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Compiled by Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
Flooding along the Mississippi River. Tornadoes in the Southeast and Central Plains. Heavy snowfalls in parts of California and Minnesota. Severe weather the past few months has damaged many railroads’ track, including substructures and ballast.
Add weather-related repairs to already-busy maintenance-of-way (MOW) programs, and the amount of ballast railroads collectively will need to replace this year will total tens of millions of tons. So, railroad MOW managers will be leaning heavily on ballast equipment to help complete trackwork quickly and keep trains on schedule.
For equipment suppliers and ballast management contractors, ensuring their machines can stand up to heavy demand remains a primary goal.
“Our equipment is designed to minimize the time we occupy the mainline, and that benefits everyone,” said RT Swindall, director of ballast services and equipment for contractor Balfour Beatty Rail Inc., in an e-mail. “When crews are able to finish the work quickly and
vacate the track, it enhances safety [and] proves a cost savings to the railroads we serve.”
Last month, Progressive Railroading contacted 11 ballast management equipment suppliers and service providers via e-mail to gauge the steps they’re taking to boost machinery productivity and safety. Their e-mailed responses follow.
Ground penetrating radar is a key technology for assessing ballast conditions, according to Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. The company’s equipment emits radar pulses that help determine ballast condition beneath the surface.
“We analyze the data and determine where a client most needs shoulder cleaning or undercutting,” Balfour Beatty Rail officials said. “That helps railroads cut costs by a substantial margin, because they don’t have to spend valuable dollars remediating areas that don’t really need it.”
The company’s undercutting equipment also helps customers control costs and boost efficiency, they said. Balfour Beatty Rail uses a Plasser American Corp. RM80 ballast undercutter to remove old ballast under ties. The computerized, self-monitoring system is designed to retain usable ballast for cleaning and return it to the track, and transfer unusable material to a conveyor for disposal.
“It’s an efficient process that enables our crews to cover up to 1,200 feet per hour,” Balfour Beatty Rail officials said.
The company also has added a Harsco Rail Mark IV tamper to its fleet. The tamper features the “latest industry designs” for centralized surfacing, company officials said.
Later this year, Balfour Beatty Rail plans to introduce another piece of equipment: the Rail Asset Scanning Car (RASC). To optimize allotted track time windows, the RASC will combine a number of technologies on a single vehicle to capture data during one pass down a track, Balfour Beatty Rail officials said.
“We can offer ground penetrating radar, basic track geometry measurements and even the potential for tie grading,” they said. “By equipping the vehicle with LIDAR laser technology, we can do asset mapping and measure the volume of ballast on the right of way.”
The RASC also is designed to perform asset mapping.
The machine will provide customers an accurate depiction of all grade crossings, bridges and other infrastructure between various points on a track, according to Balfour Beatty Rail.
The Brandt Rail Tool coupled with a BTI Spot Undercutter is “the most productive spot undercutter available today,” Brandt Road Rail Corp. officials said.
The tool can safely pull its own ballast-carrying rail cars to a site to help complete work quickly and efficiently, they said.
Besides safety, equipment mobility to and from a job site is a top priority, Brandt Road Rail officials believe. Both set-up time at a job site and work windows are getting shorter all the time, they said.
The Brandt Rail Tool features a 200-horsepower engine to power
attachments, rail-car braking system and heavy-duty rail gear. The machine can travel on rail at top speeds ranging from 25 mph to 30 mph. The company recently improved the Brandt Rail Tool’s axles and hydrostatic drive system to slightly increase pulling and stopping capacity.
From ditching and removing fouled ballast, to placing ballast in a high-speed, pinpoint fashion, to developing new tools for more efficient use of ballast in trouble spots, Georgetown Rail Equipment Co. (GREX) is constantly striving to improve work methods and help railroads complete critical ballast tasks, company officials said.
GREX has offered the Dump Train as a “one-of-a-kind solution” for many years, and the machine’s “unique capabilities and attributes” have led some railroads to adopt the traits as best practices, they said. The Dump Train is an aggregate delivery system designed to pinpoint material unloading at up to 2,000 tons per hour.
The Slot Machine and Self-Powered Slot, which offer safety features and high capacities, also are part of a family of products that have become a best practice for many railroads and remain in high demand year-round, GREX officials said.
In addition, the company sells rail-car upgrade kits designed to improve and upgrade railroads’ existing fleet of ballast cars. The kits, which eliminate the need for rail workers to manually operate ballast gates, can work in train service or on their own, GREX officials said.
