Progressive Railroading


Newsletter Sign Up
Stay updated on news, articles and information for the rail industry

All fields are required.

Rail News Home MOW

November 2013

Rail News: MOW

Railroads rely on a combination of herbicides, equipment to ensure their track is clear of weeds and brush

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor

If brush and weeds overgrow along tracks, a number of problems can occur. Signs, signals and switches can be harder for locomotive engineers to view, and the visibility of trains approaching grade crossings can be compromised for motorists and pedestrians. Communications and signal lines can register interference from encroaching vegetation, and dried-out plants can pose a fire hazard along rights of way.

To avoid those safety hazards, railroads employ programs to manage and control vegetation in their networks, essentially by spraying weeds and other troublesome plants with herbicides, and cutting brush.

For example, Kansas City Southern has devised a five-pronged vegetation management strategy to effectively control weed and brush growth along rights of way. The approach calls for:

  • on-track spraying to maintain mainlines, sidings and other aspects of the network to a bare-ground ballast treatment, with a goal of 100 percent vegetation control;
  • cutting brush at public crossings before they’re entered into the scheduled crossing spraying program to ensure a baseline according to state specifications;
  • scheduled crossing sprays to regularly maintain all public crossings to state-regulated vegetation specifications, and to enhance protection of the public, employees and equipment;
  • spraying vegetation around structures to control growth and ensure proper maintenance and operation; and
  • spraying vegetation at yards, which are maintained in conjunction with on-track and structure spraying programs, but also are coupled with an off-track program to achieve a bare-ground treatment.

“The overall strategy has not changed within the past few years; however, we evaluate the effectiveness of our program on an annual basis to determine if adjustments are needed,” said KCS spokesperson Doniele Carlson in an email.

KCS has contracted Asplundh Tree Expert Co. and DBI Services for herbicide applications, she said. The standard equipment used by the contractors ranges from spray trains to hi-rail spray trucks to off-track spray vehicles to backpack sprayers. The Class I’s Maintenance of Way Department is in charge of brush-cutting efforts.

“KCS increases the effectiveness of brush-cutting projects by applying herbicides to areas where brush has been cut,” said Carlson.

Herbicides applied by the contractors are rotated as new products become available.

“This rotation and evolution of herbicide chemistry is due to a continuing growth in the populations of the weeds across [our] territory that became resistant to the herbicides used in the past,” said Carlson. “At this time, we’re not testing any [different] herbicides.”

The drought that occurred in large portions of the United States last year posed a significant challenge to controlling vegetation because herbicide uptake into weeds and plants depends on moisture to effectively control growth, she said.

“We continue to work with herbicide applicators and chemical companies to develop effective chemical treatments and combinations for this growing challenge,” said Carlson.

KCS also seeks to develop more data for its vegetation management program, as well as obtain more usable data.

Cycle for weed spraying

For CSX Transportation, finding ways to perform more planned sprays is a key objective. A three-year weed-spraying cycle the Class I began to employ in 2010 is helping in that regard.

The cycle calls for spraying vegetation in one-third of each of CSX’s 10 divisions each year. The first cycle was completed last year; the second three-year cycle began this year and will end in 2015.

“The cycle has helped us become more disciplined and consistent with spraying, and we get planned sprays,” says Curt Stoner, CSX’s manager of engineering programs, adding that division managers also are more aware of exactly what needs to be sprayed.

To help ensure vegetation control is more effective in summer and fall, the railroad requires pre-emergent sprays in spring.

CSX has contracted four vendors to perform weed-spraying operations, says Stoner, who declined to identify the contractors. The vendors work in tandem with each division engineer.

“We will spray as often as necessary, which gives the vendors accountability to make sure they spray it right the first time,” says Stoner.

Due to a rainy summer in the South, vendors needed to complete more re-sprays than usual to keep up with growth, he says. The Jacksonville Division in northern Florida and the southern part of the Atlantic Division in Alabama are the most problematic areas for vegetation growth, says Stoner.

“We could spray every two years in those areas,” he says. “From Nashville northward, it’s not as difficult.”

Environmentally friendly methods

Meanwhile, Canadian Pacific managers are continually trying to raise the bar with vegetation management precision and efficacy — no matter the location — by leveraging new technologies, said spokesman Andy Cummings in an email.

“Safety, productivity and environmental protection are the key drivers of our integrated vegetation management program, as they have been for some time,” he said.

CP recently added a hi-rail-mounted cutter to its vegetation management equipment fleet. The machine cuts brush and treats cut surfaces with herbicides in one pass, said Cummings.

Overall, the railroad uses a variety of equipment to apply herbicides and cut brush, such as hi-rail-based herbicide application trucks in yards and train-mounted sprayers for mainline weed control.

MOW managers continuously review newly available herbicides to determine if they might offer a better approach to meeting CP’s vegetation management goals, said Cummings.

“We seek herbicides that promote safety by eradicating weeds, are cost-effective and are eco-friendly,” he said. “We’ll continue to look for herbicides that enable us to achieve our goals efficiently.”

Because business is strong and cars need to be cycled efficiently, CP is seeking to achieve more vegetation-control results while using less track time, said Cummings.

“One of the key pieces of equipment we are using to address this challenge are spray trains, which now use real-time weed detection systems,” he said. “These trains and systems can precisely spot-control unwanted vegetation in the flow of regular revenue traffic and can cover a lot of territory in a short period of time.”

When it comes to vegetation management, the methods used to control brush and weeds are just as important as the ultimate goals of containment and eradication. CP currently has the proper equipment and processes to address both parts of that equation, Cummings believes.

“We have everything we need right now to be productive and cost-effective, and meet our safety and operational goals,” he said.

Email questions or comments to


Browse articles on railroad vegetation management Kansas City Southern CSX Canadian Pacific

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.