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by Michael Popke
Vegetation management is a fact of life for railroads, and it can be a challenge to keep pace with nature’s progress. “One thing is certain: Vegetation will continue to grow and require maintenance on rail lines nationwide,” said Scott Balderson, president and chief executive officer of Dymax Inc., which offers a range of railroad maintenance equipment.
What’s also certain is that manufacturers will continue to develop more versatile, compact and mobile ways to remove brush and other growth that can interfere with rail operations.
In recent years, however, the increased prevalence of the emerald ash borer and pine beetle has complicated vegetation management efforts in some parts of the United States.
An Asian beetle that feasts on species of ash trees and likely arrived in the United States in the early 2000s on wood packing material carried in cargo ships, the emerald ash borer has cost municipalities, property owners and forest products industries hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Michigan State University’s Emerald Ash Borer Information Network.
“Some areas have already been completely destroyed, leaving no ash remaining, but other areas are soon to be caught in the crosshairs,” said Mike Heridia, president of All Railroad Services Corp., a full-service vegetation management company that serves the rail industry. “Some of our customers are doing like most owners of public and privately owned rights-of-way and completely removing the ash trees before they die. When ash trees die, there is no root system left to hold them up. When this occurs, the cost of tree removal increases by up to 500 percent, because of the danger to the crews trying to remove it.”
Similarly, pine beetles attack old or weakened pine trees. Experts suggest that climate change has increased the size and severity of the pine beetle outbreak in North America. The insects, they say, have a significant effect on the capability of trees to remove greenhouse gases (or carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere.
The damage caused by pine beetles and the emerald ash borer are just a couple reasons suppliers of vegetation management equipment and services expect to be busy this year. Progressive Railroading recently asked a sampling of contractors and equipment providers to discuss their product offerings, as well as how 2016 is shaping up, business wise. Their emailed responses follow.
All Railroad Services Corp. (ARS) offers a variety of vegetation management services, including brush and tree cutting (both on-track and off-track), pole-line removal, wood-tie removal, land clearing projects and specialized cleaning of yard tracks. ARS also offers emergency services under the most extreme weather conditions to help keep trains rolling.
The company provides more than 300 pieces of equipment to Class Is, regionals, short lines and transit authorities in 26 states.
In terms of business activity, ARS officials expect 2016 to be better than 2015.
“Right-of-way maintenance isn’t something you can just stop,” President Mike Heridia said.
Part of Asplundh Tree Expert Co., Asplundh Railroad Division provides both herbicide and mechanical cutting services throughout North America, and has eight fleet and office facilities in the United States and Canada. The company’s services include cutting and mulching limbs, trees, vines and brush, as well as mowing, crossing maintenance, ballast or trackside brush spraying, and fire suppression services.
In addition to traditional hi-rail aerial lifts, chippers and spray trucks, Asplundh maintains a fleet of specialized units such as its Eco-Cutter dual-action cutting and spraying machine, hi-rail side trimmers with telescopic booms and a spray train that can hold up to 80,000 gallons.
With GPS and vehicle-locating technology installed in all of its vehicles, Asplundh can ensure railroad personnel know exactly where Asplundh crews are on the track and obtain an electronic record of where herbicides were applied or vegetation was cut.
“Over the last several years, we have been able to really adapt our operations to our customers’ needs for specialized technology and equipment,” said Regional Manager Randal Haines. “We’ve been able to improve efficiencies and reduce track time, which in turn enables our customers to expand their vegetation management programs and increase the overall amount of work completed on a yearly basis.”
The Brand Rail Tool is a brush-cutting product that also can be used to handle materials and move dirt. It features a 200-horsepower auxiliary engine, rail-car braking system, AAR couplers on each end of the machine and heavy-duty rail gear, and it can travel up to 30 mph on rail.
Among Brandt’s newest products is the RTB 130 hi-rail backhoe, a multimodal excavator and wheel loader in one versatile machine. Mounted on a John Deere 710 base chassis and powered by a 130-horsepower engine and high capacity hydraulics, the RTB 130 can accomplish a variety of tasks, including brush cutting, and its reach can extend 26 feet.
“Things are looking positive for 2016,” Sales Manager Shaun Gettis said. “We have expanded our sales team and are very excited for some of our new products coming on line.”
Dymax has a long history in rail maintenance, and it has an even longer one in providing attachments for vegetation management. The Dymax Limb Shear offers safe and fast pruning of branches and limbs. Meanwhile, the Dymax VortexMax resembles a mower and is designed to “obliterate vegetation of up to six inches in diameter,” President and CEO Scott Balderson said. As a result, the VortexMax “makes short work of small trees and runaway brush,” he added.
These work tools operate best on hydraulic excavators, he added, and when paired with the RailRider MP, they offer a complete hi-rail solution to vegetation management. The MP series of RailRiders is available in eight-, 12- and 20-ton excavator models, and the carts are propelled by the excavator’s hydraulic system without any modifications to the excavator. This enables the machine to be a high-rail workhorse, while also working in the right of way, under bridges and any other areas not accessible from the rail, Balderson said.
