow wings and a snow blower, and can remove snow at speeds up to 30 mph. Because snowplow operators spend so much time outside, a heated cab was added to protect drivers from the elements, said Coakley. More recently, Nordco improved the ergonomics of the plow's control devices and seating for added comfort, he said.
"Significant" design improvements to established products — such as an energy efficient hot-air blower (HAB) switch heater and a snow detector — helped Rails Co. clients keep switches clear of snow this past season, company spokesman Herb Geller said in an e-mail.
The new 15-inch, high/low HAB switch heater uses a high-pressure blower to distribute a high volume of hot air to keep a switch open and operational. The even distribution of heat dries up snow to prevent ice from forming, Geller said.
"Because of the high volume of hot air, less heat is needed to clear the switch, significantly reducing fuel consumption," he said.
Another new feature is a solenoid valve that alternates between high and low fuel consumption according to a pre-set timer — again, using less fuel (propane or natural gas) to clear the switch area, according to Rails Co.
Meanwhile, a new Model SD-7200 snow detector is designed to sense the presence of snow, ice, hail or freezing rain to activate or deactivate heaters depending on precipitation levels. The unit features four independent sensing surfaces for more accurate readings. A low initial cost accommodates railroads' interest in providing each switch heater with its own snow detector rather than one unit to control multiple heaters, Geller said.
At Railway Equipment Co., fuel- and energy-efficient products were in hot demand, according to sales and marketing director LaFrance. Railway Equipment supplies a line of switch heaters — including electric, gas, cold- and hot-air — as well as pan heaters, which are designed to prevent snow and ice from accumulating around switch rods and hot bearing detectors.
The firm continues to develop its "smart" module controls, which can detect whether equipment should be operating based on current snow conditions, LaFrance said. The controls also can detect whether equipment stops operating because of a maintenance problem. One of the company's latest products includes the Sno-Net® system, a snowmelter designed to alert railroad personnel to control and monitor equipment via the Internet.
More efficient use of equipment based on weather conditions around a particular switch is a key factor in efficient fuel usage, LaFrance said, adding that this past season's high fuel prices and snowfall likely will prompt railroads to be even more sensitive to fuel efficient products and practices next year.
The harsh winter was difficult for railroads, but it was "excellent" for snowblower supplier R.P.M. Tech Inc.'s business, said Guy Bourdeau, vice president for the firm's rail and airport market.
"Our new model AF1 cold air blower is the perfect tool for removing snow from switches and tracks," he said. "Numerous rail companies are now using [it]."
The AF1 unit initially was designed to address a particular customer's problem with hot-air blowers. The hot air melted the snow, but the moisture froze on switches when the blowers were shut off. In response, R.P.M. Tech developed the cold-air blower, which blasts the snow away without creating ice. The company updates the unit annually, Bourdeau said.
In addition, R.P.M. Tech has worked with several transit-rail agencies to design and install "high-capacity" snowblowers, such as the company's RSRS unit for removing heavy snow on track.
In recent years, Bourdeau has noticed a growing number of railroads begin their planning snow-removal strategies earlier in the year. For example, one New York City-area transit agency recently sought bids for eight snow-blowers in preparation for next year, Bourdeau said.
"In the past, once the snow was gone, people would forget about it and then wait before deciding on what they needed until the last minute," he said. "Now they're contacting us sooner."
A supplier of custom-engineered heating and de-icing systems and controls to railroads and transit authorities worldwide, RTR already is quoting and obtaining equipment orders for fall delivery, said RTR President and Chief Executive Officer Rosalie Berger.
Orders and shipments of the company's third rail, overhead contact wire and transit vehicle surface heating systems have set records each of past three consecutive years due to severe winter conditions in the United States and Europe, she said.
"We are growing very quickly. Our infrastructure product offering has increased from third-rail heating five years go to encompass CAT Heat™ and switch point snow melters," said Craig Berger, RTR's director of engineering.
