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by Jeff Stagl, managing editor
For freight and passenger railroads, "more = less" is an equation that best describes the overriding theme to their 2011 maintenance-of-way (MOW) programs. Because of the strengthened economy, many of them are generating more carloads or ridership and, in turn, more revenue than last year, meaning they have more dollars to spend on infrastructure improvements.
But more trains on busy mainlines also means crews have less time to install rail, ties and ballast, upgrade a bridge or replace a station platform without disrupting train schedules. And tighter windows present fewer opportunities for MOW managers to check items off their long work lists.
To balance operational and infrastructure needs, MOW managers are trying to plan projects well in advance to better coordinate train movements and trackwork; employ several work gangs in the same area to complete multiple tasks simultaneously; expand the size of gangs devoted to surfacing or rail work; use more productive machinery; and schedule projects during nighttime hours or on weekends, when traffic is light.
Although the approaches are pretty much the same as they were in years past, managers are embracing one, two or all of them to ensure oncoming trains and advancing work crews are harmonious. It helps if other key departments are similarly in tune.
"We work with tight work windows that require extensive, ongoing planning and close coordination between engineering, transportation and purchasing," says Kansas City Southern's John Jacobsen, who in March became senior vice president and chief engineer after serving as VP and chief engineer since 2008.
To foster interdepartmental cooperation, KCS engineering managers first determine the scope of planned projects, then work simultaneously with transportation managers to pinpoint when and where projects can begin, and with purchasing managers to ensure materials and equipment are positioned when needed.
In addition, because traffic ebbs and flows can affect proposed windows, Mike Kirkland — KCS' manager of U.S. track programs — conducts a conference call every Thursday to review planned work for the upcoming week. His counterpart at Kansas City Southern de Mexico S.A. de C.V., Fabián Hernández, employs a similar process in Mexico.
Coordination efforts are crucial this year because KCS plans to undertake its largest-ever capital program in terms of dollars allocated and the amount of rail and ties to be installed, says Jacobsen. Crews will install about 150,000 more ties and about 10 more miles of rail compared with the 2010 MOW program.
"Our new president [David Starling] is a big believer in improving the condition of mainlines," says Jacobsen.
Track time also is vital because KCS is a single-track railroad.
"We don't have options to re-route traffic like other Class Is. A 10- to 12-hour window is huge for us," says Jacobsen. "We had a planning session last year with the transportation department and agreed not to do any work in adjacent subdivisions at the same time."
To hasten work when windows are available, MOW managers are doubling up on equipment and adding 10 or more employees to each work gang.
"We can install about 3,000 ties per day compared to 2,000 per day, typically, like last year," says Jacobsen. "At the same time, we can do rail work, crossings, bridge work, brush cutting and ditching."
Norfolk Southern Railway's MOW managers also are addressing the number of workers assigned to projects. In a high-tonnage area, one super gang (featuring about 48 workers) and one rail gang (comprising 12 to 22 workers) will work on the same segment simultaneously, says NS VP of Engineering Tim Drake.
Productivity is vital because NS plans to complete tie and surfacing work on 3,200 miles of track this year compared with 3,000 miles in 2010, he says.
In addition, super gangs will use rail anchor machines to boost efficiency. Before, three workers who trailed a tie gang installed anchors by hand and gauged accuracy; now, one worker controls the rail anchor machine and monitors accuracy, says Drake.
Crews also will use a "drone" tamper more often this year to help maximize tamping efficiency. After using one drone last year, workers will employ three drones by year's end, says Drake.
"Sensors from the lead tamper let the drone know which ties to tamp," he says. "It can be programmed to tamp every other tie or every third tie."
CN MOW managers plan to employ drone tampers this year, as well. Crews will use three of the tampers in 2011 and an additional three next year in combination with Mark IV tampers, says CN VP of System Engineering Dave Ferryman.
"They can increase the productivity of Mark IV tampers," he says.
Crews also will use two 09-32 DYNA-C.A.T. dynamic continuous-action tampers acquired earlier this year from Plasser American Corp. CN plans to acquire two more of the tampers later this year and two in 2012, says Ferryman.
In terms of workforce adjustments, CN plans to employ the first of three super surfacing gangs pegged for duty during the next three years. Comprising seven workers, the gangs will enable the railroad to conduct more program surfacing work than in years past, says Ferryman.
Using two high-production tampers with stablizers and maintenance tampers for crossings, a super surfacing gang will complete work on five to 10 miles of track per day and eliminate most spot surfacing, he says.
To increase production, CN also will employ mega gangs, or two major tie gangs staffed by more than 40 crew members working in the same area. The gangs can install several thousand ties per day in a six- to eight-hour window.
At CSX Transportation, MOW managers have acquired two Plasser 09-2X C.A.T. continuous-action tampers to help boost the productivity of two surfacing teams. The Class I has piloted a drone tamper, too. But a better work window/operations balance will come from an "Out of the Park" program developed a few years ago, says CSXT VP of Engineering John West.
The process-driven program analyzes "natural" work windows by division and by subdivision, and evaluates train schedules to determine if there's a two-hour window that wouldn't require the transportation department to "cut traffic back," says West. The program also can help combine curfews to create "division windows" or consolidate work from different crafts, such as signal maintainers and welders, that usually perform work separately.
