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Rail News Home Mechanical

May 2013

Rail News: Mechanical

Rail wheels, axles and bearings: The innovation continues

— by Walter Weart

Rail wheels, axles and bearings are among the most fundamental elements of railroading — the very efficiency of railroading depends on how well these elements work together. Progressive Railroading recently reached out to a cross-section of companies that supply wheels, axles and bearings. Technology and market updates from six of them follow.

Amsted Rail

Amsted Rail manufactures an array of freight-car undercarriage components, including wheels, axles and bearings. Two new focus areas are in the wheel realm — alloy wheels and vertical split rim research, says Vice President of Technical Services John Oliver.

"In the 1960s, we corrected thermal cracking by developing a low-stress wheel design and we are now concentrating on the split rims," he says.

Cracks grow in the wheel rim to the point where the wheel fails inspection or comes apart. Amsted Rail researchers are cutting wheels and, by using X-ray diffraction, measuring internal residual stress.

The curved or low-stress wheel designs Amsted developed in the 1960s have minimized overheated wheel failures, Oliver says. In the late 1990s, Amsted Rail addressed shattered rim type failures by making process changes and improvements to ultrasonic inspection testing, he adds. The company also developed a solution to the wheel failures that high horsepower locomotives were experiencing during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"We discovered that a natural frequency vibration was causing these defects and were able to develop a design which corrected this problem," Oliver says.

The development of the MicroAlloy® wheel also solved a wheel-shelling problem brought about by long, cold winters and dry blowing snow. MicroAlloy wheels are designed to combat thermal-mechanical shelling, which occurs due to prolonged tread braking, combined with high wheel loads, in heavy-haul freight service. MicroAlloy wheels have a higher yield strength than AAR Class C wheels at elevated temperatures, and have better fatigue resistance, which helps to reduce tread damage, according to Amsted Rail.

"We found that dry snow would get under the wheel and as it rolled, the snow was packed in the microscopic cracks in the wheel," which caused the cracks to widen and led to much more rapid deterioration and earlier replacement of the wheel, Oliver says.

Amsted also recently reopened a wheel manufacturing facility that had been idle since 2001. The company made a substantial investment in upgrading the facility, Amsted Rail's fifth U.S. wheel plant, says Amsted Vice President of Research and Development Cameron Lonsdale.

On the axle front, Amsted's AXIS L.L.C. manufactures more than 50 different railroad axle types. In 2008, AXIS opened a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Paragould, Ark. — the first new facility to produce AAR-certified railroad axles in decades. All operations, from forging to machining to testing, are performed in the plant, Lonsdale says.

And when it comes to bearings, Amsted Rail continues to develop lower-torque bearing seals, which help reduce overall rail-car rolling resistance, resulting in improvements in fuel efficiency, and reduce bearing operating temperature, says Manager of Product Engineering, Bearings Mike Mason.

"We have also developed a universal fitted backing ring for older-style axles," he adds. "A fitted bearing application helps prevent wear and corrosion on the axle, and a universal fitted backing ring is designed to create a fitted application on older axles that were not toleranced."

Amsted Rail also is developing bearings for heavier loadings, including the MEGA-TONNE™ for loads up to 45 metric tons. And the company has made "major investments" in the Brenco bearing plant near Petersburg, Va., Mason says.


A rail industry supplier since 1979, ORX is a full-service shop that provides both new and overhauled freight car, locomotive and transit vehicle products, including wheels and tires, wheelsets, axles, trucks and gear units.

For example, the company currently is producing tires for Bay Area Rapid Transit and Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, says ORX President Glenn Brandimarte.

The company also has provided truck overhaul service to the JFK AirTrain and is currently providing New Jersey Transit River Line wheelset and truck maintenance services.

"We bring them back to our shop and perform the required work, returning the components when the work is finished," says Brandimarte.

ORX also made the wheelsets for Amtrak's Acela power cars and coach trainsets, and currently is overhauling trucks for the Acela trainsets under a contract with Alstom.

