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February 2008

Rail News: MOW

Vegetation management: Railroads are pulling out all the stops


Weeds and overgrown trees are more than an eyesore or inconvenience. For railroads, they’re a safety and operational issue. Uncontrolled vegetation can reduce visibility for operators, pose a fire hazard or come in contact with overhead catenary lines, causing passenger-train delays.

To keep vegetation growth in check, railroads have programs in place that aim to proactively eradicate weeds before they grow, kill those that already have sprouted, and control tree and bush growth. And they rely on a combination of herbicide spraying and mechanical brush cutting to do it.

“It’s a very unglamorous subject, yet it’s one of the most important when it comes to the foundation of the railroad,” says Mike Armstrong, general director, maintenance planning for BNSF Railway Co. “Most people find it boring and don’t want to talk about it. It doesn’t get the limelight and attention.”

Maintenance-of-way managers are trying to give it the attention it deserves, both to keep trains moving and prevent accidents.

“We have a complete program to keep our lands clear of trees and vegetation to continue to maintain service and security,” says John Pielli, senior director of track maintenance and compliance for Amtrak, which spends about $2.2 million annually on its program. “Our engineers need to have a good, clear line of sight, particularly in areas where we’re operating at speeds up to 150 mph.”

Weed spraying is a key element of Amtrak’s program.

Contractors spray a pre-emergent herbicide on and off track between the third week of March and end of April, as well as a post-emergent herbicide beginning June 1 to eradicate pesky plants that weren’t killed off by the pre-emergent application.

The national intercity passenger railroad contracts Railroad Weed Control Inc. (RWC) to spray east of the Mississippi River; Amtrak’s currently in the process of obtaining a new contractor to spray areas west of the Mississippi.

Contractors treat more than 6,000 acres with a pre-emergent application and 1,000 acres with post-emergent herbicides on track; 2,000 acres with a pre-emergent and 1,000 acres with a post-emergent off track; and 5,000 acres with a brush spray application. In addition, herbicides are applied at about 85 electrical traction power substations and 100 signal boxes annually.

A Tight squeeze

Freight railroads control vegetation on tracks Amtrak uses but doesn’t own. Amtrak controls vegetation along its own rights of way, primarily in the Northeast Corridor, where close quarters pose challenges.

For example, between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa., and Washington, D.C., people living along Amtrak’s right of way have planted bamboo to filter noise.

“[Bamboo] is a fast-growing, invasive species that gets into the track bed real quick, so we spot spray for that,” says Pielli. “We’ve also had great success with spraying rock slopes with herbicides that only kill woody plants.”

Contractors have to meet Amtrak’s detailed specifications to ensure they spray within designated areas and don’t impinge on neighboring properties. Amtrak also requires contractors to have drain trays on the bottom of their nozzles to catch any run-off after the sprayer is turned off. Otherwise, a contractor driving over an open-deck bridge could spray run-off into the water below.

Chemical reaction

Herbicide applications are a key component of most other railroads’ vegetation management programs, as well.

Commuter-rail agencies MTA Metro-North Railroad and Metrolink also apply pre- and post-emergent herbicides. Metro-North contracts RWC and Metrolink, Paul Washburn, to spray their rights of way.

Both railroads spray almost every track mile with a pre-emergent herbicide, then spot spray with post-emergent chemicals on an as-needed basis. For example, Metrolink workers recently found horsetail growing along the railroad’s right of way in southern California — the weed hasn’t appeared in more than a decade, says Dale Stuart, system bridge maintenance manager.

The railroads leave it up to their respective contractors to determine which herbicides will best control weeds. Herbicides change annually because weeds become resistant to certain chemicals over time, says Stephen Cole, Metro-North’s assistant director of materials.

Freight railroads also incorporate herbicide sprays into their vegetation management programs. For Montana Rail Link (MRL), contractor Asplundh Tree Expert Co. each spring sprays a sterilant within 12 feet of either side of the track along 1,100 track miles, including yard tracks, says MRL Chief Engineer Richard Keller.

Once the sterilant is applied, Asplundh targets hard-to-control weeds, such as kochia and equisetum, that have grown outside the 24-foot area. The “extra-wide” spraying operations occur twice a year — once in May or June, and again in August or September.

In addition, MRL conducts a noxious weed program throughout the summer to target problem areas where thistles or knapweed have sprouted along the right of way.