"‘Out of the Park' is a simple way of saying, ‘Hit a home run,'" says West. "We use it as a tool to plan work, such as how many curfews can we maintain at one time, and in one area?"
A number of regionals and short lines also are trying to plan MOW work well in advance, or employ various other measures to balance work windows and operations.
Florida East Coast Railway has obtained flexibility in its labor agreements to change work hours as traffic increases to take advantage of optimal traffic windows, said VP and Chief Engineering Officer Robert Stevens in an e-mail.
At Iowa Interstate Railroad Ltd., some gangs work seven to eight days in a row and then take three to four days off, helping accomplish more tasks in a shorter timeframe, says President and Chief Executive Officer Dennis Miller.
In addition, Iowa Interstate only operates trains on its west end at night, providing crews all daylight hours to work on track, says VP and Chief Operating Officer Mick Burkhart.
Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. also operates trains at night during a four-day window for rail and tie work, providing crews 10 daylight hours for trackwork, said Superintendent of Maintenance Ben Meighan in an e-mail.
"We usually install all our ties by June, then the same gang changes over to a rail gang. Depending on the miles of rail, we change back over to a tie gang usually in October and finish out with small tie projects until freeze up," he said. "When we do rail work, there is also a crossing and surfacing gang working, and switch renewal going on at the same time."
Several passenger railroads also are juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, but trying to perform more work at night or on weekends.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) usually performs a majority of work Friday nights through weekends and before the Monday morning rush hour, in part because of tight sequencing of work with contractors, says Chief Construction Officer Mark Robinson.
However, it's been easier to juggle MOW work and operations this year than in 2010 because of the completion of a platform-raising project 18 months ago, he says. It was difficult to manage trackwork when VTA had to shut down stations so temporary stations could be built, says Robinson.
"Now, we have more reliable and efficient operations in stations," he says, adding that station dwell times also have been reduced because the raised platforms enable trains to load disabled riders quickly.
VTA plans to work on substation replacements this year, and with a redundant system, work can proceed without changing operations, he says.
At Amtrak, MOW managers are using new construction techniques to complete work in less time. For example, bridges in Middleton, Pa., last year were rolled into place during a weekend and track was back in service with less impact on operations than would have previously been possible with conventional construction techniques, said Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm in an e-mail.
MOW managers at the national intercity passenger railroad also plan and coordinate work in advance to prevent operational disruptions.
At the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet), rail replacement work is planned and coordinated well in advance, and usually is performed during a weekend, said Rick Kindig, manager of MOW operations, in an e-mail. Rail grinding, weed spraying and rail measuring work is performed during non-revenue timeframes, and machinery is off track by the morning rush hour, he said.
"Track time for MOW is a premium that is closely coordinated and controlled by MOW and rail operations together," said Kindig. "For major closures of the system, basically any work beyond non-revenue time is planned well in advance and coordinated around events in the city of Portland."
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) also closely coordinates MOW work according to optimal timeframes. The agency's system is closed from midnight to 5 a.m. on weekdays, and from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, providing consistent, but tight, trackwork windows, said WMATA spokesman Steve Taubenkibel in an e-mail.
WMATA also performs MOW work during weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a select line, and on some weeknights from 10 p.m. to midnight or throughout weekends on all lines, he said, adding that those options require single tracking.
"During three-day holiday weekends, we are closing portions of the system to do major switch replacement work," said Taubenkibel.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) performs some routine MOW work at night (in three- or four-hour windows) or on weekends, too. But the agency also counts on a 9 a.m.-to-3 p.m. window on weekdays and weekends to complete projects, says Chief Engineering Officer of Track Steven Thompson.
To speed up work, the agency is determining whether to combine multiple work groups in one area, such as "lumping together" four to 10 work gangs on a branch line to perform as many tasks as possible when track is down, says Kevin Jurgelewicz, SEPTA's project designer-track engineering/support.
"When tie gangs head out at the end of March, we'll have gangs do tree trimming, brush cutting, single power line replacement and C&S cabling work at the same time," he says.
To successfully manage work windows and operations, it ultimately comes down to careful planning, says Jurgelewicz, who spends about 60 percent of his time on track time planning and coordinates MOW work 12 months in advance, including track usage planning with freight railroads.
After projects are identified for a given year from a six-year construction and maintenance master plan, track outages and priority windows are reviewed and scheduled with all stakeholders, says Jurgelewicz.
Currently, signal modernization projects — such as automatic train control for now, and soon positive train control — are driving construction schedules and corridor locations, he says.
In addition, a "90-Day Look Ahead" report breaks down planned projects and tasks for an upcoming three-month period, and tracks impacts on commuter-rail operations, such as schedule and crew adjustments. SEPTA MOW managers also form an outage coordination plan for each approved track window.
"While scheduling outages and/or service changes, we try to identify and combine all possible work on a corridor," says Jurgelewicz. "This maximizes the effectiveness of short-term outages, while minimizing the quantity of outages over the long term."
For all railroads, the never-ending and nerve-racking task of finding time to operate trains and complete MOW projects figures to remain a top challenge for the rest of 2011.
"We constantly have tight headways, and share some track with freight railroads," says Jurgelewicz. "It's vital to balance service requirements with maintenance work."