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by Jeff Stagl, managing editor
Freight railroads operating in the United States plan to spend a record $13 billion this year to expand, upgrade or repair their infrastructure, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). That figure might even approach $14 billion if several Class Is post strong enough financial performance in the first quarter to warrant a capital spending increase, or if Congress extends the short-line tax credit through calendar-year 2012 and some small railroads elect to devote more dollars to infrastructure improvements.
Class Is and other freight roads in Canada have boosted their 2012 capex budgets, too. With a significant amount of capital allocated for maintenance-of-way (MOW), many railroads plan to take on an ambitious slate of projects this year.
But determining ways to complete MOW programs in the face of mounting traffic is — as always — job No. 1 for engineering department managers. Track time availability is even tighter this year because U.S./Canadian carloads are up slightly and intermodal loads are up more than 3 percent year to date, according to AAR data.
Department managers at many railroads also are attempting to wring more productivity and efficiency out of available resources to complete work quickly and safely. In addition, they're simultaneously trying to clear other hurdles that potentially stand in the way of finishing all planned work by year's end, such as the installation of a record amount of rail, adoption of more borate-treated wood ties, or the completion of a complicated bridge project or intermodal facility.
Following are details on the challenging program objectives identified by officials at four large and three small railroads, and how they expect to achieve them.
For Norfolk Southern Railway Vice President of Engineering Tim Drake, obtaining enough track time continues to be taxing. However, better work planning and improved communication and coordination among departments has helped MOW managers bank on more defined windows, he says. Work is planned down to the division level and supervisors receive a more clear direction of each plan.
"It comes down to managing windows and gang time," says Drake.
The collaborative efforts bore fruit in January, when all work gangs averaged 6.2 hours of track time compared with 5.2 hours in January 2011. The approach is helping the department get closer to its goal of achieving six hours of uninterrupted track time on a consistent basis, says Drake.
Drake's department will need all the time it can get to complete the largest rail program in NS' history. This year, the Class I plans to replace or install rail on 435 track miles, about 50 more than last year.
In addition to productivity generated by track time management, NS should continue to gain efficiencies from new equipment, which will help crews complete the ambitious rail program, says Drake.
For example, gangs now are using four "drone" tampers, each of which is designed to tamp 26 ties per minute compared with 16 ties per minute without a drone. Developed by Harsco Rail, the unmanned Drone™ chase tamper can be programmed to tamp ties skipped by the lead machine, such as every third tie along a stretch of track.
NS also has developed its own
applicator to better install Pandrol Ltd. e-CLIP fasteners and a track jacking system to better align thermal welds. In October 2011, crews began using the applicator, which can help install a Victor tie plate to replace 8" x 18" plates on curves where there
are cant issues, says Drake.
"Instead of several workers driving [it] in place with a sledgehammer, you use one machine and one operator," he says.
Also in October, workers began both testing and using the track jacking system, which is designed to line up rail at both ends of a thermal weld.
"It saves time on the repairs of welds," says Drake.
In addition to addressing productivity, NS is confronting attrition. The Class I, which expects to lose more than 500 workers, plans to hire more than 300 people this year, primarily for positive train control work, says NS' Drake. The biggest hit to the MOW workforce: losing employees who know how to operate all equipment and perform most tasks, he says.
"We have a younger workforce training a young workforce because we've been losing supervisors and lead workers over the years," says Drake. "I'm not saying we won't supplement our workforce, but we expect to complete all the work with the resources we have."
Better equipment and productivity are primary factors in CN's strategy for meeting several challenging MOW goals, including a heftier rail program. The Class I plans to install 10 percent to 15 percent more rail compared with last year's program, including a large rail project involving about 48 track miles on a corridor between Edmonton, Alberta, and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
To complete work in the corridor, the engineering department plans to mobilize crews from other regions, such as Montreal or British Columbia, says CN Chief Engineer of Track Manny Loureiro. To beat the grain rush come fall, about 100 workers in three gangs — including two from out of the region — will be charged with installing the rail by August's end, he says.
"And as we install more new rail, we will have more part-worn rail to install on branch lines," says Loureiro.
Engineering department managers also will continue to conduct daily phone calls with transportation department supervisors to slate enough track time for the work, a process that remains a "give-and-take" proposition, says Loureiro.
To ensure there's more give and less take when it comes to issuing warrants for trackwork, CN is developing an electronic track protection system designed to enable workers to request protection via a laptop computer instead of a phone. To be launched late in the second quarter, the system will provide an overview of traffic so a worker can identify available work windows, says Loureiro.
"With a radio, sometimes you wait for a rail traffic controller to provide instructions," he says.
In terms of equipment advances, crews now are using a ballast train express (BTX) system CN developed to help speed ballast operations. CN currently is employing six BTXs, each of which provides a nine-day turnover for a 60-car ballast train, says Loureiro. The railroad also uses three Programmable Linear Unloading System (or PLUS) trains offered by Herzog Contracting Corp. to distribute ballast more quickly and accurately.
"It's been a good winter, so we got a jump on ballast work this year," he says.
CSX Transportation is focusing on its MOW material and equipment needs. Last year, CSXT crews began using a RAILAVATOR® hi-rail excavator provided by Rail Construction Equipment Co. to boost productivity when pulling rail, replacing or tamping ties, or performing trenching or undercutting work.
The RAILAVATOR doesn't require a boom and winch, and can perform tasks faster, says CSXT Chief Engineer-Maintenance of Way Tod Echler. The engineering department plans to continue taking delivery of the machines, which eventually will be used solely as the excavator of choice, he says.
