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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
As teenage boys can attest, beards grow back thicker after shaving. The same thing happens to vegetation along railroad rights of way. One or two years after brush is cut, the foliage grows back three times as thick.
To control plant growth along track or at grade crossings, a mechanical brush cut should be followed by annual herbicide sprays for one, two or more years, vegetation management companies say.
“With spraying, the vegetation won’t grow back,” says Craig Mercier, owner of Mercier’s Inc., which offers on- and off-track brush cutting, and weed spraying services to the North American rail industry. “And spraying is less expensive than cutting.”
Norfolk Southern Railway has used the approach the past two years and CSX Transportation is just beginning to implement the cutting/spraying programs, says Mercier. And other railroads are starting to apply different herbicides to eradicate pesky weeds at specific crossings or use different equipment to cut overgrowing brush as quickly as possible.
To meet each road’s vegetation management needs, service providers and equipment suppliers are trying to refine the art. They’re customizing services, applying new chemicals and upgrading machinery. But it’ll take more customizing and innovating to develop vegetation management processes that are effective, yet don’t tie up track time, service providers and equipment suppliers say.
And there’s an ongoing problem that needs to be resolved in the meantime: herbicide-resistant weeds.
For the past five years, DeAngelo Brothers Inc. (DBI) officials have worked with University Partners to test products used in the agricultural industry that show promise in controlling resistant weeds along rights of way. So far, three herbicides have been adopted for rail applications, says Wayne Hug, vice president of DBI, which offers vegetation management services to freight and passenger railroads. The herbicides include Dow AgroSciences L.L.C.’s Milestone™, which is effective on mares tail, and Valent USA Corp.’s Payload® that helps control kochia and pigweeds, he says.
“You can’t use the same chemistry year after year and expect it to do the job,” says Hug. “Repeated uses of the same chemistry is the single largest contributing factor to resistant weed development.”
As rail traffic increases each year, vegetation management firms need to take up less track time, too. So, All Railroad Services Corp. (ARS) is developing additional off-track brush cutting and spraying services, says Vinnie Vaccarello, who declined to provide details.
“Railroads don’t want railbound equipment only,” adds Mike Heridia, who along with Vaccarello serves as co-president of ARS, which provides vegetation management and pole line removal/disposal services. “And when we’re on their systems, railroads want us to be productive.”
To that end, ARS also plans to use more equipment that can simultaneously cut and spray vegetation, says Vaccarello.
Last year, Balfour Beatty Rail Inc. developed a combination cutting/spraying unit featuring a spray system attached to a brush cutter. The company — which provides cutting, spraying, and pole line clearing and removal services — plans to build additional units.
“The system will ensure the total kill of the treated species and that the fresh-cut brush will not re-sprout,” says Ken Koff, Balfour Beatty’s vice president of railroad services, adding that the company will begin using the unit in March when the growth season begins.
Balfour Beatty also began operating a new hi-rail spray truck last year. By 2007’s end, the company will start using two more, bringing its truck fleet to four.
“The trucks have a more sophisticated delivery system and the capacity for multiple spray mixes,” says Koff.
Mercier’s is using new hi-rail trucks, as well. The company recently upgraded its fleet with custom-built, 3,500-gallon-capacity vehicles featuring concealed chemical storage areas. The computer-controlled and radar-monitored trucks can carry up to 500 gallons of liquid herbicides and eight pallets of materials in overhead storage areas.
“We’re using trucks with three axles in the back instead of two to handle more capacity,” says Mercier, adding that for the past two years, the firm’s trucks have featured Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping capabilities.
For the past four years, DBI has controlled vegetation for Canadian Pacific Railway using trucks that feature GPS/Geographic Information System mapping systems and the Patchen WeedSeeker® automatic infrared spot spray system.
Every year, the company upgrades the trucks’ data collection systems to improve data quality, says DBI’s Hug.
“We collect data from every nozzle every second a truck is operating,” he says. “We can show which nozzle is on and which is not on.”
Asplundh Tree Expert Co. also continues to tweak the WeedSeeker system the company has used on its trucks since 1996. For example, the company recently upgraded the system’s controllers.
