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— by Walter Weart
Ballast is the material upon which railroad ties are placed. It is used to facilitate drainage, distribute the load from the ties, help control vegetation and hold the track in place.
As a result, railroads spend a lot of money on ballast maintenance — and they rely on suppliers to provide equipment that is efficient, cost-effective and, most of all, helps them minimize the time necessary to do the work.
There's plenty of equipment out there to help them do the job. For a sampling of what's new, what's been enhanced, and what's tried and true, Progressive Railroading contacted a cross-section of service providers and suppliers of ballast-related products and equipment. Their responses follow.
At Balfour Beatty Rail Inc., one technology showing great promise is ground penetrating radar, which allows for more focused maintenance, said R.T. Swindall, director, track solutions.
"By using this technology, we can look at all aspects of the roadbed and determine more precisely what areas need attention and what is needed," he said.
They also can examine ballast depth and condition, fouling and sub-grade profile, among other things, he added.
Balfour Beatty Rail also is using video capture technology during inspections.
"We currently have about 30,000 miles in our files and maintain this history for our clients," said Swindall, adding that customers include BNSF Railway Co., Union Pacific Railroad and RailAmerica Inc. Balfour Beatty Rail has supplied equipment to its partner, UK-based Zetica, to conduct surveys on mining railroads in Colombia.
It's not enough just to capture the data; it is much more important to determine what is done with it.
"We are working with Dr. Asger Erikson, who developed the software we use to analyze the date collected by our three hi-rail trucks," said Swindall.
Balfour Beatty Rail uses ground penetrating radar to examine the ballast down to the hard pan, and can compile a database of the ballast condition, which is combined with the video and completed at the same time the radar data is collected.
"This provides a desktop tool to go back and look at the track without a field visit," Swindall said. "This allows the railroad to have much more precise information as to locations and, for example, the type of fouling that may be occurring."
Balfour Beatty Rail also is adding a feature to its mainline undercutter fleet to measure the amount of fouled ballast being removed.
"This will start to build historical data on fouling and will help determine the amount of ballast to be distributed," said Swindall, adding that Balfour Beatty Rail's goal is to make the information more useful to customers.
Brandt Road Rail Corp. has improved the braking systems for both the Brandt Rail Tool vehicle and rail cars, said Sales Manager Neil Marcotte in an email. Now, the tool can move more efficiently to and from a worksite, pulling rail cars, and performing undercutting and drainage. The result: reduced track time and work windows, as the Rail Tool has enough power to pull rail cars, move ballast to the worksite and remove waste material, Marcotte said.
The company's U.S. contracting division, Brandt Rail Services, has served several Class Is and short lines during the past year, Marcotte said. With the new service, Brandt can perform work for customers as they need it — by the day, week or month, he said.
Georgetown Rail Equipment Co. (GREX) unveiled its newest service, BallastSaver, at Railway Interchange 2011. BallastSaver allows customers to ensure the exact amount of ballast needed to maintain their ideal ballast profile, said Lynn Turner, GREX vice president of marketing and sales, in an email.
"A well-constructed ballast program is an integral piece of any maintenance-of-way plan, but they can be difficult to manage and budget for due to their complexity," he said. "BallastSaver replaces the subjective decisions with objective data that is reliable, detailed and accurate. BallastSaver employs LIDAR, an encoder wheel, and video cameras mounted to a hi-rail vehicle to collect data of the current profile. The existing profile is then compared to the customer's model profile by the BallastSaver software to quantify the exact amount of rock needed to attain their model profile."
BallastSaver was developed to be used as a standalone product as well as an enhancement to GREX's GateSync service. As a standalone product, BallastSaver can be used as a ballast program planning tool.
"Data delivered takes the burden and stress off management personnel when planning these crucial programs, providing the precise amount of rock that is needed or not needed to achieve the customer's ‘ideal' ballast profile," Turner said. "This data allows the customer to maintain this profile without wasteful spending due to excess ballast being ordered."
Ballast quantities are not all that is provided; the direct locations that it needs to delivered are, too. The information enables customers to prioritize ballast delivery schedules, Turner said.
Using input from railroad personnel, GREX's GateSync service allows for automated ballast delivery at speeds of up to 10 mph. BallastSaver enhances GateSync's capabilities by eliminating the subjective human analysis of the ballast profile, ensuring the exact quantity of ballast is precisely delivered where it is needed, Turner said. The data is directly uploaded into GateSync, creating a fully automated ballast delivery system.
GREX also offers the Aurora Track Inspection System, which employs machine vision for automated tie inspections that are accomplished at speeds of up to 42 mph. The combination of BallastSaver and Aurora gives customers an overall view of roadbed conditions, Turner said.
