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By Dana Callahan
Switch machine orders may have slowed during this recessionary stretch, but switch machine suppliers haven’t slowed down a bit. Customers continue to clamor for more cost-efficient, durable and reliable equipment, and suppliers are busy trying to answer the call — whether it means making subtle tweaks to internal components or unveiling new switch machine models.
Take Global Rail Systems Inc., which provides mainline switch control, yard switch control and automation, crossing warning systems, train detection technology and advanced control and dispatching software.
The company made some design changes that lower the cost of ownership of its recently updated TS-4500 switch machine, says Ron Martin, vice president of sales and marketing.
“We have eliminated most maintenance by eliminating most of the moving parts,” he says. “The few remaining parts are either in sealed bearings or in oil-bath enclosures.”
Company engineers also instituted several changes with an eye toward increasing durability. They moved the position of the switch from under the machine, where it can get fouled in the crib, to the side so that it is clear of impedances, such as snow or ice, says Martin.
TS-4500’s high throw force will reduce stress on the machine over the long term, he adds.
“We have made this machine extremely easy to set up and it doesn’t require a lot of tweaking over the long term, so that saves money, in terms of labor,” says Martin, adding that the TS-4500 switch machine’s point holding pressure is self-adjusting.
At Siemens Transportation Systems Inc., simplicity and reliability also rule. The supplier’s new in-tie switch machine, the ITS 700, increases the overall reliability of the entire turnout system, says Blake Kozol, director of marketing and sales for the company’s rail automation division.
Introduced this spring, the machines allow for mechanical tamping and eliminate the need for a rodding channel in the ballast. The result? A significant reduction in vibration, which reduces the likelihood of mechanical failure, train delays and, ultimately, cost, Kozol says.
The new dual-control machine features an optional throw rod, enabling operators to stand upright when they manually throw the machine.
“On a global basis, in-tie technology is certainly where things are going,” says Kozol. “And that is the future for us.”
For switch machine customers, cost’s a key consideration right now, and it’ll certainly be an issue in the future.
At Western-Cullen-Hayes Inc., sales manager Carl Pambianco believes that low maintenance costs of the Model WCHT-72 switch machine give his company an advantage.
“Probably the one feature that has helped us the most in the switch machine market is the very low cost of ownership our customers experience,” he said via email.
Ansaldo STS USA Inc. also offers a new option that will help customers save money, says Jeremy Hill, vice president and chief operating officer.
The company recently launched an electronic bias neutral controller option for its M-Style switch machines. The option allows railroads to wire switch machines directly to Ansaldo STS’ MicroLok® II wayside microprocessor control system without any interface relays.
“The benefit is that if you remove the relays, you remove the requirement for ongoing inspections and maintenance,” says Hill. “It’s a big cost savings.”
The bias neutral controller option is available for new and retrofit installations. Ansaldo STS also can modify the base design so that it can work with competitors’ switch machines.
To help customers stretch their maintenance budgets even further, the supplier recently updated its long-standing remanufacturing program.
“We are able to provide any level of rehabilitation to switch machines, or other ground equipment, that a customer would want,” says Hill. “We have a very large inventory of used and retired equipment for our machines and we can turn these things around very quickly.”
Some National Trackwork Inc. customers who are trying to keep operational costs in line are buying the NT2000 mechanical switchman, says Robert Fiorio, vice president of sales and marketing.
“This has really taken off in South and Central America,” he says. “Operators don’t need to stop the train to return the points after a manual switching operation. And the machine operates using no power at all and requires very little maintenance, other than checking the oil and lubricating the machine.”
National Trackwork also has enhanced its “Safe View” directional lights for switch stands by replacing the incandescent bulbs with LED lights, says Fiorio.
“The [LED] lights have a longer life, so that means more reliability and less maintenance,” he says. “And they turn with the target, so they can be seen even if the target can’t be.”
Durability also is top of mind at GE Transportation, which is using more rugged internal components on its 3000LP Hydra-Switch to accommodate customers who are expanding into tougher environmental conditions in Mexico, Canada and Alaska, says product manager Eric Moore.
