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By Walter Weart
One of the most significant track structure improvements of the past 50-plus years is continuous-welded rail (CWR), which has helped railroads eliminate countless joints along their lines. Fewer joints means stronger rail, a smoother ride and less track maintenance.
At 2008's end, railroads managed 107,337 track miles of CWR, according to the Association of American Railroads. However, transporting CWR to a job site and handling the quarter-mile-long rail — which can weigh 37 tons or more — presents various challenges. For example, CWR can buckle if loaded improperly on conventional rail equipment and workers face an injury risk when unloading the long "ribbon" rail off a train.
To handle CWR safely and efficiently, railroads continue to turn to suppliers and service providers to develop equipment that improves the distribution and loading/unloading processes.
Progress Rail Services has offered CWR trains to railroads since 1997, when the company acquired Chemetron Railway Products Inc. The trains support the company's primary business of distributing welded rail strings, says Patrick Jansen, Progress Rail Services' vice president of sales.
The company currently manages a fleet of seven CWR trains, two of which are stationed at a rail rolling mill in Pueblo, Colo., and one at a Steelton, Pa., mill.
"Three of our trains are on a long-term assignment to Class I carriers and we built one new train for sale to one of the Class Is," says Jansen, who declined to identify the railroads.
The trains can be used to transport CWR to a specific location and pick up old rail after it's replaced. The old rail can be transported to another location or to a Progress Rail welding plant.
"One of the Class Is will return the old rail to our mill, where we rework it for further use," says Jansen.
Progress Rail continually seeks ways to improve the CWR trains, particularly in connection with safety enhancements, he says.
Safety is a top priority for Herzog Cos. officials, too.
The company developed the Rail Unloading Machine (RUM) five years ago to provide self-contained equipment designed to reduce injury risks, as well as unload rail strings quickly and efficiently.
The RUM comprises a hi-rail truck equipped with power rollers and a crane that can pull rails from a conventional CWR train. The machine requires no ground personnel, providing a much safer operation, said Herzog VP of Marketing George Reynolds in an email.
Unloading can be performed without splice bars or any other equipment typically needed to unload CWR, he said. Unloading occurs as a CWR train is moved by a locomotive.
The RUM can position about six to eight rails from a CWR train per hour and unload a 40-pocket CWR train in about seven hours. The machine can travel from job site to job site via the highway, and is operated and maintained by Herzog personnel.
BNSF Railway Co. currently uses six RUMs and several other Class Is are interested in using the unloading system, Reynolds said.
To help rail customers unload CWR, L.B. Foster Co. will provide an unloading crew with a CWR train upon request. The company currently operates three CWR trains, two of which are owned and one leased to supplement the two owned trains. One train is assigned to a Pueblo rolling mill and another to a new Columbus City, Ind., mill.
"We supply a technical representative with each train," says Chris Leeth, L.B. Foster's manager of rail operations.
The company placed its first CWR train in service in 1999 and added a second train in 2005.
Meanwhile, Loram Maintenance of Way Inc. has offered a CWR loading system since 2006. The Raptor Rail Handling System is designed to load rail from along rights of way and join sections for reuse in other areas. The system, which comprises one pick-up unit equipped with two gantry cranes, rail joining work stations and three transport trains, can handle 3,000 feet of rail per hour under normal conditions.
Two rail loader cars or gantries ride on special rails that run the length of the transport train. The gantries are equipped with hydraulic arms designed to grasp rail and pick it up from a right of way.
Work stations on the loader cars enable workers to join rail sections as they're loaded. The transport cars are equipped with roller racks to contain CWR en route.
The Raptor has proven to be more productive and less labor intensive, and has substantially increased the safety of rail loading and unloading operations, says Loram Product Development Manager Scott Diercks.
For example, traditional rail trains require joining, cutting and drilling work to be performed on the ground, which creates a safety hazard and hinders productivity, he says.
The Raptor's specialized work stations enable the work to be performed in a safer and faster manner, says Diercks.
"When one transport train is fully loaded, it can be replaced by another," he says. "So, not only does that allow the rail pick up work to continue, the rail already picked up can be transported to another work site."
The top-loading system also is designed to handle longer rolled rail that's currently available or soon will be introduced. In addition, Loram
offers a turn-key system that enables the Raptor to unload rail and potentially could reduce the total number of trains required by 50 percent, says Diercks.
The company, which also can deliver new rail for customers, offers the Raptor system as a service. Loram owns and maintains all equipment, and provides support and supervisory personnel. The system currently is under a long-term contract with Union Pacific Railroad, and has been used by Canadian Pacific and the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co., says Diercks.
For Modern Track Machinery Inc., providing CWR trains that can help railroads better load and unload ribbon rail is job No. 1. The company's Geismar CWR trains feature individual four-wheel units or trolleys that can be linked together to create a desired train length, says Modern Track Machinery General Sales Manager Al Reynolds.
"This flexibility allows the user to build a train in various lengths up to a full ribbon, or mile length," he says.
The train features defined sections that allow up to nine rails to be transported at a time. Each trolley is equipped with brakes.
Winch cars and pick-up trolleys load the rail, making the trains self sufficient, except for motive power — a locomotive, self-propelled crane or other mover — that's supplied by the user, says Reynolds.
The train's components are portable to offer more mobility between job sites and trolleys can be stored off track when not in use.
This flexibility enables maintenance crews to schedule train movements and more efficiently distribute CWR during limited work windows, says Reynolds.
Currently, Class Is, railroad contractors and transit systems use the CWR trains, he says.
As equipment suppliers and service providers post progress in enhancing their CWR loading and unloading equipment, more railroads and contractors will employ the machinery.
Loram aims to improve the automation of the Raptor's rail loading process to further increase productivity and boost safety, says Diercks.
Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.