Coupled with the GateSync service, the kits remove the “human factor” and completely automate the ballast delivery process, they said.
Herzog Railroad Services Inc. (HRSI) continues to enhance its product line to meet railroads’ ballast maintenance needs, company officials said. HRSI’s “commitment to developing products that are more efficient and cost effective” led to the creation of the P.L.U.S. (Programmable Linear Unloading System) and SMART trains, they said.
“These innovations in ballast unloading equipment have had a quantifiable impact on the railroad’s bottom line,” HRSI officials said.
Whether a railroad is dumping ballast for maintenance purposes or for capital projects, there is a need to increase safety while dumping, decrease train cycle times and manage overall costs. So, HRSI has developed a product to help railroads attain those goals: ballast profiling.
In the past, surveying for the PLUS/SMART trains was conducted by visually inspecting trackage and estimating how much tonnage of ballast was required for a particular project. Ballast profiling “takes the guesswork out of the equation,” HRSI officials said.
The company has equipped one HRSI hi-rail truck with precision Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Inertial and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) equipment designed to perform a surface scan of track to determine the amount of ballast needed based on a railroad’s profile. HRSI currently is building a second “ProScan Lidar” truck.
“Not only does our volume processing calculate what is needed to fulfill the profile; it also detects overages of ballast and applies that to the total tons required,” HRSI officials said. “Once the scan is processed, the tonnages are transferred to our PLUS/SMART train survey for unloading.”
The system is designed to ensure ballast is placed where
desired and the ballast profile is maintained.
“The full implementation of ballast profiling on Herzog’s ballast trains will again change how the railroads dump ballast,” HRSI officials said. “With a better idea of how much material is needed, increased dumping accuracy and cycle time reductions, the costs of dumping ballast will be impacted in a positive way.”
Knox Kershaw Inc. has developed an auto-depth cutterhead for its KKA1000 Kribber Adzer. The machine features a hydraulically controlled skid arrangement that enables the cutterhead to maintain a constant cutting depth so the operator no longer has to control cutting depth as the machine travels over an uneven track surface, Knox Kershaw officials said.
The company’s current backlog extends into 2012 and includes orders from Class Is, leasing companies, contractors and international companies.
At the request of international railroad customers, Knox Kershaw currently is producing a newly designed ballast regulator for narrow gauge track. The machine will be displayed at the 2011 Railway Interchange exhibition and trade show in Minneapolis in September, Knox Kershaw officials said.
In addition to the new KNG-800 narrow gauge ballast regulator, the company is developing other machines designed specifically for 36-inch, one-meter or 42-inch track, they said.
Loram Maintenance of Way Inc.’s latest offering is the Track Lifter Undercutter (TLU), which is designed to be more productive and cost effective compared with traditional undercutting services, according to the company.
The TLU can lift track up to 10 inches to allow ballast to fall through the track structure, creating a new sub-ballast layer and establishing a more permeable ballast and overall stronger structure, according to Loram. The TLU also operates at higher speeds than traditional undercutters (up to 4 mph) and reduces the amount of tamper equipment needed, company officials said.
Meanwhile, demand from Class Is and international markets for Loram’s High Performance Shoulder Ballast Cleaners triggered production of four new domestic machines in 2011, they said. In response to growing Class I demand, the company also is building a new Badger Ditcher (DC7) — the first new Badger Ditcher to be built in several years— which will begin service in fall. The ditcher will feature a more fuel-efficient engine and the capability to travel in a train. The machine is designed to provide “economical, high-production solutions to drainage problems, such as ballast-filled ditches and slope erosion,” Loram officials said.
The fleet of Railvacs continues to expand, too, as customers recognize the machine’s capabilities to remove fouled ballast and debris from tunnels, clean and install drain tiles and culverts, and conduct cross trenching for cables and pipes without the need to take track out of service, they said. The Railvac also can remove ballast from bridge decks and grade crossings without removing the ties or rail, and be used to undercut switches and mud spots, and remove contaminated material from yards and stations without taking track out of revenue service.
Miner Enterprises Inc. continuously seeks to improve the design of its equipment. The company recently improved the performance/life cycle of the linear actuators and electrical systems used in its Electric AggreGate®, a stand-alone electric aggregate system.
The electric stand-alone AggreGate enables independent operation of the car from anywhere within a ballast train, eliminating the need for grouping manual and automatic cars, according to Miner. It has taken years of experience gained from the use of the Electric AggreGate® system by Union Pacific Railroad to create actuators and electrical systems “that are robust enough to handle the rigors of ballasting operations for many years,” Miner officials said.