“We have been able to maintain the price, but increase the overall durability of the machine,” says Moore.
The company has also been focused on making the machine easier for customers to install, he says.
“And at its core, this machine is truly a take-it-off-the-pallet, fix-it-to-the-tie and walk-away machine.”
For GE, the “reliability and efficiency” mantra extends beyond the switch machine itself.
This year, the company enhanced its software so customers who have other yard control systems and equipment can more easily link to the 3000LP Hydra-Switch.
Although keeping costs in check is paramount for switch machine customers, it isn’t their only “must have.” For example, VAE Nortrak customers are focused on other issues, including security, says Ken Ouelette, division manager, switch control.
“Security has become increasingly important since Sept. 11,” says Ouelette.
Enter VAE Nortrak’s new 36-LH manual switch stand, which was introduced earlier this year. The company integrated the lock cylinder into the body of the 36-LH stand.
The lock retains the key until the operator re-locks the switch in either the normal or reverse position. The feature is available in a mechanical version or in the company’s new electronic CyberLock cylinder.
“We have also integrated some sensors that detect what position the switch is in,” says Ouelette. “That is to help reduce human error as a factor in leaving the switch in an unlocked position.”
Meanwhile, VAE Nortrak has expanded its North American customer service offerings by adding sales and technical support for customers who use the CSV-24 and the Unistar-HR, which are manufactured by the company’s CONTEC Transportation Systems affiliate.
GE has, too. During the past two years, the company has provided additional training to staffers who answer Hydra-Switch related calls via a 24/7 help line, says Moore.
For other suppliers, adaptability — as in their own ability to adapt to changing market conditions, as well as within the switch machines themselves — is key.
“The main thing we have noticed with the economic conditions is that when customers are purchasing new machines, they want more flexibility,” says Alberino Palozzi, Alstom’s product line manager, switch machine products. “Some are reducing their capital budgets and their maintenance budgets, and they don’t want to be stuck with one machine in place.”
During the past year, Alstom added a wide-gage track option to its TM100 in-tie switch machine line, in addition to standard and narrow-gage track versions. The supplier also added an AC Version to the Model 6 Yard switch machine, says Palozzi.
“Our latest designs keep getting more and more flexible — if you want the down and dirty, basic machine you can get it,” he says. “But if you decide to upgrade in the future, you can. From a purchasing standpoint, there is a lot of flexibility.”
For example, a customer can buy Alstom’s base model GM4000A™ switch machine, then upgrade their machine by purchasing the Enhanced Controller, which has reference LEDs and local electronic control functionality.
The company added a scalable condition monitoring option to the GM4000A, enabling customers to remotely diagnose machine health and detect early-warning signs that could lead to a failure and eventual train delays, says Palozzi.
Alstom also recently spent several million dollars updating its Rochester, N.Y., plant, which cut delivery time for new switch machines from six months to six weeks, says Palozzi.
Delivery times could become more important in the not-so-distant future as a result of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, says VAE Nortrak’s Ouelette. The legislation mandates the implementation of positive train control (PTC) technology by 2015. As of press time, the Federal Railroad Administration was preparing to issue a rulemaking on PTC implementation.
“We anticipate that beginning in 2010, PTC-related projects will impact our customers’ available installation workforce and capital envelopes,” Ouelette said via email. “We have responded by reviewing our product designs and documentation to ensure that the time and expertise required for installation and commissioning is at an absolute minimum.”
Count Safetran Systems Corp. among the suppliers also working with an eye toward 2015.
“Safetran expects the PTC initiative to result in greater use of powered switch machines and point detection devices,” the company said via email. “We anticipate that switch machine customers will be seeking simplified installation methods, will require improved point control and detection systems and will make wider use of remote switch monitoring and control systems.”
Although PTC details remain murky and the economic outlook is even murkier, the recipe for success in the switch machine segment is clear, says National Trackwork’s Fiorio.
“In these economic conditions, increased efficiency and value are some of the attributes that help products gain acceptance and help companies grow,” he says. “As long as customers find value and fair pricing for a product’s benefits and features, there is potential for business growth.”
Dana Callahan is a Richmond, Va.-based free-lance writer.