Last year, the vegetation management firm began using a GPS system with controller on spray vehicles and four-wheel trucks with sprayers.
“If you’re doing a 20-foot pattern, you can see it on a computer screen,” says Tom Mayer, VP of Asplundh’s railroad division. “The system will tell where they sprayed and still need to spray.”
Last year, the company also began using remote-controlled brush nozzles.
“This approach allows the operator to remotely adjust the spray pattern to meet changing brush or topography conditions,” says Mayer.
Asplundh officials currently are analyzing a non-chemical vegetation-control method. A Scandinavian firm recently contacted the officials to consider trying a newly developed product.
“They have a prototype,” says Mayer, declining to identify the firm or provide details. “We’ve tried liquid nitrogen, electricity and hot water in the past.”
In the meantime, Asplundh is employing a recently redesigned brush cutter mulching head to remove vegetation at crossings and clear signal lines.
“The head spins faster and there’s less clogging,” says Mayer.
Equipment suppliers also are redesigning machinery that promises to remove vegetation quickly and safely.
Last year, Brandt Road Rail Corp. introduced the on- and off-track Brandt Rail Tool (BRT), which features a brush-cutting attachment with a 40-foot horizontal reach.
In late 2005, the company developed the BRT with Amtrak, which sought a machine that could safely cut brush around overhead catenary lines.
“The BRT is designed to grab a tree limb and secure it, and then the operator decides when to cut it off,” says Neil Marcotte, Brandt Road Rail’s sales and marketing manager. “It won’t cut a branch and let it fall immediately.”
Designed to travel at speeds up to 30 mph and be remote controlled, the BRT also features heavy-duty hydraulic rail gear and a turntable, and three undercutting attachments.
“It can get on or off a track in two minutes,” says Marcotte.
At John Brown & Sons, the Brown Brontosaurus brush-cutting attachment — which has been marketed to the rail industry the past 15 years — now is available in a skid steer version.
“It has a small but wide cutting swath, and is good for tight spots on a railroad,” says Carter Brown, who heads the company’s sales, parts and service. “Railroads are using the Brontosaurus excavator to clear large brush and the skid steer to follow up.”
In November, John Brown & Sons also began marketing a mower head that weighs the same 2,500 pounds as a 32-inch head but offers a 42-inch cut.
“You can cut a wide swath without adding weight to the boom,” says Brown.
RBL Inc./Robolube’s Tiger™ RailKut® on- and off-track boom mower also is sporting new features. Marketed to the rail industry the past 18 months, the mower now has an expanded brush guard for added protection and roof window so an operator can more easily see the boom, says President Bob Pieper.
BNSF Railway Co., Union Pacific Railroad and Cedar American Rail Holdings each have purchased one RailKut, which features a 52-inch cutting head designed to saw brush up to 6 inches in diameter.
“We’re going to offer more rental options, like rent to own, because we’re seeing interest in that from railroads,” says Pieper.
RBL also plans to offer a spray attachment so an operator can apply herbicides while cutting brush.
At the root of the problem
However, vegetation management isn’t solely an above-ground concern. Tree and plant roots can clog underground culverts along rights of way.
So, Vermeer Manufacturing Co. offers a culvert cleaning directional drill attachment designed to remove vegetation from drainage structures. Introduced a year ago, the attachment is marketed to contractors. Featuring a barrel cutter, bucket and rotating brush, the Vermeer® culvert-cleaning tools are designed to clean out drainage structures ranging from six to 110 inches in diameter.
“It’s safer than high-pressure water — you have more control and it’s a bit faster,” says Ed Savage, Vermeer’s trenchless segment manager. “If there’s a tree limb in a culvert, water won’t cut through it.”
When it comes to controlling vegetation along every part of a right of way, railroads are seeking all the help they can get. But every road has different vegetation management priorities. So, service providers plan to continue tailoring programs to suit each railroad’s needs.
“We have developed spray programs for customers using a variety of herbicide mixes for crossings, under and around bridges, and to address a specific species,” says Balfour Beatty’s Koff.