During the past year, the company has been exporting AggreGate air-powered systems to Brazil. The use of the system in humid conditions has provided Miner an opportunity to focus on air conditioning, and the best applications and components to use when air conditioning is not available, company officials said.
In terms of R&D, Miner officials hope to prototype a new center-mounted plow system sometime this year. The field-tested system, which will be applicable to new cars and existing ballast cars, will “greatly improve safety and operations,” Miner officials said.
Nordco Inc.’s ballast regulator solution is the Nordco Model M-7, a dual-purpose machine designed to be converted from a ballast regulator in spring and summer months to a Snow Fighter in fall and winter months, according to the company.
As part of ongoing internal continuous-improvement initiatives, Nordco recently redesigned the M-7’s hydraulic system to improve the machine’s functionality and provide a cooler-running hydraulic system.
The changes are aimed at extending the hydraulic components’ service life, Nordco officials said. The company also added an onboard air compressor to power auxiliary tools and improve serviceability. In addition, Nordco now offers customers the option of remanufacturing their existing machines.
“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 to like-new condition, with a full factory warranty,” Nordco officials said.
The M-7’s versatility as a combination ballast regulator/snowfighter has helped it continue to gain popularity, and “the demand for these machines continues to grow — especially in areas with extreme winter weather conditions,” they said.
Plasser American Corp. works closely with railroads to continually improve its existing ballast undercutting/cleaning technology and ballast management systems, according to the company.
So far in 2011, Plasser has delivered two new, state-of-the-art RM-80 ballast undercutting/cleaning machines to help with increased railroad demand for undercutting.
The company is working with Class Is to develop better methods for undercutting and cleaning switches, including improvements to existing machinery and the development of new and more efficient equipment, Plasser officials said. New equipment would enable railroads to undercut and clean switches and crossovers more effectively, they said.
Plasser also offers a variety of high-capacity switch and production tamping machines designed per customer requirements. Some tampers are specifically built for switch and crossover work, and others for high productivity, such as a machine that can tamp up to four ties per insertion, Plasser officials said.
The company currently is working on a few new projects. For example, an ongoing project calls for providing railroads increased tamping productivity through higher-capacity tamping machines due to reduced track time, Plasser officials said.
Later this year, Progress Rail Services’ Kershaw division plans to introduce the Model 4600 Ballast Regulator powered by a 250-horsepower Cat C7 engine.
Customer reviews identified the need for better visibility and improved access to components to increase accessibility and overall maintainability, company officials said. The end result: a safer machine to operate and maintain.
With a new rear entry-cab forward design and relocation of key components, the ballast regulator will meet customers’ needs, Progress Rail Services/Kershaw officials said. For example, by moving the air conditioner from the cab roof to the side of the cab, the machine provides safe access for maintenance personnel.
Special attention is being paid to hydraulic hose and wiring selection and routing, Progress Rail Services/Kershaw officials said. Designing space and routings for hydraulic hose and electrical wiring is challenging, but necessary to minimize downtime due to leaks and abrasions, they said.
In May, TUV Rheinland Rail Sciences Inc. (TUV RSI) introduced the MRail system, a service designed to measure vertical rail deflection under a loaded vehicle at full track speed from a working consist.
The quantity of vertical track deflection is directly related to poor vertical track structure support, which often is due to badly conditioned and/or fouled ballast, TUV RSI officials said. The ballast issues can lead to “catastrophic rail break-type derailments” or derailments caused by a vehicle dynamic reaction to the vertical deflections, as well as reduce passenger vehicle ride quality, they said.
“Over the thousands of miles of track that cover the U.S. and the world, a practical problem is pinpointing the spots and/or areas where ballast maintenance is most needed,” TUV RSI officials said. “This system helps to do precisely that [because] it measures, quantifies and ranks spots where large vertical track deflection is observed with GPS.”
Areas can be addressed by railroads in order of urgency. In addition, the system can keep track of degradation over time so railroads can identify emerging areas of concern based on degredation rates, TUV RSI officials said.
Moreover, the system can be used to evaluate maintenance efforts: after maintenance work is completed, the MRail vehicle can pass over the work area to evaluate how effective the reforming, tamping or other tasks improved the track structure support, they said.
“Yet another value for this system is that it works unmanned from a revenue consist so that railroads do not have to interrupt service,” TUV RSI officials said.
E-mail questions or comments to Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor