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by Howard Ande
As rail traffic continues to increase in North America, work windows for maintenance-of-way (MOW) activities are becoming tighter. To perform MOW tasks more quickly and efficiently, railroads are seeking machinery that's versatile, productive and — as always — affordable. Count material handling and distribution equipment among that machinery.
Whether they're delivering rail, ballast or other materials to a job site, or repairing washed-out track, railroads want to do it accurately and effectively.
Material handling and distribution equipment suppliers are trying to cover those bases. They're also incorporating safety features because "safety is paramount," said Modern Track Machinery Inc. officials in an email.
In addition, railroads expect suppliers to develop equipment that lowers the overall cost of ownership, said Harsco Rail officials in an email.
"Everyone's costs are increasing and track time is at a higher premium than ever before," they said. "It is incumbent on us to work collectively with the railroads and material suppliers to find the best solutions."
Progressive Railroading contacted nine material handling and distribution equipment suppliers via email to determine how they're coming up with and providing those solutions. Their emailed responses follow.
Brandt Road Rail Corp. offers a specialized Pole Grapple designed to work with the company's OTM Tracker to distribute steel or wood communication poles more productively. The company developed it late last year for Union Pacific Railroad.
Railroads are implementing positive train control the next few years and one of the larger physical projects associated with it is the distribution and erection of poles that will hold some of the communication equipment and related infrastructure, Brandt officials said.
The OTM Tracker has the "correct reach and lift capacity," and Brandt has developed a specialized grapple to handle the poles efficiently and safely, they said. The company offers the equipment for purchase or as a contracted service in the United States. The service provides railroads an option to quickly increase their ability to distribute poles to help meet the tight PTC deadline, Brandt officials said.
A machine's productivity is key to help railroads reduce the amount of track time needed to perform MOW tasks, and the OTM Tracker is a productive handler for other track material (OTM), they said.
Harsco Rail has been involved with track renewal and construction for more than 100 years, so company officials "appreciate the need to get materials to and from the work site," they said. The company offers the Harsco TRT-909 Track Renewal System, which uses tie cars designed to supply up to 5,000 concrete ties per day. The same cars can transport 6,000 used wood ties away from the machine daily.
Introduced in late 2004, the system is designed to remove and replace ties, pull and reclaim spikes, remove and collect rail anchors, remove and install rail, heat rail with induction rail heaters and automatically apply McKay-type rail fastenings.
Harsco Rail also is analyzing supply lines from "cradle to grave," company officials said. For example, since 2009, Harsco Rail has offered the Rail Renewal System (Model RRS), a self-contained unit designed to carry enough OTM to complete rail renewal work on two miles of track per day. The RRS can handle epoxy in 250 gallon totes, bulk insulators and clips in large parachute bags, and pads delivered in large boxes, as well as collect old insulators in a cyclone separator while pads are discarded in dumpsters.
The company also has introduced the OctoPuller, a new spike puller that has the capacity to pull eight spikes at a time, they said. Scheduled to be delivered in spring, the puller features an optional magnetic spike collector that can pick up spikes after they've been pulled. The OctoPuller eliminates the need for a separate spike collecting machine in a work equipment consist, Harsco Rail officials said.
The Automated Tie Down Car is the most recent development in Herzog Railroad Services Inc.'s (HRSI) equipment arsenal. Production on the car began in 2010 and the company expects it to be ready for demonstrations in March.
The technology has the ability to revolutionize the way rail trains are unloaded, HRSI officials said, adding that the tie down car can increase the level of safety and efficiency during the rail unloading process.
"The old fashioned way of manually clamping and unclamping rail will soon be replaced by a wireless remote control system. With the flip of a switch, the clamp can be either opened or closed," they said. "This can be accomplished from the operator end of the train, thus keeping personnel out of potential harms way."
HRSI also has developed a LIDAR truck that can help make ballast distribution more efficient, HRSI officials said. The truck is designed to scan a track's surface and determine the amount of ballast that needs to be distributed per a template provided by a railroad.
Railroads are facing challenges when using cranes for material handling and distribution because certified crane operators require specific training and there are no outside party training operators for the railroad industry, Hytracker Manufacturing Ltd. officials said. However, excavator operators are more readily available, and although they need some specific training for using lift charts and other specific applications, they can be trained in a few days to use the equipment safely and efficiently, they said.
Customers now are using excavators on Hytracker carts with magnets and grapples to carry out projects that previously employed small utility cranes.
"This avoids operators requiring crane certification ... [and] avoids the requirement of the crane equipment itself being periodically tested and passing inspection due to lattice boom design," Hytracker officials said.
Excavators on Hytracker carts are designed to more efficiently handle heavier loads, and can do so without being prone to the damage that typical crane booms are vulnerable to, they said. Due to their longer cycle operating times, cranes are not as efficient to operate as excavators using a grapple or magnet attachment.
Hytracker also provides tow carts designed to haul additional pieces of machinery not equipped with their own carts or with hi-rail capability to reach remote job sites. The carts have the capacity to haul additional equipment weighing up to 50 tons without a work train or other hauling device, Hytracker officials said.
Since 1993, Georgetown Rail Equipment Company (GREX) has offered equipment and services to the rail industry for handling maintenance-of-way materials. That equipment includes the Dump Trains, which continue to be a best practice method of ballast delivery for many jobs, including routine maintenance, new track construction, crossing rehabilitation and washout recovery, GREX officials said. The Dump Train can unload ballast at a rate of up to 2,000 tons per hour with one operator and features a 1,500-ton capacity.
