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by Robert J. Derocher
For the pole line removal crews at All Railroad Services Corp. (ARS), it's only natural to follow up one big job with another.
Fresh from finishing up a five-year project to remove poles along more than 10,000 miles of track for an eastern Class I, ARS is embarking this winter on a similar-sized project to remove thousands of poles on more than 1,500 miles of track along a western Class I's system.
"We're the largest pole line remover in the country," says Vinnie Vaccarello, co-president of St. Augustine, Fla.-based ARS.
Although ARS also provides vegetation management and related debris removal and maintenance services for several railroads, the company has carved out a niche in the area of pole line removal and disposal, according to Vaccarello. And with technology advancements and impending deadlines for positive train control implementation, many railroads are aggressively pursuing pole line elimination projects, he adds.
ARS planned to kick off the latest project in late November or early December on a 130-mile segment of track in Illinois, starting about 40 miles west of Chicago. ARS is working as a subcontractor to Railroad Controls Ltd. (RCL) on the entire project.
ARS likely will employ two four-worker teams that will use wire spooling equipment and other specialized machinery to remove the poles and associated wires, Vaccarello says. One of his primary concerns? Working around the 40 or so freight trains and eight Amtrak trains that use the corridor daily. That issue could be particularly complicated this month, with holiday-related traffic expected to add more congestion to the tracks. Planning is key in such instances, Vaccarello says, noting that ARS crews accompanied RCL and the western Class I's representatives on the line earlier this fall to map out work plans amid the anticipated traffic-related issues.
But probably the biggest challenge will be the weather, Vaccarello says.
"We're going to be working in the dead of winter," he says.
Vaccarello believes his biggest assets in dealing with issues such as high traffic and inclement weather are ARS' equipment, and — more importantly — the people who operate it. With much of the equipment that was used for the previous large-scale project all ready to go for the upcoming work in Illinois, he anticipates ARS will be well prepared.
"The biggest thing is having skilled people. We're very fortunate not to have a lot of turnover in our crews," Vaccarello says. "We have a lot of experience with this, and we're already set up to do these big projects."
An important aspect of that experience and performance, he adds, is ARS' commitment to worker safety. Each year, ARS brings all of its 150 employees to its Florida headquarters for three consecutive days of intensive, all-inclusive safety and health training.
"That's what really sets us apart," he says. "We just don't talk safety, we do it."
The combination of safety, experience and equipment should be a winning one, Vaccarello believes, as ARS moves ahead next spring with a half-dozen or so pole line removal projects for the western Class I.
"We pretty much have these areas ready to go," he says. "This is what we do."
Present-day tie inspection, says Canadian Pacific Railway's Henry Rubert, is often as primitive as this: a trained inspector carrying cans of spray paint, walking several miles a day, to manually identify and mark defective cross ties for tie program replacements.
"It's a real labor-intensive exercise and it takes a lot of track time," says Rubert, CP's director of track systems. "The railways need technologies that are less intrusive to the operation, consume minimal track capacity and are able to serve their purpose efficiently, with flexibility, and within planned maintenance windows."
That is why CP officials are happy to be working with Georgetown Rail Equipment Co. (GREX), experimenting with the company's Aurora™ Track Inspection System, Rubert says. Aurora provides railroads state-of-the-art functionality in "machine vision" tie inspection for both wood and concrete ties. Aurora is a technology that has the potential to substantially cut back on those extensive manhours, while providing thorough inspection results in much less time, says GREX Director of Aurora Integration David Hunsucker.
Testing along a seven-mile stretch of CP's Elbow Lake Subdivision in North Dakota began this fall, Hunsucker says. And while early results are being analyzed and testing procedures are being refined, GREX execs hope the trial runs will lead to a widely accepted standard for effective and efficient analysis of tie conditions.
"This is a great opportunity to show people what we can do," Hunsucker says. "The technology is so new and it's available, and to have the railroads understand the technology is important. It's great to have them working with us."
Installed on a hi-rail pickup, Aurora conducts an infrared, three-dimensional scan of an entire track at speeds of up to 42 mph. The images are analyzed against inspection criteria, producing a set of four grades for each tie: good, marginal, bad or failed. GPS technology is used to mark ties and target those that might need immediate or eventual replacement.
Such targeting, Hunsucker says, enables railroads to more accurately replace those ties that need replacement, avoiding the extra time and material cost of removing ties that might still have several years of life left in them — a common problem in traditional tie-replacement programs. That makes a four-grade system more helpful than the common two-grade system, he says. Additionally, the Aurora system can analyze at least twice as much track than traditional methods over the same time span, Hunsucker estimates.
"We can give a railroad an overall health check of their ties and provide them with areas of priority," he says. "[Railroads] are trying to get more refined with their grading. Not every railroad can afford to replace a thousand ties per mile if they don't have to."
In the Elbow Lake Subdivision, one of the prime challenges has been trying to match an inspector's analysis of what constitutes a good or bad tie with the data gathered by the Aurora service.
"It's very subjective for each inspector and each railroad," Hunsucker says. "We're trying to focus on the input from their inspectors and connecting that to Aurora so it can be identified more easily."
CP's Rubert says crosstie inspectors have been working with GREX to improve Aurora's the tie-grading process and, in turn, achieve a high success rate or match rate that is consistent with CP's tie inspector grading criteria.
Improvements and increased reliability to the tie-grading process will provide GREX the opportunity to further develop Aurora to potentially identify other track-related maintenance issues, such as problems with joint bars and turnout components, Rubert says.
"They're using it in the field and making the changes they need to make," he says. "There is an evolution to this, and [GREX] is on the right path."
GREX has been deeply involved in working with CP on this project, but another Class I has recognized for several years the value of Aurora and assisted GREX in ongoing development. BNSF Railway Co. was an early adopter, setting the stage for acceptance on CP and other roads, Hunsucker says. GREX officials are talking with representatives at BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad about implementing Aurora service in 2012, he adds. Railroad execs realize that a faster, more efficient way of grading, maintaining and replacing ties benefits the entire industry.
"They're all looking at railroad ties as an asset, not as a piece of lumber," Hunsucker says.
The scene in rural northwest Iowa was somewhat surreal in early June, when BNSF Railway Co. sent out the emergency call for the Loram Track Lifter (TL), recalls Scott Diercks, product development manager for Loram Maintenance of Way Inc.
"It was the first flood I've ever seen where we were waiting for the water to come," he says.
Those floodwaters did come — and in record-breaking levels — eventually washing out tracks and bridges throughout BNSF territory in the Missouri River Basin in North and South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska. In Pacific Junction, Iowa, Loram's TL played a major role in lifting track several feet to escape the rising river, helping maintain service in a critical area for BNSF's cross-country routes.
"It performed quite well, and the customer was very happy with it," Diercks says. "We're seeing a continued demand for it from the railroads."
Despite its overall success, the project got off to a bumpy start, beginning at Loram's Hamel, Minn., manufacturing facility. A derailment on a rail line near the facility slightly delayed the shipment of the 160-ton TL to Iowa, Diercks says. And even when it left the facility, the unit wasn't fully finished.
"The machine was nearing the final stage of assembly when the BNSF made inquires of potential availability" ," Diercks says. "Due to the emergency need of the BNSF, the machine was pulled from the manufacturing facility prior to completion and finished in the field."
Once the TL was in place, it became an integral part of BNSF's effort to keep its critical Creston Subdivision operating, he says. While earth-moving crews built levees on either side of the main tracks, the Loram-operated TL helped raise the tracks by as much as eight feet along a four-mile stretch at Pacific Junction, about 25 miles southeast of Omaha, Neb.
Moving at up to 4 mph, the TL4 lifted track as much as 12 inches in one pass — an estimated 400 percent higher and 300 percent faster than traditional methods that rely mainly on tamping, Diercks says. The increased speed and height were key as crews raced to stay ahead of the impending flooding.
"With the production performance of traditional methods, they would have had to wait for the floodwaters to recede," Diercks says. "It's definitely revolutionary, compared to traditional track lifting."
The rush to raise the tracks, combined with the relative newness of the TL (the first unit began operating in 2010), meant that some of the more traditional testing to find potential problems had to be shelved, Diercks says. Crews were able to overcome minor glitches, as well as more pressing problems, such as deteriorated ties that were dropped by the TL, which led to some delays. In addition, BNSF project managers faced challenges in obtaining the large amounts of ballast needed to raise the tracks.
Despite those obstacles, the TL not only succeeded at Pacific Junction, but was then pressed into similar track-raising efforts for BNSF between Omaha and Kansas City throughout the summer. The unit was then sent to North Dakota to complete other flood-preventative track lifting work for BNSF. Work there was expected to wrap up in late November.
Diercks hopes more TL testing and improvements can be completed this winter, but the unit's popularity might make that challenging, he says. Railroads in the south have been inquiring about possible work. In addition, managers at BNSF and other railroads have talked with Loram officials about putting both of its TL's back in service next spring. At the same time, Loram is proceeding with plans to build a third TL in 2012, Diercks says. He attributes the success of the units to Loram's engineers and work crews, and their willingness to work closely with customers.
"We're always looking for opportunities to work with the lead users of technology and innovative products throughout the railroad industry," he says. "We hope to continue to work on projects like these in the future."
A large-scale rail and tie replacement job in a remote part of Vermont can present challenges for any seasoned rail contractor. Toss in a wayward hurricane and working alongside one of your competitors, and you've got the potential for even bigger hurdles.
Not for RailWorks Track Systems.
Careful planning, quick reactions and professional teamwork enabled RailWorks to sidestep the pitfalls and turn a potentially troublesome project into a successful job that was completed on time, on budget and injury free, says Brian Bennett, vice president of RailWorks Track Systems.
"There was a lot of coordination that went into this," he says.
