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By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
The old saying, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," is an apt description of what's trending today in the rail-grinding sector. More equipment suppliers are promoting the concept of preventative grinding as opposed to waiting for rail to deteriorate to the point of needing corrective action.
If well planned, preventative grinding can help railroads achieve a more efficient and cost-effective maintenance program to achieve optimal rail performance, equipment suppliers say.
For example, Vossloh Rail Services (VRS) is concentrating its rail-grinding efforts on new generation rail-life management technologies, said Vice President and General Manager Ron Martin in an email.
"The philosophy is not to wait for rail damage to occur," he said. "This consists of rail grinding at more frequent intervals with minimal metal removal to maintain the profile and correct damage, such as rail contact fatigue and corrugation before it requires extensive repair."
Progressive Railroading recently contacted VRS and several other equipment suppliers to learn the latest in grinding tools and practices at their companies, and the products and services that railroad maintenance-of-way managers are seeking.
VRS' newest grinding equipment offerings include a next-generation High-Speed Grinding (HSG) series offered in two formats: the heavy haul system, which can operate at speeds up to 50 mph; and the HSG-City system, which can operate up to 35 mph and offers enough clearance to operate in most metro systems and tunnels. The heavy haul system was introduced to the North American market last year and the city system is being introduced this year. The city model also features a 100 percent spark-and-dust collection system to address environmental concerns in populated areas, and overhead structure and tunnel applications, Martin said.
To help railroads address rail that reaches the point of needing corrective action, VRS offers a High-Performance Milling system, a heavy-haul application designed to return a rail profile to an original specification in a single pass. The system generates no sparks or dust and generates little noise so that it can be used in any environment, such as on bridges and/or mainlines near highly populated areas, and when traditional grinding is not allowed due to potential fire hazards, said Martin.
"The environmental impact of these systems is something all suppliers need to consider," he said. "These [grinding] processes can be messy, loud and disruptive to the public. In all technologies VRS works with, we strive for 100 percent suppression of dust and contaminants, and minimize the noise levels."
Currently, the High-Performance Milling system is being used in overseas markets. The North American market will respond to the system's availability as more railroads are exposed to it, Martin believes. To that end, the company plans to bring it to North America next year for assessment by potential users, he added.
In an effort to help railroads curtail infrastructure maintenance-related traffic disruptions, VRS has begun working with some clients to schedule a grinding operation as if it were part of regular traffic.
"We treat it like a train. Instead of taking a service to work on a block of rail, we take a train slot," Martin said.
Loram Maintenance of Way Inc. has been working with customers to improve grinding operations, too. The company evaluates the customers' grinding practices in an effort to shift from a corrective to a preventative model, said Bradley Willems, Loram's director of marketing and business development.
"Preventive grinding focuses on profile and surface condition restoration before the rail wears to the point where a greater amount needs to be removed," he said. "This method supports grinding efficiency and extends the life of the rail."
Efficiency is improved by allowing an increase in grinding speed with fewer grinding passes to achieve the desired results, Willems added.
Loram offers a "complete suite" of equipment and services to support customers' rail-grinding needs, he said. For example, the company's Rail Inspection Vehicle (RIV) is designed to measure track quality to develop and implement an accurate grinding plan. The RIV collects rail profile and surface condition data, which is then used to develop a plan by determining optimal passes, patterns and speeds necessary to ensure a correct profile is achieved and surface conditions are removed.
Loram's newer offerings include the RG400 series for production mainline grinding, which incorporates higher stone counts, quality assurance tools and higher operating speeds. For the specialty rail grinding market, the company offers its RGS series fleet. Combined, the RG400 and RGS — introduced in 2010 and 2011, respectively — help minimize track-time disruptions.
"The RGS grinds switches and crossings in fewer passes with pinpoint precision and can be effective grinding open rail, while achieving speeds up to 12 mph," said Willems, adding that the machine is "a natural supplement" to any production grinding program since it can grind problem spots as it travels between switches, crossings and other specialty trackwork.
Loram also is trying to expand its reach beyond North America. In late 2011, the company entered into a contract with Germany's Deutsche Bahn to supply two RGI Series 60-stone rail-grinding machines. The first of the two machines was displayed in May at the IAF exhibition in Munster, Germany.
"We will continue to offer technology and equipment that has performed well in North America for many decades," said Willems.
As freight- and passenger-rail usage continues to rise, rail grinding has become an essential element of rail-asset management practices, according to officials at Harsco Rail.
"Railroads recognize the importance of a high-quality rail grinding program," said Dereck Bartz, product manager of grinders and UTVs for Harsco Rail, in an email.
Increasingly, railroads are adopting a program that calls for gradual preventative grinding by removing metal in specific areas. This approach offers the best life extension and cost savings "because you are gradually restoring the profile on each grind cycle,' Bartz said.
