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By Robert J. Derocher
Soaring diesel prices, flat rail traffic and modest capital budgets for communications and signaling expenditures all have helped chill North American demand for switch machines this year. But that chill is nothing to sneeze at.
“Although orders are [coming in] at a much slower pace than last year, 2007 was a remarkable and record-setting year for us and mainline switch machines,” said Glenn Bauernfeind, product line manager for Union Switch & Signal Inc. (US&S), in an email. “There is always concern [about the economy], but we don’t control it. In a slow economy, customers need to receive the most value for every dollar they spend.”
Especially given today’s fuel prices: The U.S. average retail price of a gallon of diesel on June 23 was $4.65, down slightly from the all-time high of $4.72 set May 26, but $1.81 higher than average price in the same week last year, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.
“The continuing rise of fuel costs affects everything,” said Bauernfeind of US&S, which markets the M-Style switch machines. “Each month brings greater costs. Some shippers will only quote weekly rates. It presents problems for long-term purchase agreements with customers.”
Escalating diesel prices also are prompting railroads to redouble their efforts to squeeze out cost efficiencies anywhere they can find them — including at the switch. And suppliers are trying to answer the call.
“All of our switching solutions offer automation options … that can contribute to fuel savings through faster ‘yarding’ of trains, reduced idling times and more efficient switching of cars,” said James Kiss, engineering manager for GE - Transportation, via email.
GE has been fine-tuning its switch machine offerings to continue to improve reliability and performance.
The 3000ES Hydra-Switch now features a ground-level machine with all electronics and controls within a mounted equipment mast to provide easier access. Suited for both rail yard and industrial applications, the 3000ES can withstand axle loads up to 270,000 pounds and is “undamaged by trailing or running through the switch points,” according to company product literature.
Also, GE’s CTS-2 in-tie switch machine now is equipped with an optional hand throw. The machine features a patented locking and detection system; the mechanism locks when it has moved the tracks to the correct position and meets the required force against the stock rail. The system consists of a metallic tie, a motor with permanently installed hand crank for dual control and the locking device.
“Customers can select either model and enjoy full parts interchangeability and interoperability,” Kiss said.
Meanwhile, adapting to customers’ changing needs — and buying habits — has helped boost switch machine business at Alstom Signaling Inc.
“We’ve gone from build-to-order to actively stocking major products,” says Barry Wharity, vice president of sales and marketing. “[Railroads] used to be OK with four to five months. Now, they want it right away.”
U.S. transit agencies, which are posting record ridership levels partly because high gas prices are prompting more commuters to take the train, also are looking for quicker turnaround times, Wharity adds.
Alstom’s most popular switch products remain the GM4000A™ wayside machine and the TM100 in-tie machine. Suited for mainline freight-, commuter- and light-rail applications, the low-profile GM4000A unit can deliver more than 4,000 pounds of thrust, and features an integral latch stand module and new point detector design that allows for easier installation, testing and maintenance, Alstom says.
The easy-to-install TM100 is “ideal” for new construction projects because it “drastically reduces” initial costs, parts inventory and maintenance, the company says. An electronic time-out within the controller prevents mechanical overload damage, and the unit’s brushless, servo-type motor eliminates related brush maintenance.
Moreover, an Alstom product that has stood the test of time for more than 80 years — the Model 6 yard switch machine — has been tweaked: It now is available with an AC version that is
being tested as a solar-powered unit, says Alberino Palozzi, product line manager for switch machines.
Global Rail Systems Inc. also notes sales growth for its TS 4500 switch
machines, thanks in large part to a reduction of moving parts and the use of sealed bearings to reduce maintenance costs and improve reliability, said Ron Martin, vice president of sales and marketing, via email.
“The demand is increasing due to our ability to allow fluid operations through switch areas, minimizing stops and starts and reducing fuel consumption,” he said.
For example, a CSX Transportation yard in Mobile, Ala., recently started using Global Rail Systems’ Modular Yard Automation (MYA™) for wireless switch control. Railroads also are using Global Rail’s FAS-PAS™ systems — which allow for switch monitoring and control in dark territory — on mainlines.
“They allow the roads to increase safety, capacity and throughput in the yards and reduce fuel consumption,” Martin said.
Officials at Siemens Rail Automation Division are hearing the same thing: Better fuel efficiency and improved throughput are all part of what it’ll take for railroads to boost capacity as customer demand increases.
To that end, Siemens has been working to develop an in-tie switch machine for the North American market. The ITS 700 in-tie machine has been successful in worldwide freight applications, with test installations being readied for Class Is, said Blake Kozol, manager of product development and sales, via email.
“Railroads are looking for switch machines that are easy to install and have low maintenance costs,” he said. “Equipment that requires fewer adjustments, less training, and less frequent maintenance and services is what’s desired.”
Workforce issues also contribute to customers’ “desired” list.
“Customers have told us that in order to offset attrition, they have a big challenge to adequately hire and train their workforce,” said VAE Nortrak Division Manager-Switch Control Ken Ouelette in an email. “This means that our equipment must be simple to install and easy to maintain. More important, the equipment that we offer shouldn’t increase the burden of regulatory inspections that the railroads are required to perform.”
As a result, VAE Nortrak is “taking this message to heart” at the product design level and expects to unveil a new offering later this fall, Ouelette said.
VAE Nortrak currently produces the RACOR line of manual and power switch drives. The manual machines are available in trailable/non-trailable, low mast/high mast, and ball handle/trihandle (ergonomic) configurations for yard or mainline use. More than half of the supplier’s manual switch drive business comes from Class Is.
An extension of the RACOR line, the Nortrak AUTOMATER is designed to convert a manual RACOR switch stand into a power-operated unit for yard operation. The AUTOMATER can utilize either solar or commercial AC power; it also can be designed to convert commercially available manual derailers into power derails.
“In the past year, we have developed an integrated point detection module for the AUTOMATER, which eliminates the need for a switch circuit controller,” Ouelette said.
Currently, VAE Nortrak and a Class I are conducting a field trial of the integrated point detection module for the AUTOMATER.
The ability to maintain rail operations in extreme conditions also is important to railroads. So, National Trackwork Inc. has introduced products to meet those demands, said Robert Fiorio, vice president of sales and marketing, via email.
For example, the 1003ARS-9 is a run-through automatic switch stand featuring a 6-foot-high target column. The high column gives better visibility due to distance or obstruction, such as snow or vegetation, he said. It features an 18-inch or 12-inch-round, four-way rectangular, or four-way targets in many color schemes.
The new “Safe View” directional lights for switch stands are self-contained solar lights with red and green LED lights that turn with the target and give a redundant visual check that points are closed, in addition to the banner, which may be obstructed or damaged, Fiorio said.
The company also has developed new “Flood Guard” technology that enables switch stands to operate in standing water, such as tunnel or mining operations, where water levels can fluctuate and flood conditions can occur. The National Trackwork “Flood Guard” technology is available for the complete range of the company’s switch stands for yard, mainline and industrial applications.
The company also has supplemented its longstanding Model 1100 electric and Model 1500 solar switch machines with a remote-control system that allows up to 18 switch machines to be handled by a single transmitter, Fiorio said.
However, for some switch machine and switch technology suppliers, delivering on the tried and true remains a cornerstone for business.
US&S’s M-23 Switch Machine is an industry workhorse, Bauernfeind says. The M-23E and M-23 with Electronic Circuit Controller (ECC) provides an indicator of problems before they occur, allowing maintenance to be scheduled before train movements are affected.
Both units are equipped with a solid-state electronic circuit controller; the M-23E has all serviceable parts that can be maintained with one tool — a ratchet with a 3/4-inch socket and 10-inch extension.
And both machines feature a low vertical profile, integrated latch-stand assemblies, local/remote-control capability and self-lubricating bearings.
“Customers are looking for a highly reliable switch machine that has a low life-cycle cost,” Bauernfeind said. “They want a machine that is easy to maintain and is made for the harsh environment where it resides.”
For customers of Western-Cullen-Hayes Inc., that means the WCHT-72, which remains a reliable, steady-selling yard switch machine, said sales manager Carl Pambianco. The unit is designed to operate in yards and industrial switching areas.
“The market seems pretty stable from our perspective, and our machine just keeps plugging along,” he added.
Bottom line: Although the demand for switch machines and related products isn’t quite as strong as it was last year, the need for reliable, cost-efficient technology remains.
And suppliers, many of whom believe the much-ballyhooed “Rail Renaissance” is here to stay for the foreseeable future, say they’re more than ready to adjust if/when rails’ switch machine needs change.
“The railroads will continue to expand, though we may see some dips,” says Alstom Signaling President Ulisses Camilo. “I can’t see how railroads aren’t going to continue to grow.”
Added Siemens’ Kozol: “Shorter-term economic cycles affect the flexibility railroads have in implementing some of these projects and therefore can impact such spending, but Siemens is continuing to focus on longer-range market developments.”
Other suppliers are, too — because railroads are.
“Those who are forward thinking are the ones who are still investing in the efficiency — the payback is there even in reduced traffic periods,” Global Rail’s Martin said. “When traffic picks up again, those roads will be the ones keeping up and capitalizing on the increased traffic and revenue to be gained.”
Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, N.Y.-based free-lance writer.