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— By Walter Weart
When it comes to rail defects, out of sight certainly is not out of mind — what you don't know can hurt you. To that end, a number of track inspection equipment and service suppliers have offerings that are designed to help railroads and transit agencies test and inspect track. And suppliers are continually improving their offerings.
Progressive Railroading recently contacted a cross-section of track inspection and rail defect detection equipment suppliers to talk products and services, and improvements to same. Responses from eight of them follow.
During the past year, ENSCO Inc. has updated its contract testing services, track inspection systems, staffed vehicles and autonomous inspection systems on locomotives, passenger equipment and freight cars, said Director of ATE Commercial Operations Jeff Stevens in an email.
ENSCO's testing service has launched the Comprehensive Track Inspection Vehicle (CTIV), a hi-rail-based platform that provides an array of measuring and machine vision technology, including track geometry, rail profiling, third-rail geometry, joint bar inspection, roadbed inspection and right-of-way video recording.
The technologies are synchronized with precise GPS positioning, enabling end users to correlate measurements with video imaging of the track, Stevens said. Since its release this past spring, the CTIV has been "actively involved" in testing at Class Is, short lines and transit operations, he added.
The company also has new products designed for use on track inspection vehicles, including a Rail Temperature Measurement System that can be used on both the running and third rails to collect continuous readings from a moving platform. When rail temperature measurement is used on the running rails, the system — when coupled with ENSCO's joint bar inspection system —provides an automated measurement of rail gap at joint locations, Stevens said. Assessing the combined values of rail gap and temperature, users can assess the risk of track buckles or rail pull-aparts automatically.
Also released earlier this year: a Track Circuit Inspection System used to inspect coded track circuits such as those used in cab signaling. The system uses antennas from the moving inspection car to record and assess the signals within the track, and report on areas of deficiency.
ENSCO has delivered Third Rail Temperature Measurement and Track Circuit Inspection systems to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as part of a new track geometry vehicle that incorporates an array of inspection systems to include geometry, rail profile, third rail position, platform clearance, video, thermal imaging and ultrasonic inspection equipment. Additionally, a rail temperature and gap measurement system will be delivered to a Class I by year's end, Stevens said.
ENSCO also has made "significant advances" in its autonomous inspection systems business line using unattended revenue service platforms, Stevens said. The approach enables continuous testing without requiring a dedicated measuring vehicle to occupy track.
The system couples advanced measuring systems with wireless communications and intelligent software processing engines to automatically produce measurement reports compliant with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) or specific railroad standards.
Two systems were delivered in 2012: one in the United States and one in Australia, Stevens said. A third system is scheduled for delivery to a Class I by year's end.
Georgetown Rail Equipment Co. (GREX), which has been providing track inspection services since 2003, continues to invest in "ambitious R&D initiatives related to the Aurora Track Inspection System," said Vice President of Marketing and Sales Lynn Turner in an email.
As of mid-October, Aurora had inspected "significant track miles" for BNSF Railway Co., he added, noting that the project has given GREX the opportunity to "provide an expansive snapshot of overall tie conditions while improving the system's robustness, quality of data and inspection abilities."
Based on a hi-rail truck platform, the Aurora Track Inspection System uses machine-vision technology to capture and record the track condition in a three-dimensional environment.
Customer-specific algorithms assess tie condition variables at very high rates of speed, providing consistent implementation of tie grading standards.
"The consistency of the grading model and the ability to inspect an entire system in one calendar year leads to reliable comparisons of tie requirements that are specific to geographic regions and their uniqueness," Turner said. "This reduces the variability due to deterioration experienced in between the time the inspection occurred and when the tie project is complete."
By partnering with customers, the company has mutually identified and implemented "new features and abilities" to improve Aurora's functionality, he added.
One example: improved adzed tie detection. After examining more than 60 locations encompassing 13 subdivisions, GREX found that adzed ties were a challenge for both Aurora and tie inspectors.
"By modifying our algorithms, we were able to detect these adzed ties and apply a new logic that would account for the depth of adzing to more consistently apply the grading standard," Turner said.
And by implementing intelligent tie heuristics, the company has been able to "better find ties in areas that have traditionally hindered visual inspections," he said, adding that the areas in question include mud spots, partially ballast-covered ties or ties that exceed traditional tie spacing standards.
"Many other improvements, such as better curve, crossing and switch detection, improved joint and weld detection, and a more refined plate cut algorithm, have also been implemented," Turner said.
Holland L.P. operates a fleet of 12 TrackSTAR® hi-rail track testing vehicles in North America, and serves more than 100 railways and transit systems for contract testing each year, said Vice President and General Manager of Railway Measurement Systems and Services Robert Madderom in an email.