"This allows the machine to move faster and get back to a specific grind area sooner, and cover more track miles per year," he added.
From an operational perspective, tighter grinding windows drive the need for higher grinding equipment speeds, which require higher metal-removal capabilities. Significant efforts are under way to advance rail grinder design and grinder stones to enable such performance, said Bartz. To address environmental concerns that might be raised by higher grinding speeds, Harsco Rail is "seeking to raise the bar" in terms of minimizing dust and sparks, he said.
A 2012 addition to Harsco Rail's grinding portfolio is the Corrugation Measurement System, which deploys an accelerometer for use on rail vehicles to measure the intensity of rail corrugation. Harsco's proprietary algorithm converts the accelerators' signals into graphical depictions that show how successfully the corrugations have been removed, said Bartz. The system's devices can be connected seamlessly to Harsco Rail's Jupiter Control System — an intelligent distributed I/O system — onboard a car for interpretation and analysis, said Joe Palese, Harsco Rail's senior director of engineering and technology.
Moreover, Harsco Rail is trying to take advantage of advances in digital technology to enhance the operation and control of its rail grinders for higher performance, according to Siddharth Srinivasan, Harsco's associate product manager for grinders and UTVs. Harsco's COMPASS™ system, which uses cellular and/or satellite communications to upload telematics data, is a result of those focused R&D efforts, he said.
"In addition, we recognize the importance of educating the general user on the science and technology of rail grinding," he said. To that end, Harsco Rail's Intelligent Solutions group provides consulting services to those in the maintenance-of-way chain.
Meanwhile, the need for better mobility prompted Geismar-Modern Track Machinery to develop a new module for corrugation, scale removal and gage-corner grinding. The module is incorporated into a hi-rail truck that's equipped with a vacuum system to capture dust and other spoils from the process, said General Sales Manager Al Reynolds. The company recently began promoting the product in the U.S. market.
"This truck is an adaption of existing technology that we have sold for years but on a rail-bound vehicle," Reynolds said. "We feel there is a benefit to having the ability to be mobile with a grinder, especially on transits. This vehicle allows you to be able to stage your work for short work windows and then give back the track. It potentially eliminates the need to travel to the worksite after revenue service is completed, especially if there are several hi-rail access locations on the system."
Rail equipment that can perform multiple jobs is becoming more of an industry trend, said Alex Hellkamp, assistant vice president of sales and marketing director for Railtech Matweld Inc., which recently tweaked its Precision Frog Grinder to work with the new Head Wash Repair welding kit developed by Railtech Boutet. The kit requires a pre-weld preparation step as well as a finish grind.
"Our Precision Frog Grinder, which gives a precise multi-axis movement for the repeatable results that repair jobs on a frog require, now converts to meet this pre-weld preparation process," Hellkamp said in an email.
Adapting the grinder for a precise, two-inch-wide grind out of a defect takes only minutes to convert and complete the grind-out process, he said. The grinder's precise movement allows for exact removal of rail material in preparation for the head wash repair procedure.
"After welding, then profile grinding a repair is easily managed with our light Profile Grinder," Hellkamp said. The Profile Grinder is designed specifically for finish grinding of field welds. The tool will grind the top and sides of the rail to its original profile.
Another issue Railtech Matweld has addressed in recent years: equipment that's easier to use and more comfortable to operate. Comfort and ease of operation matters both to experienced operators and younger workers learning to use grinding machinery.
"With a large population of our industry talent nearing retirement, it is becoming more important for manufacturers to take this into consideration," Hellkamp said. "Lightweight, dependable equipment and repeatable grinding results — no matter the level or scope of experience by an operator — are our keen focus points for the future."
Racine Railroad Products Inc. also is focused on improved ergonomics. The company solicits ideas from customers on how to make its tools safer, more productive and easier to use, Sales and Product Support Manager Steve Ries said in an email. For example, the company recently altered its Racine Stand-Up Web Grinder so that operators can make ergonomic adjustments more easily. Operators don't need to bend over when using the Stand-Up Grinder to grind rail web.
Also new at Racine Railroad: the Racine Trak Pak II, a portable unit to power the company's hydraulic hand grinders. Introduced in January, the unit features a 22-horsepower Honda gas engine to provide more power and reliability, Ries said.
"It also has a nine-gallon hydraulic reservoir ... to allow more fluid to be circulated and cooled for longer tool life," he said. "We also offer several accessories, such as wheel kits and skid-mounted platforms."
Regardless of which product an operator is using or the job that needs to be done, Ries' advice remains the same: Operate with caution.
"Training operators to use grinding tools safely is our No. 1 priority," Ries said. "Make sure the tool is operating properly with all guards secure, be aware of your surroundings and be sure to use all proper personal protective equipment."