The firm's CAT Heat system is a constant wattage catenary/trolley wire heating and de-icing system designed for use by light-rail and trolley services.
The company has installed nearly 4 million feet of contact rail de-icing systems across the United States, including for transit agencies in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. RTR can custom design energy-efficient solutions for agencies' cold-weather problems. For instance, RTR currently is in discussions with a major Northeast transit authority seeking to rectify a problem with rail-car doors freezing in an open position, creating a dangerous situation for passengers and crew. The agency is interested in RTR's heated door-threshold system, which prevents snow and ice from jamming rail doors, Rosalie Berger said.
RTR also recently redesigned its switch point heater to feature two mechanical characteristics: a spiral-wound heater element that can resist vibration and shock; and a flat design that allows a large part of the heater surface to be in contact with the rail, requiring less power and energy to melt snow and ice. The product's design will be the subject of a paper being prepared for presentation at the American Public Transportation Association conference in June, Craig Berger said.
Sealeze recently designed a brush system to prevent snowdrifts from forming on rail switches so switch heaters can work more efficiently, said Paul DuBay, the company's business development manager.
The brush system initially was developed in 2002 by Sealeze sister company Osborn International in collaboration with the Swedish National Rail Administration. But since 2009, Sealeze has been redesigning the product to fit North American railroad standards. The end result is SnowProtec™, which has undergone testing for the past two winters.
"This year's record snow actually allowed us to successfully test in some extreme weather conditions, enforcing the need for this product," said DuBay in an e-mail.
SnowProtec can be used on freight, high-speed and transit-rail systems. The upward brush can retain heat from pre-warmed switches on the rail, which increases snowmelt and decreases energy consumption, he said. The downward brush forms a flexible seal around and between the sleepers, preventing snow from blowing onto track.
This "simple, yet effective" solution to ice buildup in switch points lowers maintenance costs and "improves rail-switch inspections with an enhanced hinged bracket design," he said.
In fall 2011, switch heater manufacturer Spectrum Infrared plans to introduce the "Flat-Jacket Snow-Melter" with "SnapTite Rail Clip" hardware.
The snow-melter's flat design provides greater coverage to the rail surface, according to the company. The product is produced from chemically treated magnesium oxide for added moisture resistance. The snap hardware makes it easy to attach to the rail with simple hand pressure, said Vice President Jay Peet in an e-mail. The company plans to offer the product in three standard lengths — 18-, 26- and 34-foot — each with single-ended terminations and no splice to minimize down time.
Earlier this year, Spectrum updated its latest model of the RRSH Dual-5 Series of forced air track switch heaters to include a three-stage energy management system for blower mode, half heat and full heat. Optional features include a snow detection system that uses both track-mounted and aerial-mounted snow sensors, and a flexible duct extension.
A manufacturer and distributor of swingloaders, Swingmaster supplies swingloader attachments for snow-clearing needs, including the V-10 snowplow and track-cleaning buckets, said Gilberto Contreras, VP of sales.
Those products continue to sell, but the company's latest product — a rail brush —is designed for use before the first snowfall. The brush can clear autumn leaves that fall on rail. If left uncleared, the decaying leaves produce a residue that can interfere with train wheels from making proper contact with rail, preventing sensors from lowering safety gates at a grade crossing when a train passes.
Teleweld Inc. officials are working with customers to build up their parts inventories to prepare for next winter, Teleweld President Mike Supergan said in an e-mail. The company supplies various snowplows, hitches and operational control systems.
Teleweld constantly seeks new and creative engineering designs to make snow removal quicker, easier and "softer on the wallet," Supergan said.
Because this year's snowfall was so widespread, the company's primary challenge was providing parts and new equipment to customers in a timely fashion.
"So many state departments of transportation and municipalities were hard hit with multiple record snowfalls that many, if not most, could not keep up with the heavy demands required of their equipment," Supergan said. "We were able to step up production and ship product to those areas devastated by those record snowfalls."
However, receiving the equipment prior to actual need can help customers remain on budget, said Supergan.