Holland's fleet of TrackSTAR vehicles use MERMEC, ENSCO and KLD measurement systems. All systems are non-contact, laser optical measurement systems.
"Testing over 65,000 miles each year, the TrackSTAR fleet and operations team provides track geometry, rail wear profile and track gauge strength services to our customers," he said.
TrackSTAR units also feature Holland's split, loading axle technology. Loaded gauge is measured under about 10,000 pounds lateral and 15,000 pounds for vertical loading. This non-destructive gauge loading provides an "excellent measurement of the reserve gauge strength and rail cant measurement under load," Madderom said.
Holland also uses Rail Vision machine vision technology to provide an automated assessment of track condition. Currently, the technology is used to assess wood and concrete crossties, providing classification and condition assessment. Line scan machine vision data and lasers are used to provide an assessment of tie condition and plate cutting. This data is aligned with the TrackSTAR reserve strength assessment of gauge to provide a more thorough and objective measurement of tie and track condition, Madderom said.
The company also provides Rangecam track planning software that can import all track condition measurement systems, including: geometry, rail wear, track strength, tie assessment, rail-flaw, and other condition data. Rangecam's reporting includes rail and tie replacement planning, and other track assessment and condition reporting capabilities.
"We feel that there are tremendous opportunities in the measurement field related to system reliability, uptime, data quality and cost improvements," Madderom said. "Technology has continued to evolve in the geometry and optical measurement field, and we will see significant advancement in the next couple years."
And as technology advances, Madderom expects there will be a broader use of core geometry measurement technology in both attended and unattended applications.
"This is driven by the constant need for objective condition assessment, improved safety and reduction in cost," he said. "Additionally, today's early stages of automated optical condition assessment will continue to evolve into more reliable platforms that have potential to significantly enhance objective assessment of the entire track."
Loram Maintenance of Way Inc. offers customized track inspection service solutions to help customers address "their own unique challenges in a cost-effective way," said Vice President of Asset Management Darwin Isdahl in an email.
To achieve the goal, the company uses a combination of different technologies. For example, Loram's hi-rail Rail Inspection Vehicle (RIV) is used by a range of Class Is and transit railroads in North America. The RIV is equipped with a two-camera optical transverse profile measurement system that measures the profile of both rails in real time, and collects data to support rail grinding quality control.
The RIV also is equipped with a high-resolution image acquisition system used to collect and display blur-free images of the railhead.
The system details pitting and surface cracking on the top-of-rail surface.
"Our customers not only demand the technology to inspect and collect data from the rail — they want the expertise to help them understand the data in a way that will benefit their bottom line," Isdahl said. "On one North American transit system, modifications were made to the RIV systems to allow storage of virtually continuous photos of the top of the rails. This enabled the study of rail surfaces remotely at any time."
Loram's RIVs have inspected more miles each year, with annual track miles totaling more than 60,000 as of mid-November, Isdahl said.
"Comparisons have been recently made to determine whether the automated method of inspecting achieves a closer conformance to the desired rail shape than the manual method," he said. "As a whole, rails that are ground with the RIV plan achieve a measurably better result in this conformance."
For railroads, extending rail life without jeopardizing worker safety is key.
"While we haven't had direct requests on how to accomplish this, our efforts in studying crack growth and determining the minimum removal required are a result of collaborative efforts with several railroads," Isdahl said. "This continues to evolve as the results of changing external factors, such as lubrication practices, themselves evolve."
While corrugation has been a transit-system focus during the past several years, a few heavy-haul railroads since have noted a recurring problem in isolated locations, Isdahl said. When it has occurred, Loram has "assisted in troubleshooting the problem and determining preventive solutions, such as alternative rail profiles," he added.
Meanwhile, Loram's track inspection service continues to evolve.
"We have several technology partners we work with to ensure we are using the latest and greatest rail inspection technology out there," Isdahl said. "Since our service isn't a one-size-fits all, it's not a pre-packaged deal."
Accordingly, Loram uses several systems that address rail profile, crack detection and rail corrugation. The company also continues to add more RIVs to its fleet based on demand. Additionally, systems inspection systems now operate in Australia, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil and Mexico.
MERMEC Inc. specializes in high-speed, non-contact measurement systems that are used by track owners and railway operators to provide key information to ensure safe operation and reduced maintenance costs.
The company has made "a number of improvements in the past year, announcing an enhanced platform, reducing the size of the equipment needed, using two optical scanner 'boxes' instead of six, making the equipment lighter in weight," said President Luca Ebreo. The company also is using digital cameras to further enhance performance.