"The trucks are brought into our shop, where they are completely disassembled and each component is inspected for defects," Brandimarte says. "All dimensions are checked for wear with repairs or replacements as needed."

ORX overhauls locomotive wheelsets with or without a motor. The wheelset is disassembled, the motor is tested, then gears are inspected and repaired or replaced as needed, Brandimarte says. If the truck is equipped with a u-tube, the bearings are inspected and replaced if necessary, he adds.

Penn Machine Co. L.L.C.

Penn Machine Co. L.L.C., a Marmon Group/Berkshire Hathaway company, started out by supplying the many mines in the Johnstown, Pa., area. In the mid-1960s, the firm began to diversify, obtaining a North American license agreement with Bochumer Verein Verkehrstechnik Gmbh (BVV) for its "state-of-the-art transit wheelset technology," says President and General Manager Dennis Racine. The agreement enabled Penn Machine to enter the transit market — specifically, the resilient wheel market.

Resilient wheels feature an elastic layer between the steel tire and wheel center; the elastic layer comprises a number of highly engineered and proprietary individual rubber blocks or ring elements with precisely matched elasticity and damping properties, Racine says.

"We also manufacture mono-block or solid wheels starting with the forging and continue to process these through to the final product," he adds, noting that Penn Machine sells to OEMs and transit companies.

In addition to wheels, Penn Machine produces axles.

"We are the only rail axle manufacturing company in the U.S. with our own in-house heat treating facility to sub-critically quench axles vertically, which produces much less distortion and stress in the axle," Racine says.

The company also manufactures complete wheelsets and can supply a complete truck assembly, which includes mounting wheelsets, traction motors, brake equipment, gearboxes and all suspension components on the truck frame.

"We are supplied those parts we don't make and, using our wheels, axles, brake discs, gears and rubber vibration isolators, assemble and test the complete wheelset," says Racine.

Penn Machine also provides complete overhaul services for wheelsets on an exchange or replacement basis.

"We dismount the components, examine and test the components as necessary, and will replace or otherwise refurbish the parts," says Racine.

Out-of-standard tolerance wheels and axles are re-machined or replaced, and gear boxes are overhauled with Penn Machine-manufactured gears as necessary. Units then are completely re-assembled and inspected.

In response to market demand for noise and weight reduction, Penn Machine's licensor, BVV, has developed "a new type of wheel [that] will reduce noise and weight, and with modified absorbers mounted on the wheel, will also reduce vibration," Racine says.

PowerRail Distribution Inc.

In 2007, PowerRail Distribution acquired Cooper Bearings Inc., which remanufactures bearings and journal boxes. Cooper Bearings has been remanufacturing transit-car journal boxes since 1996.

"As the boxes wear, this can contribute to premature bearing failure, so Cooper Bearings has a special process to straighten the boxes out and machine them back into original specifications," says PowerRail Distribution President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Foster.

The process originally was designed for a transit authority; now, PowerRail markets it to other transit- and freight-rail customers, Foster says.

The company recently completed construction of a 35,000-square-foot facility in a new technology park that's part of the Sussex County Airport in Georgetown, Del. The plant was designed to utilize more efficient manufacturing techniques, as well as PowerRail's new TrueBlue™ manufacturing system to ensure product quality.

Cooper Bearings also offers a Hyatt journal box with new or re-conditioned bearings. The company performs work on both Electro-Motive Diesel Inc. and GE Transportation locomotives — "from GP-7s to the most modern AC locomotives," Foster says.

Meanwhile, the company also remanufactures locomotive bearings for both EMD and GE models. The unit is dissembled to the core, inspected for wear and either rebuilt or replaced. The bearing assembly is rebuilt, lubricant is added and the bearing is sealed. Then the unit is ready for service.

The company recently entered into an agreement to serve as the authorized bearing remanufacturer for NTN Bearing Corp. and Kawasaki Rail Car Inc., Foster says.

The Timken Co.

The Timken Co. continues to make advances and improvements in several bearings areas, says Brian Ruel, Timken's president- rail. Among the advances: the Timken® Sure-Fit™ Universal Backing Ring, which made a "significant reduction" in loose backing ring problems by providing an interference fit between the axle dust guard diameter section and the backing ring, Ruel says.