“Though Class I capital spending will be down somewhat in 2016, maintenance work will continue,” he added. “We believe that with our improved products and newly introduced products, along with demand from outside North America, sales growth will continue in 2016.”
Founded in 1972, K.W. Reese Inc. specializes in railroad right-of-way widening, danger tree removal and storm restoration services for railroads, private rail owners and transit authorities in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions.
The company performs most of its work with hi-rail-equipped bucket trucks, chippers and grapple trucks, which reduce the risk of flying debris from mechanized clearing equipment. Trees can be removed safely from just a few feet away from buildings and other structures, company officials said.
As a full-service railroad contractor, K.W. Reese also can perform other services during the same work window, including ditching, tie replacement and derailment cleanup, said President Jeffrey Reese. Crews are available around the clock.
Knox Kershaw offers a Diamond Mowers Inc. brush cutter attachment for its KSF 940 Snow Fighter/Ballast Regulator, which allows for the control of light brush and grass, the company said. Mower heads are available in rotary and flail styles.
The boom actuator comes with 90-degree movement forward and 75-degree movement backward. It also offers high-load bearing capacity and a breakaway feature to prevent stress on the boom. The brush cutter arms can be mounted on one or both sides of the machine, and the saw-blade option passes close to the track to cut through fallen debris.
“Our machine and parts sales remain strong in 2016 and we are always striving to improve and innovate,” said Sales Manager Jaky Felix. “In the vegetation control segment, we expect an increase in sales because more and more customers are discovering the brush cutter attachment and have been impressed.”
Loftness Specialized Equipment Inc. manufactures the VM Logix line of compact equipment for right-of-way vegetation management. The line includes mulching head attachments and compact mechanical tree trimmers designed to clear vegetation in areas larger equipment cannot easily access.
“We expect a strong 2016, as there is always a need to maintain right of ways,” said Product Development
Supervisor Bill Schafer. “Additionally, there is a lot of potential for compact equipment to play a much larger role in this industry, due to the increased efficiencies that can be gained.”
In January, Loftness introduced a redesigned mulching head for its Carbide Cutter line.
Available in 61- and 71-inch cutting widths, the new Carbide Cutter G4 features a larger variable-displacement piston motor to provide more torque and quicker recovery than previous models. It also boasts a new positive-cogged belt drive to more efficiently transfer horsepower to the rotor, and the primary shear bar is now adjustable to vary particle size and production rate.
Other additions include a redesigned body to help prevent internal build-up of debris, new skid shoe adjustments to allow grinding below grade and improved hose routing to reduce the chance of damage.
Mitchell Rail Gear’s vegetation management solution is “economical mobile equipment that can get on/off track quickly,” said President Estel
Lovitt Jr. Equipment offerings include the company’s track skid steer loader or backhoe loader equipped with Mitchell Rail Gear’s suspension system for traveling over uneven track. The track skid steer loader and backhoe loader — the backbone of many railroad track construction repair sites — can accommodate a variety of bucket, snow blower and brush cutter attachments.
“With the attachment system, machines can travel to overgrown vegetation areas and get off the track to take care of problem areas without shutting down the track for long periods of time,” Lovitt said. “The mobile equipment can be used in the winter for blowing snow off the rail and for vegetation control during the warm season.”
Lovitt expects strong sales this year, thanks to increased demand for versatile mobile construction equipment.
NMC Railway Systems continues to expand its line of hi-rail equipment to combat remote vegetation growth. One of the company’s most popular pieces of equipment is the CHX20E Hi-Rail Excavator, said Sales Manager Mark Anderson. The CHX20E features a 20-ton capacity and enables railroads and rail contractors to utilize multiple tool functionality, including brush cutters with a 36-inch diameter.
The flexibility of the CHX20E provides operators access to remote rail areas to manage potential overgrowth early in the season, the company said. When paired with a Rototilt, the operator has the ability to rotate the attachment head 360 degrees, allowing for full maintenance of vegetation overgrowth.
Combating vegetation early is key to controlling potential overgrowth, Anderson said. Pairing the brush cutter attachment with the hi-rail excavator provides operators access to remote track lines before trees bud.
“We’ve seen an increase in demand for machines that allow for multiple tool functionality like those in our hi-rail product line,” Anderson said. “Units from our hi-rail product line not only provide easier access to remote track lines for spot rail maintenance work, they also increase productivity on rail maintenance projects during open track windows.”
Rail Construction Equipment Co. (RCE) expanded its Railavator hi-rail excavator product line in 2015. Four new Railavator models now support a brush cutter and come in sizes of 85G, 135G, 245G and 250G, accommodating cutter heads up to 72 inches wide.
RCE’s brush cutters can be customized by excavator model (high rail and conventional) and size of tree grinding and brush clearing heads. The available mowing heads allow users to make clear and clean cuts without the hazards of flying debris.
“Uncontrolled vegetation is a safety and operational issue, so it continues to be a maintenance priority to our customers,” said Sales Manager Dennis Hanke. “We’ve noticed a mix of strategies in the current marketplace. Some railroads are building up their own maintenance fleets, while others are continuing to hire contractors.”
Michael Popke is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer. Email comments or questions to email@example.com.