The company's Solaris/GateSync/BallastSaver kits continue to be accepted throughout the industry, Turner said, noting that the company received an order for "a large number of kits" from a Class I customer for 2012. More than 1,500 of the rail-car kits are in operation industrywide, he added.
Officials at Herzog Railroad Services Inc. (HRSI) are "constantly striving" to make equipment upgrades that will help railroads reduce the track time needed to facilitate maintenance tasks while also making those tasks safer, said Timothy Francis, vice president of marketing, in an email.
"We believe that there is never a need to manually unload a ballast car and with our technology, that is now possible," he said. "Why put an employee in harm's way when there are safer alternatives available?"
As an example, Francis cited the most recent upgrades to Herzog's GPS trains.
"We have taken all three of our ballast trains and combined them into one," he said, adding that the HRSI P.L.U.S. and SMART trains are the "only trains on the market today that are capable of spreading ballast with the accuracy that GPS provides."
The SMART train spreads ballast on the shoulders and in the center of the track. In emergency situations, such as floods, SMART trains also can be dumped by remote or push buttons on the side of the car body, Francis said. The trains can be set up quickly, and an entire 60-car train can be dumped in less than an hour, he said.
Herzog also has introduced the ProScan Lidar truck, which is designed to replace the previous method of standard manual track surveys.
"The Herzog ProScan Lidar truck provides a seamless GPS survey then determines the amount of ballast needed based on the template provided by the railroad," Francis said. "Herzog's ProScan Lidar truck increases the accuracy of their ballast trains so we can now dump up to 15 feet before a crossing or switch and start dumping again just five feet after them, which reduces the time needed pulling material for surfacing gangs."
The time saved by incorporating Herzog's Lidar survey in conjunction with the increased spreading accuracy will save railroads time and money while increasing the time available to run revenue freight, Francis added.
Knox Kershaw Inc. has established a line of ballast regulators designed to meet "all ballast maintenance needs of contractors, short lines and Class I railroads," said President and Chief Executive Officer Knox Kershaw in an email. A small, easy-to-transport ballast regulator, the KBR 850 is "very popular with short lines and contractors," Kershaw said. The KBR 925 is a "heavy-duty, efficient machine that features unrivaled visibility of the wing and plow operations, making it ideal for final profiling," he said.
The KBR 925 features a tilt cab, enabling access to major components; a clean roof design; joystick controls; a reversing broom; and six speed, shift-on-the-go transmission.
Designed for extreme cold weather conditions and snow removal, the KSF 940 can be converted for use as a ballast regulator in summer. Knox Kershaw Inc. also offers a new narrow gauge/meter gauge ballast regulator: the KNG 800, which is available in gauges of 36 inches, one meter, and 42 inches.
A powerful track dressing machine designed for narrow gauge applications, the KNG 800 has a short (15-inch) wheel base and narrow track, enabling the machine to negotiate tight curves, Kershaw said. The frame has been widened to ensure a stable working platform, he added. A low ratio axle provides greater tractive effort, so the KNG 800 can be used on steeper grades. Its large cab design is based upon the one used for Knox Kershaw Inc.'s KBR 925, providing "superior visibility and increased headroom with no components mounted on the roof," Kershaw said. The cab is equipped with joystick controls, a comfortable operator's seat with mechanical suspension, and is fully pressurized with heating and air conditioning, he added.
Meanwhile, the company is developing dual-gauge ballast regulators for railroads that use two or more gauges so that one machine can be used systemwide, Kershaw said.
During the past year, the company has received requests from customers to design a brush cutter attachment.
"This option is in the prototype stage, and should be available for purchase in 2013," Kershaw said.
Loram Maintenance of Way Inc. continues to expand its fleet of ballast maintenance equipment in 2012 with the introduction of additional Railvacs, Track Lifters (TLs) and Shoulder Ballast Cleaners, said Product Development Manager Scott Allen Diercks in an email.
"The expansion is in response to growing demand from transit and heavy-haul customers who are realizing the benefits these services have on the track structure," he said.
Designed to assist with new track construction, Loram's TLs now feature sled to remove cribs, making the TL "a valuable tool for the rehabilitation of deteriorating track structures or as an alternative to undercutting," Diercks said.
The 2011 floods provided Loram with the "enormous challenge" of raising track several feet in a short period of time in order to keep track in service as the flood waters continued to rise, Diercks said.
"The TL was undeniably up to the task and raised track up to nine feet on multiple Class I railroads affected by the floods in a fraction of the time it would have taken with traditional equipment," he added.
Currently, Loram is performing ballast maintenance services for all North American Class Is, Diercks said, adding that the company understands how valuable track time is and designs and maintains equipment to operate efficiently at 98 percent reliability.
In addition to conducting its own research and development work, Loram is working with the Transportation Technology Center Inc. and a Class I to study the effects of shoulder ballast cleaning. The study's focus: examining the "migration of the fines throughout the track structure with and without shoulder ballast cleaning," Diercks said.
Meanwhile, Loram officials are "increasingly more aware of the struggles of Class I railroads to provide ballast where and when it is needed," Diercks said, noting that in some cases, the availability of ballast can become the limiting factor for the amount of work that can be done in a day.
"Railroads continually demand services that are highly productive, performed safely, environmentally conscious and reliable," he said. "Railroads want to know that when available track windows present themselves, the MOW equipment and personnel are ready to go. Technology plays a key role in equipment performance and reliability, giving Loram the ability to be proactive rather than reactive."
Preventive maintenance is one area where Loram utilizes technology to be proactive, and to help the company achieve that aforementioned 98 percent reliability figure.
"By working with its suppliers, Loram is able to integrate technology into its equipment that can predict component failure before it occurs, ensuring the failing component can be replaced prior to failure and thus preventing equipment downtime," Diercks said.
What improvements and/or enhancements has Miner Enterprises Inc. recently added to its product portfolio? For starters, the company has been developing a ballast plowing system to add to existing ballast cars, said Christopher Gaydos, manager of mechanism engineering, in an email. The plow system will use the existing cars' Miner AggreGate power supply system — electric, hydraulic or pneumatic. A manual version of the plow can be applied to any ballast car, Gaydos said.
Meanwhile, Miner is continuously improving the design — and recently improved the performance/life cycle — of the linear actuators and electrical systems used in its Miner Electric AggreGate®, a stand-alone electric aggregate system. The electric stand-alone AggreGate enables independent operation of the car from anywhere within a ballast train, eliminating the need for grouping manual and automatic cars, Gaydos said.
During the past year, Miner has provided twin cylinder, remote control operated ballast systems for cars exported to South America. In addition, Miner last year provided AggreGates to FreightCar America Inc. for a 162-car BNSF Railway Co. build and continues to supply various models for car conversions and ballast car upgrades, Gaydos said. Miner AggreGate is available in pry bar manual, push button, or remote control operations using pneumatic or electric power to operate the gates.
"Railroads have been using many methods for plowing ballast over the years and we believe that the Miner Plow is a safer alternative" Gaydos said. "They have been asking for a safe, durable, maintenance-free way to ballast that can be applied to new or existing cars and that is what the Miner Plow and Miner AggreGate provide."
A new offering from Nordco Inc. is designed to help reduce on-track safety incidents involving work equipment.
"The Nordstar™ Proximity Awareness creates ‘virtual' alarm zones and warns the equipment operators with audible and visual alarms when other machines are too close or if another machine is approaching too fast, so both operators have an opportunity to react," said Bob Coakley, director of sales and marketing, in an email.
A real-time system that helps machines maintain safe and proper distance between work equipment, Nordstar features virtual alarm zones that are based on speed, proximity and predictive analysis; the alarm is set off if machines are too close, or closing speed is too fast, Coakley said.
"Nordstar works when machines are located around curves, or are obscured by weather or geographic features," he said, adding that it can be retrofitted to any piece of work equipment or on-track vehicle. "It's as if the operator can ‘see' through fog, around corners or through hills."
Coakley noted that Nordco also had introduced ballast regulator attachments that are "transit- and third-rail friendly," and meet the clearance diagrams of most transit agencies. The company also continues to "work on extending the features" available on the Nordstar product, he said.
At Plasser American Corp., recent new machine deliveries include the newly developed 09-3X-CW DYNAMIC Tamping Express, a high-speed tamping machine capable of tamping three ties with every insertion, Plasser American officials said in an email.
"This machine is capable of tamping on wood tie as well as concrete tie track," according to the company.
Plasser American also has delivered two new Ballast Undercutting Cleaning machines, the RM-80 and the RM-802/FRM-802. Recently delivered to a "major Class I railroad," the RM-80 offers the "well-known" Plasser switch undercutting ability with the enhanced capability of undercutting switches on either side of the machine, the company said.
And another "major Class I" recently began using the new RM-802/FRM-802 high-capacity undercutting/cleaning consist, which has the capacity to undercut and clean the track at rates of up to 2,500 feet per hour.
When asked to share information about recent product improvements, the company said:
"Plasser continues to work with its customers to design and build machines that will meet their daily needs. Customized equipment for the daily MOW challenge has been one of Plasser's strengths. Items such as ease of maintenance, commonality and interchangeability of parts, simplified operating systems, etc., have been some of the recent enhancements."
Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer. Email comments or questions to email@example.com.