Timken is also expanding its EcoTurn® seals line, which currently includes Class F and K seals, says Alan Buchanan, Timken's chief engineer-rail.

"We have found that EcoTurn is a near-zero torque seal, which provides the lowest temperature and is very stable," says Buchanan.

Contacting or rubbing surfaces in the seal creates torque, which leads to hotter bearing temperatures and possible false readings from wayside detectors, he says. Higher torque also requires more power and more fuel to operate. The EcoTurn is designed so that it can retain lubricating grease and exclude contaminants that can affect overall journal bearing and system performance.

Timken also led the effort in 2012 to change an AAR rule to require fitted applications for Class E and Class F bearings using either a fitted backing ring on a toleranced dust guard or a universal fitted backing ring on dust guards too small to provide a 0.002" interference fit, Ruel says.

In the meantime, rail traffic congestion, fuel economy and emissions will continue to make rail an efficient freight movement method, Ruel says. It'll also continue to drive the need for high-performance rail technology, products and systems.

"Rail was strong for Timken in 2012, and we will continue to focus on this market as well as the global markets to provide value," Ruel says.

A result of that focus: Timken recently reached an agreement with the Greenbrier Cos. Inc. for the purchase of Greenbrier's reconditioned wheelset roller bearing equipment in Elizabethtown, Ky. As part of the deal, Greenbrier entered into a long-term supply agreement with Timken for reconditioned and new bearings.

WS Hampshire Inc.

WS Hampshire Inc. is a full-line custom fabricator and supplier of non-metallic materials. In the rail sector, the company offers a computer numerical control shop.

"Using Nomex, we have been able to fabricate insulation material for the past 15 years for both GE and EMD, which are being used in locomotive alternators and generators," says Director of Sales and Marketing Dean Harms. "As a highly specialized shop, we see our role being to drive out cost by providing precise parts that fulfill a unique need."

For example, high-speed rail provides opportunities to provide high strength fiberglass panels — to Kawasaki, for example, Harms says.

WS Hampshire also supplied some thermoformed interior panels for Talgo trains that were assembled in Milwaukee last year.

"We had an opportunity to develop a phenolic tube, which is used to insulate the axle shaft for rail maintenance vehicles," Harms says, adding that the tube had to be able to withstand being crushed by the machine's weight.

In the meantime, Harris hopes to boost business by expanding across product groups. New materials such as high-performance phenolics provide that opportunity, he says.

Walter Weart is a Denver-based freelance writer.


Tracking Wheelset Components

Launched in 2011, the Comprehensive Equipment Performance Monitoring (CEPM) program is a multi-phase, multi-year program that provides rail industry participants visibility into rail equipment health and performance. The idea: enable managers to make decisions that improve rail safety, reduce equipment maintenance costs and operate more efficiently.

The program's first phase — CEPM-Wheelsets — offers component-tracking capabilities in Railinc Inc. data systems that provide the North American freight-rail industry with visibility into wheelset health status and history. Railinc is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads.

"As safety is a top priority, there is a need to know where components such as wheels, side frames, bolsters and couplers are located when in service and who manufactured them," says Jerry Vaughn, Railinc's senior manager, product management.

Under the program, wheelset components are tracked; each is given a two-dimensional barcode that is recorded. When a wheelset is put in service, the wheel shop places a component bar code on the axle and the data is entered Railinc's Umler™ component registry, Car Repair Billing and Equipment Health Management System. Information can be used to evaluate performance. If a defect is detected, a "precise recall can be initiated," Vaughn says.

"The CEPM program provides the participants with detailed information about the health and performance of the components and will allow them to more effectively manage their operation," he adds.

As of mid-April, there were slightly less than 3.5 million wheelsets registered and the database was growing at a rate of about 83,000 per month, Vaughn says.

Meanwhile, development of the program's second phase — CEPM-Side Frames, Bolsters and Couplers — is under way and on track.

— Walter Weart


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