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— by Robert J. Derocher
Faced with the need to provide thorough and technically up-to-date inspections of thousands of miles of track on the nation's busiest commuter railroads, Georgetown Rail Equipment Co. (GREX) officials didn't blanch.
"When we get to a site, we are very prepared," GREX Director of Inspection Technology Todd Euston says. "These jobs posed some unique challenges, but our operators were ready to go."
Equipped with the company's Aurora® track inspection system, GREX crews overcame track time constraints to deliver comprehensive maintenance reports. The work was part of 35,000 miles of track inspected in North America this year with Aurora tie inspection technology.
"We helped [customers] prioritize their maintenance issues. They're trying to maintain a pretty extensive system," Euston says. "We collected a lot of information — about 2.5 gigabytes of data per mile."
Often GREX is called on to perform a basic inspection of all the railroad's ties, plates, spikes and fasteners, and to complete an enhanced inspection of rail joints. In one recent application, GREX also expanded its joint inspection capabilities to include rail end mismatch measurements, as requested by one railroad, Euston says.
Operating on a commuter railroad that carries hundreds of thousands of passengers a day, the Aurora system's ability to travel the tracks at speeds of 30 mph was essential, Euston says. It took about 40 days — often at night and during weekends — for the company's hi-rail truck to capture high-resolution computerized images largely due to limited track time. With the automated Aurora system, GREX helped prioritize maintenance requirements, took screen shots of the images in question and emailed them to maintenance supervisors for potential repair action.
"Our customers can log on remotely to our server to get 2-D and 3-D images ... so they can digitally put eyes on every single tie in their system," says GREX Vice President of Engineering Greg Grissom. "They can look at the issue from their offices and make decisions from there."
While the Aurora system continues to be a staple inspection technology used by many freight and passenger railroads, GREX is busy readying its next-generation Aurora Xi™ system, which combines the Aurora backbone with backscatter x-ray technology to better probe the interior of all types of ties and track components.
"We took technology used to inspect aircraft and tailored it to track inspection," Grissom says. "Now, we can see inside the ties and see the problems. We can find hollow areas in the wood ties, where a track inspector previously might have looked at the surface and said, 'That's a good tie.'"
An Aurora Xi prototype is currently in operation, with two trucks equipped with the system currently in production in Texas, Grissom adds.
"The railroads have a great safety record, and they're doing it by implementing technology such as this," he says. "We are providing reliable track condition data to support maintenance prioritization."
For Herzog Railroad Services Inc., product research and development is not just talk — although talking plays a big role in the kinds of equipment and services the company provides, says Vice President of Marketing Tim Francis.
"We'll spend years researching and developing every product we offer. We talk to everyone, from those on the frontlines, right up to the VPs of engineering," he says. "We maintain a constant engagement with all of our customers."
It is that effort and engagement that helped play a role in the development of one of Herzog's most recent product: the Automated Tie Down Car. After years of discussion, development and collaboration, a Class I railroad will soon begin utilizing this car. It will be a signature moment for a product that responds to market demands for a safer, more cost-effective and timely rail train loading and unloading process, Francis says. And it is representative of Herzog's connection to its customers, he adds.
"The industry has been telling us that there is a need to develop a more efficient and safer way to unload," says Operations Manager Tim Shipley.
One of the Automated Tie Down Car's key features is evident in its name: It's automated. Rather than employing manual labor to manually clamp and unclamp rails, rail unloading crews using the Automated Tie Down Car can operate the remote control clamps safely from the ground. The solar-powered clamps are also energy efficient and delays generally associated with manual clamps will be eliminated, according to Shipley.
The Automated Tie Down Car is particularly effective when it is used in tandem with Herzog's mobile Rail Unloading Machine (RUM), company officials say. Developed in 2004, the RUM is designed to mechanically unload continuous welded rail from conventional rail trains. It takes about 15 minutes for the RUM to be coupled to a rail train and begin pulling rails, Shipley says.
"There's no need for chains, joint bars or any contact between personnel and the rail," he says.
But when coupled with the Automated Tie Down Car, rather than a traditional tiedown car, the rail unloading process becomes even faster and easier, Shipley adds. Releasing rail from a traditional tiedown car, which can take several minutes, can be accomplished with the Automated Tie Down Car in about 10 seconds. And the manual clamps can prove difficult to operate when over tightened and in adverse weather conditions.
"When you put them both together, all you need is two Herzog operators," Francis says. "You can minimize work windows and spend that time running revenue freight, and this is the safest and most efficient way to unload rail trains."
The time savings enables capacity-strained railroads to direct manpower and resources in other directions, Francis says — critical at a time when railroads continue to pour billions of dollars into capital improvements.
And like other Herzog products, the Automated Tie Down Car will continue to be refined and improved, based in large part on customer feedback.
"The ideas will continue to go back and forth," Francis says.
Going into their third year of track and crossing construction on the Chicago-St. Louis High-Speed Rail Corridor, the crews at RailWorks Track Services might have thought their jobs were getting easier with time.
"Each crossing is in a small town. Each one is a challenge," says Dan Gabrisko, a RailWorks project manager in Chicago. "You've got adjacent properties, grade issues and supplies you have to get into town ... without trying to disrupt things."
