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By Walter Weart
Track inspection has come a long way. Several decades ago, track inspectors filled out forms in long hand, used hand tools to obtain measurements and relied on a pick handle to find tie defects.
Now, they can access electronic equipment and sophisticated techniques to locate rail defects more accurately and find flaws that years ago would have gone undetected and caused a derailment.
From hi-rail vehicles with high-tech detection systems to rail-car-mounted equipment to handheld devices, railroads can tap a smorgasbord of technology to inspect track conditions, determine gauge strength and pinpoint rail defects.
To continue raising the track-inspection ante, equipment suppliers and service providers are refining
machinery and processes to offer roads even better options for analyzing rail and tie conditions.
Several service providers are enhancing their hi-rail inspection systems. Holland Co. now offers Global Positioning System (GPS) recording of rail defect locations for its TrackSTAR® contract track testing system, which has been available the past 15 years. TrackSTAR also features
enhanced software designed to enable railroads to analyze collected data for capital planning purposes.
The system uses a combination of devices to review rail profile and wear, including a series of laser cameras and a split load-axle system that applies constant and consistent vertical and lateral loading to rails during testing.
“We measure track gauge twice. First, unloaded gauge is measured at the front of the test vehicle, and second, loaded gauge is measured at the load axle near the middle of the vehicle,” says Robert Madderom, Holland’s vice president and general manager of railway measurement systems and services.
Data collected from the TrackSTAR hi-rail vehicle is available in several variations, including hard copy exception reports and strip charts. Electronic versions are transmitted to Holland’s office and can be sent to a railroad.
“Some railroads, such as the BNSF, take our data and combine it with information gathered from their own test cars,” says Madderom.
BNSF Railway Co. uses three TrackSTARs to locate exceptions from track inspection reports, which can be tagged and corrected as needed, says Mike Armstrong, BNSF’s general
director of maintenance planning.
The Class I also uses Georgetown Rail Equipment Co.’s Aurora hi-rail inspection service to analyze rail seat abrasion.
“We can measure the difference between the bottom of the rail and the top of the tie, and find variations in that distance,” says Armstrong.
Georgetown Rail, which has offered Aurora the past three years, currently has two hi-rail units in the field and plans to add several more. Aurora features an array of image-sensing devices that gather data, which can be analyzed to focus on a particular area, such as concrete-tie rail seat abrasion, gauge measurement or wood-tie grade. Detailed and customized reports can be downloaded from Georgetown Rail’s Web site.
“The operator can chart ties [according to] the four FRA grades using data gathered by 3D imaging equipment,” says David Hunsucker, Georgetown’s director-Aurora integration.
The company has added GPS and gyroscopic devices to Aurora that are designed to determine hi-rail unit locations in tunnels and snow sheds.
Meanwhile, Nordco Rail Services offers track inspection services featuring the RTS-400 inspection system platform. This month, parent Nordco Inc. is changing the firm’s name from Dapco Technologies to Nordco Rail Services and making the unit a stand-alone company.
Nordco also has relocated Nordco Rail Services to a new facility in Lee’s Summit, Mo., and appointed Chris Smitka as the unit’s president. Nordco Rail Services will focus on predictive rail management services using track inspection equipment developed and manufactured by Dapco Industries Inc., a separate Nordco unit.
The RTS-400 system platform’s instrumentation includes the most advanced vertical split head (VSH) detection available and the latest developments in adaptive pattern recognition, says Dapco Industries President Pat Graham. Test results are stored in a digital database and each defect is recorded with a GPS tag to ensure accurate record keeping and quality control.
The RTS-400’s ultrasonic test carriage is fully automated and features six roller search units per truck, with three on each rail. Each side has custom-designed
ultrasonic crystals optimized for maximum rail coverage and defect detection.
Dapco Industries has deployed a major enhancement across its fleet that features a “not-before-available inspection technique that will locate previously undetectable defects in the gauge corner of the rail, such as detail fractures that are hidden by subsurface shells,” says Graham.
The company also is working on a technique to find a specific defect relating to rail-concrete tie interaction that could lead to rail breaks, he says.
ENSCO Inc. plans to enhance its
hi-rail inspection service, too. The company is working jointly with the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Research and Development to offer railroads the ability to measure rail gap and locate missing joint bar bolts. Currently, ENSCO offers full track geometry measurement/inspection services to measure track gauge, curvature, cross level, surface and alignment, and perform other functions.