Last year, the Dump Train's ability to unload directly in front of itself proved invaluable to restoring service along BNSF Railway Co., Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad mainlines after extreme flooding in the Midwest crippled key routes, GREX officials said.
GREX also offers the Slot Machine and Self-Powered Slot (SPS™), both of which comprise multiple endless gondola cars equipped with an onboard excavator situated safely on the car floor. Introduced in 2000, the SPS features its own motive power, so it doesn't require a work train. It allows for remote-control operation, requiring only one operator in work mode, GREX officials said. The company has undertaken a program to upgrade SPS units to include "zero turn radius" excavators and other enhancements to accommodate a more effective use of track time.
Both types of Slot Machines are equipped with an oversize bucket, grapple, magnet, rail dog and other specialty implements for performing various tasks, such as ditching, tie pick up, tie set out, and picking up and setting out OTM. Introduced in 1993, the Slot Machines have no limiting bulk heads between cars, allowing for higher payloads and uninterrupted work along an entire consist.
Last year, the company introduced its newest service, Ballast Saver, a high-tech and "extremely accurate enhancement" to the GateSync service that preceded it, GREX officials said. Ballast Saver uses LIDAR technology, an encoder wheel and videography to measure an existing ballast profile. The system then compares the data to a customer's "ideal" profile and determines the exact amount of ballast needed to bring the ballast shoulder up to specifications, GREX officials said. The data is fed directly into the GateSync system for precise and automated ballast delivery at speeds up to 10 mph, they said.
Railroads continue to outsource many functions they previously performed themselves, including offloading rail.
"This has allowed L.B. Foster to enhance the range of services that are provided to include project management," L.B. Foster Co officials said. "Upon request, L.B. Foster will provide a crew and oversee a railroad's rail unloading activities."
In addition, railroads are continuing to move away from using stick rail (individual pieces of rail that require joints) and toward more welded or ribbon rail in track replacement and expansion projects. As a result, L.B. Foster developed rail trains to transport and deliver continuous-welded rail (CWR) to railroads. The company has offered CWR trains for 30 years and currently manages a fleet of three trains.
L.B. Foster has begun to use two-car multiple threader box unloaders to more efficiently offload CWR. The two-car unloaders provide both vertical and horizontal control of the rail as it's unloaded from a CWR train, L.B. Foster officials said.
To enhance safety while unloading, the company added safety stops in the slide channels of the vertical control rollers on pan-cars. Safety railings also were installed on all walkways of the trains.
Over the past year or so, L.B. Foster officials have begun to observe a new trend called curve patch unloading, they said. Short strings of rail are unloaded in various locations, typically curves, along tracks. A CWR train travels to a location, is pulled into position and unloads a certain amount of rail, which is cut to a predetermined length, and then everything is tied down, L.B. Foster officials said. The train then travels to the next designated location and repeats the process.
Loram Maintenance of Way Inc. offers the Raptor Rail Handling System, which can outperform traditional rail handling systems with double the production and provide a better solution for the entire process of rail relay as opposed to a system focused solely on rail delivery, company officials said.
The current North American rail train fleet is using antiquated technologies that do not provide the productivity or safety that railroads are demanding, company officials believe.
The rail handling system can diminish the risk of injury by reducing human interaction with the rail, they said. Introduced in 2005, the Raptor system is designed to provide a stable and ergonomic work station that locks the rail in place mechanically when there's a need for an operator to come in physical contact with the rail.
"As railroads look to renew rail train fleets in the coming years, there will be an opportunity for firms that can increase the productivity and safety of rail train operations," Loram officials said. "Productivity and process improvements will lower the overall cost of rail logistics. This will be done through increased handling capacity and the ability to pick up and transport rail in a state that allows it to be easily relayed or scrapped."
The Raptor system's loading productivity exceeds 3,000 feet per hour and is relay rail ready. The unloading production rate exceeds 15,000 feet per hour. The equipment is designed to retain total control of rail while loading and unloading.
Since 2005, Loram has experienced zero injuries, and its rail handling crews have logged a total of 2,117 days without a lost-time injury, company officials said.
Modern Track Machinery Inc. (MTM) recently delivered its Model R 1609 SC crane car to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The equipment consists of a flat car with rails that enable a mobile crane to travel the length of the car. The crane car can handle 39-foot track panels and OTM as a self-contained unit, MTM officials said.
"The design allows the customer to increase productivity and efficiency in the tight confines of tunnels," they said. "This is a clearance-restricted environment that is very common on the various transit agencies around the country."
Rail Construction Equipment Co. (RCE) is responding to recent trends by trying to reconfigure conventional Deere construction equipment to distribute OTM for rail maintenance.
Last year, the company redesigned a swing loader to offer a more modern swing system and gear motor. The swing loader features a higher swing torque and increased reliability because there are no chains that can break while swinging the boom, RCE officials said
The company also continues to modify its hi-rail excavators, such as to work at the front of steel gangs as an alternative to using cranes or to help distribute and handle rail. In spring, RCE plans to introduce two new models: a larger unit (350G) and smaller unit (135D). In summer, the company might introduce another unit that would serve the compact-size excavator market using an 85D excavator, RCE officials said.
Howard Ande is a Bartlett, Ill.-based free-lance writer.