MERMEC's first North American system is being installed on an inspection car operated by The Iron Ore Co. of Canada (IOC), which operates the Quebec North Shore & Labrador Railway. IOC is Canada's largest iron-ore producer.
"The car, which will be completed in November, will be used in tests for track inspection," said MERMEC Sales Engineer Tom Skiro.
The company also is delivering its first hi-rail vehicle to a Class I; the vehicle features "the first of its kind" track geometry equipment, Skiro said.
"We will have both our V•Cube and joint bar inspection system to provide full profile using two cameras instead of four cameras," he said, adding that V•Cube combines video inspection with defect measurement and is based on several systems that have been used in Europe. "We have conducted testing at TTCI and have tuned our algorithms to match the track being tested so we can be even more precise."
In 2013, MERMEC plans to conduct tests on New Jersey Transit track in a joint program with the FRA and Zeta-Tech.
"These tests will include our switch inspection imaging technology," Skiro said.
The company also is preparing proposals for track geometry and rail profile systems for two Class Is.
"We will be offering both attended and unattended platforms," Ebreo said.
Modern Track Machinery Inc. (MTM) recently introduced dual (Model FILUS X-27) and single- sided (Model FILUS X-17) ultrasonic rail testing units, which were in development for about 18 months, said General Sales Manager Alan Reynolds.
"The Model FILUS X-27 will scan for defects in both rails while the FILUS X-17 scans one rail at time," he said. "Each has its advantages."
Both units check for flaws, fissures, bolt hole cracks and other defects in the rail, and provide the user the flexibility to check rail as needed and not wait for a scheduled inspection vehicle to run its normal cycle.
"The customer can replace the rail and have documented tests for each section they complete on a weekly basis," Reynolds said. "This is desirable when there are numerous outages during the same project."
MTM recently sold two FILUS X-17 units and two GS-2T portable weld testers for "confirmation of the rail being installed on a project in Chicago," Reynolds said.
The company can offer a portable solution for ultrasonics as well as track geometry instruments, including:
Nordco Inc. recently unveiled a new product: Flex, an inspection carriage that can be towed by a hi-rail vehicle that enables users to perform "ultrasonic rail inspections as well as the railroads normal track inspection procedures during the same pass," said Nordco Rail Services & Inspection Technologies President Pat Graham. The result: reduced time the track will be unavailable for regular service.
Nordco also has updated its exclusive XL9-11 wheel probe technology by increasing the search capability that allows for the use of fewer transducers to accomplish the same results. This makes the carrier smaller, lighter and towable, Graham said.
The carriage can be attached to a Class III hitch with a two-inch square receiver, and it can be placed in the "travel" position for off-rail moves, which allows for better utilization of the railroad's assets. The computer is placed in the cab of the truck, and can be quickly and easily configured, Graham said.
"We use our 'Run on Run' technology, which offers a number of enhancements such as a stored database of all types of defects and scans against the database, providing the operator with an on-screen alert," he said.
The Run on Run technology, which stores past inspections and compares the current inspection with the previous one, is now available on all 50 trucks in Nordco's service fleet.
TUV - Rail Sciences Inc. offers MRail, a ballast stiffness detection system. MRail is "the only system that can provide total track deflection," said President Gary Wolf.
After completing "significant" testing, the company is taking MRail commercial and recently completed a project for the Indiana Rail Road Co. (IRR), he said.
"They have experienced an increase in tonnage across the line and used an MRail-equipped car to develop data to use in setting a maintenance strategy," Wolf said.
The MRail-equipped car spent four days at the IRR and enabled the regional to pinpoint areas that required attention. Two Canadian railroads also used an MRail-equipped car to perform inspections and found a cracked weld missed by other inspection equipment, Wolf said.
"We have another program where a Class I tests a heavy-haul section monthly and uses the data to evaluate the track," he said. "We are talking with another Class I about providing MRail-equipped cars for continuous use over their tracks."
MRail detection equipment also will be added to an FRA track geometry car. The company also is in discussions with an Australian heavy-haul railroad to outfit an ore car to provide continuous measurements, Wolf said.
"We also are working with our sister company, TUV-LGA, to integrate ground penetrating radar with the MRail system," he said. "The LGA system has been tested at speeds up to 60 mph in Europe. At the same time, they are preparing to increase the weight of the test cars from 263,000 to 286,000 pounds."
Meanwhile, the company also has upgraded the hardware and software used in connection with Vertical Rail Stiffness Equipment, or VERSE®, and now has a calibration center in Atlanta. Many transit systems and Class Is now require testing with VERSE equipment in connection with any new continuous-welded rail construction, Wolf said.
— Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.