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By Walter Weart
Tamping is a key component of railroads’ maintenance-of-way (MOW) operations, helping to improve track stability by ensuring ballast is packed tightly around the tie crib.
And railroads need a solid track structure to handle traffic volumes, which despite being down a tad from last year’s record levels are expected to rebound in the second half. To keep track stable without disturbing train schedules, MOW managers are trying to complete tamping projects quickly and efficiently.
Their methods: shortening work windows and testing and/or using new tamping equipment and techniques. Managers also are striving to employ gangs staffed with the right number of workers and armed with an optimal mix of equipment to maximize tamping productivity.
At BNSF Railway Co., MOW managers rely on large gangs, comprising seven or eight workers, to complete continuous-tamping projects covering 10 to 20 miles and two types of small gangs, typically comprising three workers, to handle smaller-scale projects. The different-sized crews enable the railroad to use its MOW workforce efficiently, says BNSF General Director of Roadway Equipment John Upward.
“A [small] gang support unit completes surfacing with major trackwork and a maintenance tamping unit takes care of slow orders, or switches or crossings,” he says.
Norfolk Southern Railway also employs large “super surfacing” gangs to tackle big tamping jobs and small gangs to complete routine track maintenance. Typically comprising three workers, small gangs complete maintenance jobs with a lead tamper and ballast regulator.
“A small work group ... is the right size for a smoothing gang with two pieces of equipment,” says Shane Thomason, NS’ process engineer-track.
The Class I’s four super gangs — comprising a foreman, nine machine operators and two trackmen — will surface about 2,200 miles of track this year. The gangs use two lead tampers, one backup tamper behind one lead machine and two backups behind the other lead, as well as a ballast regulator, track broom and track stabilizer behind the tampers.
“We have found that this variation of skip tamping works well in all situations,” says Thomason.
One size doesn’t fit all
At Union Pacific Railroad, large gangs also use a track stabilizer with high-production tampers when surfacing track. Comprising 20 to 25 workers, the “super” gangs typically tamp concrete-tie track on heavy-haul lines.
“The real advantage of the track stabilizer is it locks the ballast in place much faster than rail traffic would,” says UP Assistant Vice President of Engineering Craig Domsky, adding that the machine can help reduce the time a slow order or speed restriction must be in place after tamping is completed as much as 80 percent.
UP also employs smaller high-speed surfacing gangs, comprising 10 to 15 workers, and maintenance surfacing gangs staffed with three to seven workers.
“We size our gangs to fit the project,” says Domsky.
The railroad also tries to right-size work windows for tamping projects. UP follows a “passenger train concept” based on a model developed by European railroads to ensure tamping work minimally affects train operations. Work is done in short, allowable maintenance windows because of the density of European passenger trains, says Domsky. As many as 160 trains pass over certain sections of UP’s mainlines daily, so the railroad needs to coordinate materials, and schedule and complete work without relying on long windows, he says.
BNSF also is shortening tamping work windows through a Maintenance Excellence Program the railroad initially launched in late 2005 on its Chicago Division and rolled out systemwide in first-quarter 2007. Under the joint engineering and transportation department program, local planning office and subdivision mangers coordinate projects with structures and signals supervisors to plan the most effective way to accomplish work, says BNSF’s Upward. Interdepartmental planning and coordination provide about 15 percent more time for train operation, he says.
In theory, a real time saver
Hypothetically, work to be done on a 100-mile track segment over five days under BNSF’s former maintenance plan would require nine windows, some as short as one hour or as long as five hours. Windows would be dedicated to trackwork or signal/structures work only, with just a small amount of overlap, says Upward. The time to complete work would total 54 hours, including 40 hours when track would be out of service.
Under Maintenance Excellence, windows would be consolidated from nine to six, work days reduced from five to four and the same amount of work accomplished in 30 hours vs. 40 hours, says Upward.
At NS, gangs perform maintenance on non-traditional work days when traffic is lighter, and large-scale timber and surfacing projects are completed by multiple gangs during the same time block.
“This reduces the amount of time required to complete a large-scale project, which, in turn, reduces service disruptions,” says NS’ Thomason. “This is a trend we see being used with all types of program maintenance gangs in the future.”
NS also is attempting to speed up tamping projects by using different equipment. This year, the railroad began using two Plasser American Corp. 09-16 DYNA-C.A.T. high-speed, continuous-action tampers behind timber and surfacing gangs to maximize production, says Thomason. In addition, the Class I started to test a Plasser 09-2X-C.A.T. high-production tamper earlier this year.
Skipping to the best part
Plasser recently developed the 09-2X-C.A.T. based on “skip tamping” under which one production tamper is followed by one or two spot tampers. The machine comprises a custom-designed 09-16 C.A.T. tamper and integrated rear continuous-action tamping trailer. Plasser’s Automated Tie Locating Analyzing System maps tie location, then an on-board computer system controls both tamping units, which are mounted on their own individually moving satellite frames.
UP also uses a 09-16 DYNA C.A.T., along with automatic computer-controlled lifting, leveling and lining systems, and a dynamic track stabilizer, to speed up tamping work. In addition, the Class I’s super gangs use Plasser’s 09-3X Dynamic Tamping Express, which is designed to tamp three concrete ties at a time.
Plasser recently developed the 09-3X WOOD for wood-tie tamping. The machine features a computer system that maps the location of wood ties and adjusts the tamper’s arms to each tie’s spacing. If spacing exceeds a preset limit, the machine automatically shifts to single-tie tamping mode.
In April, BNSF began using a 09-3X WOOD, which can tamp wood ties two to three times faster than other machines, the railroad determined. BNSF plans to obtain a second 09-3X Dynamic Tamping Express for concrete ties — and its third 09-3X overall — in fall.
To boost the productivity of smaller tamping projects, BNSF’s small gangs use Harsco Track Technologies (HTT) Model 6700 machines for production and switch tamping. The machines feature Harco’s Jupiter control and AutoMag Tie Finder systems.
Introduced a few years ago, the Jupiter control system includes diagnostic features that continuously scrutinize each component as soon as the machine is turned on, says Chris Larson, HTT director of parts and equipment sales. Introduced recently, the AutoMag Tie Finder features a pair of sensors above each rail and can regulate the spread of where work heads are dropped. The addition of a tie finder results in a tamper with intelligent automatic indexing, which allows the machine to accommodate slight irregular spacing of wood ties, says Larson.
BNSF is incorporating the Jupiter system into older tampers when rebuilding the machines to simplify the wiring and attain other benefits, says BNSF’s Upward.
Currently, HTT is developing a 32-tool Project Gemini tamper featuring the Jupiter control system and AutoMag Tie Finder. Designed to be controlled by one operator, the machine uses a slightly modified Mark IV Tamper and incorporates a second set of workheads, which allows the machine to treat two non-adjacent ties at once, says Larson, adding that HTT expects to introduce the Project Gemini tamper in the fourth quarter.
“This machine has already shown itself to be very capable in tamping on both wood and concrete tie track with no interruption,” he says.
The load-down on ballast
Georgetown Rail Equipment Co. (GREX) also is in the midst of a project aimed at helping railroads improve tamping operations. The company is working with several roads to add GREX’s Solaris/GateSync systems to existing ballast cars. By year’s end, about 1,000 cars will be converted, including those in BNSF’s and CSX Transportation’s fleets.
GREX engineered Solaris, an electric over hydraulic ballast gate conversion kit, and GateSync, a synchronized ballast gate system, to function with individual cuts of cars in any multiple of two to 50. The enhancement allows railroads to use the same equipment in large track or small tonnage projects where a few cars are sufficient, says GREX VP of Marketing and Sales Lynn Turner.
The Solaris system’s automated, remote unloading hardware combined with GateSync can deliver the exact required amount of ballast at speeds up to 10 mph, he says. A GREX technician surveys track in advance to locate crossings, bridges and switches, and input the data into a computer. A worker riding in a locomotive cab uses the computer-generated unloading sequence to spread ballast.
Herzog Cos. Inc. is upgrading its ballast-unloading system, too. The company continues to enhance the Programmable Linear Unloading System, or PLUS Train, introduced in 2001. Operated by Canadian National Railway Co., Canadian Pacific Railway and other railroads, the PLUS train uses a preprogrammed survey linked to a Global Positioning System to unload ballast at speeds up to 20 mph.
The company is changing the PLUS system’s software and making a mechanical adjustment to enable the train to efficiently dump ballast for new construction projects, says Herzog VP of Marketing George Farris.
“Not all railroads want to slow the PLUS Train down for construction dumping,” he says. “When dumping new construction projects, the train must slow to 2 or 3 mph with a different number of doors open than when out-of-face dumping on mainlines at higher speeds.”
Piece of the action
Meanwhile, Nordco Inc. continues to offer the Nordco G2 ballast regulator as a component of railroads’ tamping operations. Powered by a 185-horsepower engine coupled with a pneumatically controlled four-speed transmission, the regulator features a single-person cab with wrap-around glass to improve visibility.
Ballast regulators are a part of CN’s tamping arsenal. The Class I’s large and small surfacing crews use one tamper and one regulator, or multiples of two to three tampers with several regulators and track stabilizers, behind gangs completing work associated with major tie and ballast rehabilitation programs, says CN spokesman Mark Hallman.
Similar to most railroads, CN relies on a variety of equipment and different-sized gangs to complete tamping projects and reopen corridors quickly.
“We use primarily 16-tool machines with a limited number of 32-tool machines, and have also incorporated ballast stabilizers, which allow a return to normal train speed after surfacing,” says Hallman.
Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.