The project took shape last fall, when RailWorks and one of its main competitors, Atlas Railroad Construction, were jointly awarded a contract to install 1.5 million feet of continuous-welded rail (CWR) along 191 miles of track for the New England Central Railroad, which is owned by RailAmerica Inc. At the same time, RailWorks retained a contract to replace 140,000 wood ties for the NECR. The track upgrades were needed to accommodate higher-speed Amtrak trains on the Vermonter route between St. Albans, Vt., near the Canadian border, and the Massachusetts border.
Working on the NECR project was nothing new for RailWorks, which has completed rail and tie replacement and other work for the short line for more than a decade, according to Bennett. As for working alongside a rival contractor? That was unusual, he says.
"It was different, but we talked to Atlas and said, 'What do you think about working together?'" Bennett says. "We shared information and shared some spare equipment."
RailWorks managers kept in close contact with Atlas, NECR and Amtrak officials to develop a coordinated construction schedule that began in the spring, with RailWorks gangs working on the west side of the rail and Atlas employees working on the east as they headed south from St. Albans, about two to four miles apart. Tie replacement work began about two months after the rail replacement.
Rail gangs comprising 30 to 40 workers — and sometimes as many as 70 — typically worked 15 straight days, followed by a seven-day span during which a separate five-person gang unloaded rail trains to position CWR on the track ahead of the rail gangs, according to Bennett. Add in a 25- to 30-person tie gang, crews from other contractors working on signaling and crossings, and the need to continue operating freight and passenger trains, and "logistics was the big hurdle," Bennett says. "We always had to be concerned about what was going on a week or two ahead."
One of those unforeseen hurdles: lodging. With two full rail gangs working in close proximity, as well as the tie gang, it became a planning challenge to make sure enough hotel rooms were available in a rural area more accustomed to bed-and-breakfast establishments, Bennett says. A full-time RailWorks project manager who coordinated the work of both companies was key to the success of the project, he adds.
But perhaps one of the biggest challenges was overcoming the floods caused by the remnants of Hurricane Irene in late August. Record-setting rains washed out multiple sections of track, damaged bridges and brought down trees and utility wires, shutting down the railroad for nearly three weeks.
"We lost a van to the floodwaters," Bennett says. "Fortunately, nobody got hurt."
The CWR work had been completed just a few weeks before the flooding, but tie work was hampered by the delay in materials delivery. Still, RailWorks managed to install 75,000 ties before the project wrapped up for the year, putting the railroad slightly ahead of its two-year timetable, says Bennett. RailWorks will install the remaining 60,000 ties in 2012.
"This was a major job for us. It was a big feat that took a lot of manpower and a lot of planning," Bennett says. "I think everybody was happy with the way things turned out."
Track construction, bridge building, erosion control, pipe laying, switch installation, fence erection: R.J. Corman Railroad Construction has done all of that — and more — while carrying out one of its most ambitious projects to date.
As of mid-November, crews were putting the finishing touches on a new rail link that will serve a $1.2 billion solar cell plant under construction in Clarksville, Tenn. Corman officials believe the comprehensive work the firm is doing will serve as a showcase project as the company seeks to expand its services. And if early reviews on the more than two-year project are an indication, Corman appears to be on the right track.
"It's gone well," says Noel Rush, vice president of finance and administration. "From the beginning, this has been a very significant project for us. We think this will give us options to be considered for more turnkey projects in the future."
Corman established its reputation in the 1970s as a rail construction and services company — and, later, as a short-line operator — but the company's work in Clarksville represents a full-service construction, maintenance and operation effort, Rush says. In August 2009, the company began work for the Montgomery County Industrial Development Authority to build a rail spur from Corman's Memphis Line to a Hemlock Semiconductor Group plant. Set to open in late 2012, the manufacturing facility will produce polysilicon, the prime material for solar cells. The plant is expected to employ as many as 500 workers when it opens, while another 1,600 construction jobs have been created.
The Montgomery County Industrial Development Authority allocated capital for a track connecting the Memphis Line to the edge of the plant's site with a five-track yard. Corman also was contracted to build an unloading track onto the plant site. The project also included building a scale house, installing the rail scales and constructing dual tracks along the plant for the unloading equipment to be set up.
The work involved in the project includes:
The construction team encountered a few challenges, Rush says, mostly Tennessee's naturally wet environment during the winter season. The wet weather caused the site's clay soil to become slick and difficult to move and grade, but a Corman supervisor closely oversaw the grading throughout the project to help keep it on schedule. Additionally, the grade and drain portion of the project represented one of the largest rail bed preparations Corman has performed to date.
Corman also addressed the wet conditions and the scope of the excavation work by acquiring four Volvo articulated dump trucks, a 460 Volvo Excavator, and an 815 CAT Compactor to add to the excavators and backhoes already in Corman's fleet. The weather experiences, combined with the newly acquired equipment, positions the company to take on larger rail-related grading projects in the future, Rush says.
Corman's work won't be finished once the plant opens. The company also will provide the rail service linking the facility to the Memphis Line to accommodate shipments of raw materials and finished goods.
"We're just very proud to have played a significant role in such an important project," Rush says. "It was a big deal for us, and it's big for the area."
Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, N.Y.-based free-lance writer.