“If you’re not aggressive, these things spread very quickly and become a problem,” says Keller.

Weather Watchers

CSX Transportation’s engineering department tries to aggressively combat weeds, too. Engineering managers constantly gauge the weather to determine the best times to spray, says Manager of Engineering Programs Kelly Goedde.

“If you spray too soon and the rains come late in the spring, a lot of the herbicides have effectively run their half-life, so you don’t get the maximum efficacy out of them,” he says. “If you think it might be a late spring and the rains come early, then you can’t get out there to spray and the weeds get a head start on you.”

The Class I sprays herbicides in areas covering about 43,000 miles, or 131,000 acres, annually. CSXT’s contractor determines which herbicides to use.

“There are new formulations of the old products, and other new products are always trickling in,” says Goedde. “We’re finding out what the best use for those herbicides are in our system.”

There will always be a demand for new chemicals to control herbicide-resistant weeds, says BNSF Railway Co. Manager of Vegetation Control Gary Nyberg.

“We include herbicide rotation as part of the program to help break up the cycle of resistance, but additional products are needed,” he says. “We now know of several weed species that are resistant to glyphosate, which is a recent development.”

BNSF applies herbicides on 32,000 route miles, or 50,000 operated miles, annually. The Class I divides its system into territories and contracts spraying to five companies: RWC, Right-a-Way Applicators, Rumble Spray Inc., Dakota Helicopters and Asplundh Canada.
Where possible, BNSF uses a combination of chemical spraying and mechanical cutting to control vegetation.

“Mechanical cutting alone stimulates re-growth, but by treating the cut stumps and stubble when they’re cut, we can prevent suckering and resprouting,” says Nyberg.

The two-fisted technique enables BNSF to maximize maintenance dollars and track time, and extend brush-cutting cycles by five years or more, Nyberg says, adding that there’s an industry need for equipment that can apply herbicides during the cutting process.
Brush cutting remains an equally important part of other railroads’ vegetation management programs.

CSXT focuses brush-cutting operations mostly at crossings to increase visibility for motorists. The Class I cuts brush along 2,200 to 3,000 miles annually, both on a contract basis and with its own crews.

“It depends on timing, where you’re cutting, how busy the line is and the number of machines available,” says CSXT’s Goedde.

The Class I plans to purchase brush-cutting equipment for its workers.

The railroad is considering a machine with two heads — a high-production head designed to cut off whole limbs up to six inches in diameter and a flail head for mulching. The heads can only operate one at a time, but having both options available at once would help improve CSXT’s brush-cutting efficiency.

“With this variable head, we can switch between the two depending on the application,” says Goedde.

Trouble overhead

For Amtrak, brush cutting is particularly important along the electrified Northeast Corridor, where overgrown trees pose problems for the overhead catenary system.

“If those trees get too close or into the high-tension wires, we get a pause in the electricity and it brings trains to a stop,” says Amtrak’s Pielli.

The railroad contracts KW Reese Co. to perform planned brush cuts and Asplundh to do emergency cutting. Amtrak also has several in-house tree-trimming crews based in the Northeast Corridor. Two of the crews regularly trim trees using a mechanical tree cutter mounted on a hi-rail vehicle. The unit features a specially designed cutter head that can maneuver under, over and around the overhead catenary system.

Battling Mother Nature

Keeping up with overgrowing brush is key to Metrolink, which operates in a dry and windy climate at high risk for fires. The agency constantly inspects its right of way, especially before the fire season and Santa Ana rains, says Metrolink Right of Way Maintenance Coordinator Elsa Mendoza. Metrolink contracts Herzog Contracting Corp. for brush cutting services.

“We can’t have things blowing on tracks,” says Mendoza. “We need to make sure trees don’t become an operational issue for us.”

Meanwhile, Metro-North cuts brush on a cyclical basis.

“We don’t do every line every year. We might cut one line or one branch [line],” says Metro-North’s Cole. “We try not to let one line go too long [and] we’ll follow up within two years.”

The agency currently is focusing brush-cutting efforts on the Port Jervis Line with contractor Asplundh.

Vegetation management continues to be essential to maintenance-of-way programs, and railroads, for the most part, have the techniques down pat. Dealing with Mother Nature is becoming, well, second nature.

“It’s something we’ve been dealing with for ages,” says Montana Rail Link’s Keller.


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