New equipment, as well as better collaboration with the transportation department to provide more track windows, have helped increase production rates, says Echler.
"We're doing some work now in three weeks instead of four," he says, citing excavation-related work as an example.
Increased productivity will help the engineering department meet another primary goal: adopting more borated-treated ties. This year, CSXT plans to install 2 million of the ties, which are designed to last longer than creosote-treated ties in high-rot zones, says Echler. Last year, crews installed 1 million borated-treated ties.
The ties primarily have been employed in deep South rot zones, but now will be installed on lines farther north and closer to the Ohio River, says Echler.
"Our plan is to increase our usage of the ties each year," he says, adding that the current higher cost of creosote makes borated-treated ties more economical.
Labor and machinery are top MOW issues for Kansas City Southern. The Class I recently undertook a significant hiring effort to address attrition among MOW field personnel.
"Approximately 30 new employees joined the company at the end of 2011, and we are focusing on training and mentoring them," KCS engineering officials said in an email.
New machinery also is key this year because the Class I aims to complete a slightly more ambitious MOW program. To minimize mechanical down time, the department has "actively been procuring new equipment," said KCS engineering officials.
In addition, the department is expanding inventories of switches and switch components because lead times have increased for those materials.
"[We want] to ensure we have adequate stock on hand to supply planned and unforeseen materials needs," KCS officials said.
Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Co. (CRANDIC) plans to replace a bridge near Amana, Iowa, that was damaged by heavy floods in 1993 and 2008. To begin in late summer or early fall, the project calls for replacing the timber trestle with a precast box girder bridge and raising the structure's height by three-and-a-half feet to prevent washouts and damage caused by flooding.
"We haven't raised a bridge to this extent before," says CRANDIC Manager of Track and Structures Chad Lambi.
To accomplish the goal, workers will need to weld the higher element of caps at the rail block to stringers and set in a riser block, he says.
In addition, the more than 100-mile short line plans to double the bridge's length to 462 feet to improve its hydraulics.
The bridge was built in the early 1900s and was part of a Milwaukee Road mainline between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo., which eventually became a branch line. The bridge is vital to CRANDIC's operations and is part of a larger project that involves replacing or upgrading nearby bridges, says Lambi.
"In the past seven or eight years, there has been more traffic on the line than there was over the bridge's entire life," he says.
The $3.6 million project will require permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so the grade can be elevated.
"We could have replaced the bridge in-kind, but we're trying to improve it, so it will cost a bit more," says Lambi.
The San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway (SDAE) — by way of its owner, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) — is committing a big chunk of capital to a challenging MOW project.
MTS plans to spend $147 million to expand San Ysidro Yard, extend the yard's lead and complete associated work.
To be primarily funded by California Proposition 1B dollars, and partially funded by federal and local sources, the project calls for adding two main tracks to the yard's six tracks; reconfiguring the existing six tracks to nearly double rail-car storage capacity from 100 to 196; extending the lead to a mainline by more than 1,000 feet; expanding a siding; building a freight-only bridge in Chula Vista; and improving switches and grade crossings.
SDAE owns the right of way for four lines totaling 108 miles, which are shared with MTS light-rail trains. RailAmerica Inc. operates the lines as the San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad, which runs freight trains from about 2 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.
The project is designed to help MTS and the short line maximize the flexibility of light- and freight-rail operations along the same right of way.
After the project is completed in January 2015, workers will be able to build trains at the century-old yard's north end during light-rail service hours without interrupting the mainline, says MTS Chief Executive Officer Paul Jablonski.
In addition, the project will create a second truck access to the yard and double freight-movement capability during the nighttime window.
"It's one way to create longer trains in a shorter period of time," says Jablonski.
The expanded siding, which will include new sidings north and south of the Palomar Trolley Station, will include a positive interlocking, saving 40 minutes in travel time, he says.
In addition, 15 miles of nearby track will feature a new signaling system that will accommodate reverse running.
MTS currently is trying to spur
final design, right-of-way procurement and environmental clearance processes.
Signaling work and some construction on the siding elements is under way, and all work is slated for completion by mid-2015.
"We'll work on the yard next and probably start by year's end," says Jablonski, adding that work on the lead probably will begin in 2013.
Florida East Coast Railway L.L.C. (FEC) is in the midst of a major MOW project — the largest in the 351-mile regional's history. The railroad is working with Port Everglades to build an intermodal container transfer facility (ICTF) on a 42.5-acre site at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-area port.
Slated to become operational at the beginning of 2014, the $73 million ICTF will be used to transfer international containers between ships and rail within the port instead of relying on trucks to haul containers to and from nearby off-port rail terminals in Fort Lauderdale and central Miami-Dade County. FEC plans to relocate its existing domestic intermodal operations from a nearby yard to the ICTF.
Last month, FEC issued a request for qualifications to begin the process for selecting a design/build contractor.
"We're hoping for high interest to get the best value," says FEC Vice President and Chief Engineering Officer Bob Stevens, adding that the railroad expects to award a contract in mid-May and begin construction in July.
FEC also plans to complete improvements at Hialeah Yard in Miami this year, including the construction of a second lead track to facilitate
simultaneous departures and arrivals. The work — which includes the installation of six turnouts — needs to be completed in a narrow window before the peak season begins in fall, says Stevens.
"We will need more crews for the work, so we might supplement with labor from service providers and contractors," he adds.