“Our equipment can also be body mounted on a revenue-service rail car or locomotive to provide continuous track inspections to measure wheel/rail impact and rail surface anomalies,” says Jeff Stevens, ENSCO’s director of ATE commercial business operations.
ImageMap Inc.’s track inspection system also is mounted on a rail car, but requires no manpower to gather data. The Unattended Geometry Measurement System (UGMS) is designed to collect track geometry data while a rail car moves along track. The system features cameras, lasers and an instrumented measurement system to capture data. UGMS also uses GPS to provide precise location information and can be configured to read wayside markers.
UGMS was developed for Network Rail and has been running in daily operation in the United Kingdom — at speeds up to 100 mph — since 2003, said ImageMap Director of Sales and Marketing Bob Mullen in an email.
“We plan to introduce this product to the U.S. market this year in a service-type arrangement or a direct sale,” he said.
Plasser American Corp. offers a track inspection car, as well. The EC-5 track recording car is a latest-generation universal inspection vehicle, Plasser American officials said in an email
The car features 11 interlinked computer systems designed to gather data from various types of lasers measuring track surface or level, track gauge, rail profile and wear, tunnel dimensions and corrugations. All measuring systems operate without contact. In addition, high-speed cameras inspect tracks, fasteners and ties, and a separate video system monitors track surroundings. The car can inspect track at speeds up to 70 mph.
But not all inspection systems need to be mounted on a rail car or hi-rail vehicle. Several suppliers offer handheld equipment options.
Geismar-Modern Track Machinery Inc. (MTM) markets the Amber and Garnet measuring instrument systems, which both were developed in the U.K.
The Amber manual track geometry recording unit enables one operator to record cross level, travel distance and gauge. The device can calculate twist — which is determined by taking two measurements several feet apart on the same rail in a curve and computing the difference between the two points — and store data in a handheld PDA, says MTM General Sales Manager Alan Reynolds. Data can be analyzed via a computer spreadsheet or graph.
“Amber offers a way to gather the information that a track inspector would gather, but provide it in an automated method, which is particularly useful for secondary lines,” says Reynolds.
A digital track level gauge, the Garnet is designed to measure track gauge, cross level and flangeway clearance.
“We have recently added Blue Tooth technology to enhance the capabilities of our digital equipment,” says Reynolds.
ZETA-TECH Associates Inc. also offers handheld inspection equipment, such as the TieInspect® handgrip device that’s been marketed the past seven years. TieInspect enables a track inspector to collect tie condition data using a computerized crosstie inspection system. Data can be stored for every tie inspected and downloaded to a desktop PC.
“The TieInspect uses a combination of toggles and buttons to input and
record inspection data, which is displayed on a PDA screen,” says ZETA-TECH Vice President and General Manager Allan Zarembski.
Owned by Harsco Corp., ZETA-TECH also offers the TrackInspect™ handheld PDA-based system designed to record FRA track inspections in real time and SwitchInspect™ palmtop computer-based system for turnout inspections. The company currently is determining whether to expand into bridge and signal inspection devices, says Zarembski.
Rail Sciences Inc. offers a track inspection device, too. The company serves as the North American agent and provider of the Vertical Rail Stiffness Equipment (VERSE®) system. Developed by AEA Technology Rail and Vortok International Ltd., the system can measure the rail neutral temperature (RNT) of continuous-welded rail. VERSE is based on the principle that the vertical force
required to lift a rail varies with the longitudinal force contained within the rail due to stressing, says Rail Sciences President Gary Wolf, adding that the company has offered VERSE for several years, but now is formalizing the agent agreement.
VERSE features a portable loading frame, which is positioned over a rail to be measured. Rail then is lifted via hydraulics and transducers measure the applied force with respect to the rail’s vertical displacement. Data is stored in a small computer that calculates the RNT to the nearest whole temperature degree.
VERSE can help control track buckles in the summer and track pull-aparts in the winter, says Wolf.
Despite recent advances in track inspection systems, suppliers and service providers continue to stress research and
development. For example, Georgetown Rail plans to enhance tie geometry inspection by providing railroads the ability to better access the relationship of a tie and rail.
“Our goal is to automate and replicate the tasks of the
inspector with much higher quality control and consistency,” says Vice President of Engineering Chris Villar.
Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.