As projects in small Illinois towns such as Carlinville, Auburn, Lincoln and Girard proved this year, installing the track and crossings along the corridor at times has been daunting. But Gabrisko and other RailWorks project managers say it's the company's successful experience in dealing with the aforementioned challenges that is helping the corridor project move forward.
They also say it's important, trailblazing work — not only for RailWorks, but for the railroads, passengers and politicians who are closely watching this nascent high-speed rail corridor.
RailWorks Track Services crews — managed out of regional offices in Chicago and St. Louis — are constructing track and crossings to accommodate passenger trains slated to run up to 110 mph along the 284-mile corridor. RailWorks has been busy since 2012 working on Union Pacific Railroad track, which makes up more than 215 miles of the corridor. That work has focused on reconstructing track (switching out wood ties for stronger concrete ties) to allow for the higher-speed trains, as well as increasing capacity by adding sidings so freight trains can make way for the high-speed Amtrak trains to pass.
The entire project is slated for completion in 2017, ultimately shortening the trip from nearly six hours to less than four hours, making it the first high-speed rail corridor in the Midwest.
The 2014 work, valued at about $10 million, was concentrated in four areas on the UP segment of the high-speed rail corridor. At their peak, the projects employed three crews totaling about 35 people, Gabrisko says. The areas were:
In addition to rainy weather and regular rail traffic that affected all work, each project carried its own set of challenges, RailWorks project managers say.
In Lincoln, underground fiber optics and other utilities had to be relocated, crews were forced to unload on-track equipment in the middle of through-streets, and two rail spurs into a glass factory needed work, Gabrisko says. Work was delayed in Carlinville in order to gain the proper state permits, acquire land and relocate utilities, says Project Manager Rob Stephenson.
In Girard, where work was still underway as of press time, plans have continued to shift while waiting for UP and BNSF Railway Co. to complete turnouts.
"I've talked to a lot of sergeants and a lot of fire chiefs," says Stephenson, noting that coordination with local officials also is key to completing the work.
By year's end, RailWorks will have constructed 77,000 track feet on four sidings, including about 9 miles of new double main track.
And the work will continue next year and beyond. More track demolition and construction, and the addition of several miles of new mainline double track is slated for next year, with about 200 miles of the corridor able to handle 110 mph trains.
Team members expect more challenges, but they welcome them — it's a signature project with major implications for passenger rail in the United States.
"Once it proves itself, you're going to find a lot of people coming on board," Stephenson says. "It's going to be as quality a ride as you're going to get.
When the R. J. Corman Railroad Group got into the signaling business in early 2013, officials saw an opportunity to broaden the company's business offerings while providing customers one-stop contractor shopping. And R. J. Corman's recent experience with the Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) is an indication the company's bet appears to be paying off.
"There are not a lot of companies that can bring trackwork and signaling together in a single, vertical solution," says Mike Wilson, president of R. J. Corman Signaling L.L.C. "It gives us a competitive advantage."
R. J. Corman used that advantage earlier this year to complete a $2 million signaling and trackwork job for the FECR. The project marked not only a shift in thinking at the railroad — it validated R. J. Corman's new approach to capture multitask projects that aim to save customers money, time and aggravation, while also opening new business doors for R. J. Corman.
The project took shape in late 2013 as the railroad sought bidders for signaling, track and bridge work in Port Orange, Fla. Usually, FECR would have sought two or more contractors to handle the different work areas, Wilson says. R. J. Corman assured FECR that it could perform or oversee all aspects of the job, with different crews working simultaneously and sometimes in tandem, saving the railroad time and money, he adds.
So, under the watchful eye of FECR supervisors, R. J. Corman Signaling and R. J. Corman Railroad Construction took on the 3,000-foot mainline siding extension project. The work included:
R. J. Corman Railroad Construction was the prime contractor and provided project management across all disciplines, according to Eric West, president. All grading work, clearing and grubbing, concrete track construction, installing a number 24 turnout and track welding was completed by R. J. Corman crews; the bridge work, which wasn't complex, was outsourced to a local contractor, but coordinated and managed by R. J. Corman Railroad Construction, West says. All signal work was handled by R. J. Corman Signaling.
One of the biggest advantages of the dual R. J. Corman team was the ability to consolidate work equipment and to use some of the same general labor to perform both the track and signal work.
"It was nice to be able to move that labor and equipment around," Wilson says. "It led to fewer interruptions of railroad operations."
Communications between the two groups did prove tricky at times, however.
"We learned that we needed to have more meetings with each other and understand each other's problems better, and that's what we did," Wilson adds.
The project, which was completed in time and on budget this summer, proved successful not only for FECR but for R. J. Corman, as well. A 30-year veteran who's managed several signaling operations, Wilson sees similar opportunities in the future, including a Florida commuter-rail project.
"With the entire signal discipline under one roof, it creates unparalleled flexibility in serving customers," he says. "It enables the company to be flexible in making adjustments in task timelines, while keeping the overall project on track, and it allows the company to remain steadfast in driving safety, quality and efficiency."
Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, N.Y.-based freelance writer.