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— by Walter Weart
During the past 18 months, the sluggish economy has slowed business for many rail industry suppliers. Companies that provide special trackwork, including frogs, diamonds and turnouts, can attest to that.
However, the recovering economy, renewed interest in high-speed rail in the United States and Class Is' quest for track components that offer improved ride quality at a reduced cost is spurring demand for new special trackwork products. So, the onus is on suppliers to continue stressing research and development to improve and expand their offerings.
"We are constantly doing R&D, and investing in engineering and quality control," says Phil Pietrandrea, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Unitrac Railroad Materials Inc., a Healey Railroad Corp. subsidiary that supplies various special trackwork, and distributes new and relay rail.
Not only are railroads "constantly asking" Unitrac to add different products to its special trackwork line, but high-speed rail should be a burgeoning market in addition to a transit market that's already growing, he says.
Unitrac also is working closely with railroads to incorporate their suggestions into track component improvements and enhancements.
"We are looking at other products, and while there are fewer producers, the railroads don't want to become dependent on one or two suppliers," says Pietrandrea.
Unitrac recently obtained two special trackwork orders: a $7.2 million, three-year contract from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and a $2.2 million contract from MTA Metro-North Railroad.
Some new business can be traced to a key acquisition in 2007: Donovan's Explosive Hardening & Track Solutions Inc. Unitrac gained additional product development and production capabilities from the deal, says Pietrandrea.
Donovan's Danvers, Ill., plant produces manganese trackwork, such as railbound manganese inserts, self-guarded frogs and manganese crossings. The facility also machines and finishes castings, and provides explosive depth hardening (EDH) services for products used in Class I and transit applications.
Although Unitrac hasn't made any recent product additions because of the acquisition, the company has been producing a wide range of diamond crossings during the past 18 months, says Pietrandrea.
VAE Nortrak North America Inc. also is deriving benefits from a recent acquisition. In March 2009, the firm purchased Leading Edge Enterprises Inc., which supplies specialty track components.
Leading Edge's Decatur, Ill., plant can custom design and produce a wide range of specialty products, including those involving injection-molded plastic, custom fabrication, tooling, cast ductile iron and cast manganese steel, says VAE Nortrak Chief Technical Officer Brian Abbott.
New cast manganese frog designs the company has added to its trackwork line have "shown great acceptance" in the market, he says. A jump frog has been used successfully in applications involving a low volume of diverging traffic moving at low speed, says Abbott.
The frog's two-casting assembly is designed to preserve a continuous gap-free running rail on a through route, virtually eliminating frog maintenance. Depending on a wear profile, wheels traverse the frog in either tread or flange bearing mode. The distribution of wheel loading yields significant frog life improvements, says Abbott.
VAE Nortrak — whose Birmingham, Ala., plant marked the production of its 20,000th frog on April 28 — also offers a partial flange-bearing frog designed for yard and terminal applications.
The flange-bearing model is a hybrid of a conventional self-guarded frog and "pure" flange-bearing frog. Similar to the jump frog, wheels traverse the partial flange-bearing frog in either tread- or flange-bearing mode depending on a wear profile, extending the frog's life, says Abbott.
In addition, VAE Nortrak supplies welded boltless manganese (WBM) and welded spring manganese (WSM) premium welded frogs. Both the WBM and WSM are designed to eliminate bolted joints that are typical of conventional RBM and spring frogs, reducing dynamic loading, cutting maintenance requirements and extending product life, says Abbott.
Class Is have accumulated tonnages exceeding 650 million gross tons on WBM frogs with "very little maintenance," he says.
Earlier this year, VAE Nortrak also introduced a "Hytronics" line of switch drive systems featuring electronic-over-hydraulic technology, which Abbott characterizes as "the most significant addition" to the company's product portfolio in 2010. The Hytronics line was developed by VAE Nortrak's European parent company.
The name "Hytronics" was coined to signify the division's dual specializations in hydraulics and electronics, says Ken Ouelette, division manager-Hytronics for VAE Nortrak.
Hytronic drive systems are designed to deliver hydraulic power to switch points. The systems feature independent modules to lock and detect a switch-point position. Power is distributed along a switch point hydraulically vs. electrically through additional motors, or mechanically through assist mechanisms attached to the main throwing rod.
"We are currently adapting the Hytronics drives to meet the specific operating and maintenance requirements of North America," says Abbott, adding that VAE Nortrak expects to soon begin fabricating Hytronics systems in the United States.
The Hytronics line includes a Contec CSV-24 system designed for transit and tramway applications — which currently is used in North America — Contec Unistar-HR system designed for ballasted transit and commuter-rail applications, and Hydrostar system tailored for higher-speed applications requiring multiple drive points.
The Hydrostar system is designed to activate and lock multiple setting points over the length of a turnout, including the moveable point frog. Hydraulic drive/locking cylinders and obstruction detectors are integrated into hollow steel ties at every setting location to provide double positive locking independent of the drive unit and simplify the interface with a railroad's signal systems.
"We feel Hydrostar offers an optimal solution for higher-speed freight and passenger turnouts that require multiple setting points," says Abbott.
Because some railroads have begun to recognize that improved turnout geometry is an effective means of increasing component life with minimal incremental cost, VAE Nortrak is developing and testing the "HAL super turnout" at the Transportation Technology Center Inc.'s (TTCI) heavy-axle load loop, he says. The installation has "demonstrated that improved geometry can yield a 50 percent reduction in dynamic lateral force and significantly extend maintenance cycles," says Abbott.
VAE Nortrak also is developing a range of high-speed turnouts tailored for the North American market.
"We are optimistic that the development of high-speed rail infrastructure will have a significant positive impact upon the equipment and trackwork supply industries," says Abbott, adding that VAE Nortrak can draw on the "extensive high-speed experience" of its European affiliates.
Progress Rail Services Corp. also is encouraged that the development of high-speed rail could boost production for all of its North American trackwork facilities, said Jeff Harris, national sales manager-trackwork, in an email. The company's diverse businesses, such as engineering and track services or locomotive and rail-car services, will help Progress Rail become a major contributor to the high-speed rail market, he said.
During the past few years, the company has added several flange-bearing products to its line. Developed with input from railroads, the products can reduce impacts on special trackwork and help increase track speeds, said Harris.
Currently, more than 200 of the supplier's lift frogs are in use on all Class Is' networks. The mainline rail through the lift frog does not have any gap or joint like conventional frogs, said Harris.
Progress Rail also is testing a full flange-bearing crossing diamond in North Dakota, where double track crosses single track and train speeds vary from 25 mph to 40 mph. The crossing was designed for 60 mph mainline traffic, said Harris. Progress Rail is monitoring the crossing and testing new flange bearing materials; so far, the diamond needs less maintenance and has improved ride quality, said Harris.
Progress Rail currently offers a One-Way Low Speed (OWLS) crossing diamond, which is used in North America. The company has incorporated a universal casting design for the OWLS that can be used for multiple crossing angles, he said, adding that the design should result in reduced lead times.
Progress Rail also has developed a combination flange-bearing/tread-bearing yard frog per a railroad customer request. The company is optimistic the frog will be as successful as its other flange-bearing products, said Harris.
Recently, Progress Rail has made strides in reducing impacts in all frogs' heel area. The firm's Clamp Tite rail brace has proven to provide five times the holding power of other braces, said Harris.
In terms of other R&D, railroads and TTCI currently are reviewing switch point and stock rail geometry to reduce impacts and wear, he said. In addition, Progress Rail is trying to provide the most "maintenance free" products in the industry and reduce trackwork lifecycle costs for all customers, said Harris.
Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.