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— by Julie Sneider, associate editor
Mark Dewberry was a 24-year-old project manager when he worked on the construction of the Linwood, N.C., hump yard in 1978, which is the last time a major classification yard was built by what is now Norfolk Southern Railway. Today, as NS' chief engineer of design and construction, Dewberry is overseeing the largest single infrastructure project currently underway on the NS network, and of his career: the $160 million expansion and modernization of the Bellevue classification yard in northern Ohio.
Covering 650 acres and stretching 5.5 miles, Bellevue will become NS' largest hump yard and one of the largest in North America when the expansion is completed in December. It's one of 12 NS classification yards, where freight cars are collected and sorted for final destination. About 100 trains depart, move through or terminate daily at Bellevue, and 710 NS employees work there. Slated to be phased into full operation during first-quarter 2015, the expansion will double Bellevue's capacity to accommodate current and future traffic demand.
What makes Bellevue such a crucial facility? Its location. The yard is halfway between New York City and Chicago, and sits at the intersection of five NS lines. The expansion is part of the Class I's overall goal of having the "right assets in the right place at the right time" — as NS President James Squires described it at a Sept. 23 conference for investors and analysts in Cleveland and Bellevue.
"Bellevue is geographically and operationally located just where we need it for the growth we see coming," Squires said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
"Our customers require different services in different places than they did just a few years ago. ... Bellevue is at the crossroads of our changing coal merchandise and intermodal franchises, and really highlights how we're using infrastructure to drive growth."
NS executives hope a vastly bigger Bellevue also will help the Class I improve its operating efficiency by "pre-blocking" rail cars for longer hauls, and increasing direct interchanges with western carriers that will help reduce switching at other terminals. Also, more capacity at the yard will open up space at other terminals, thus improving asset utilization. Once the bigger and better Bellevue comes on line, customers should see transit times improve by one to 2.3 days, NS officials say.
Since the railroad broke ground on the project in April 2012, NS traffic volume — driven in large part by the crude production and shale-drilling business — has mushroomed in the railroad's northern region. About a year into the expansion effort, the rapid growth in the region's traffic motivated NS officials to move up the project's completion date by about six months. As a result, NS now expects to start deriving benefits from its investment by year's end.
The project calls for adding 39 miles of track and 145 miles of underground cable for communications and signaling systems, which will allow NS to double Bellevue's capacity from 1,800 to 3,600 cars. The new track will feature 38 new classification tracks, a five-mile mainline track around the yard, three forwarding tracks, two receiving tracks, one pullback track and one hump lead track.
When completed, Bellevue will feature a total of 80 classification tracks and will be the only yard in the NS network to contain two operating humps used to sort rail cars. Also, crews have constructed a four-story control tower and mechanical and maintenance-of-way facilities, and installed 11 100-foot light towers to illuminate the yard and 22 diesel-powered back-up generators.
As of mid-October, the project was about 95 percent completed, according to Dewberry, who has been involved in the planning, design and construction from the get-go. Most of the track construction was finished, and crews were getting the computer process control function that operates the hump operations up to speed.
The primary challenge of the massive job has been building nearly 40 miles of track in what already was a very busy classification yard, Dewberry says. So, how did Dewberry and construction crews manage it?
"We worked very closely with our transportation people during the construction," he says. "They made a lot of sacrifices to keep us going, to give us the tracks, train crews and engines that we needed to do things like unload rock. All our disciplines — engineering, transportation, operations — we all worked together to get the [task] done, and get it done when it was needed."
Construction crews' first tasks involved grading the land, mainly for the classification yard and some of the support track, the creation of a drainage system and the laying of underground cable.
"Bellevue, Ohio, is excellent farmland, but not that great for structural fill," Dewberry says. "We had to stabilize the ground with stone and grout and various stabilization methods, especially in the hump area where so much rail-car activity would be happening in a concentrated area."
Also early on, crews needed to relocate a number of buildings that were in the way of the expansion's progress, but housed functions that were necessary to maintain the yard's existing operations. A pedestrian underpass and associated retaining walls also had to be built beneath the new hump lead so that employees could cross the yard from the employee parking area to the yard's administration building.
"That was the first 12 or 13 months: the grading, the draining, the underground cable, the underpass, which actually took more than half way into the second year to do it totally," Dewberry says. When grading was about 75 percent finished, crews started working on the second mainline around the yard, a project component the transportation department believed was important to maintain the yard's operation during construction.
It was about 13 months into the expansion when NS officials determined the completion timeline had to be shortened to accommodate the increasing traffic through the region.
"We had to sit down and rethink the whole job to figure out where we were going to take time out of the schedule," Dewberry says. "Every group on the facility had to turn their schedule upside down to accommodate other NS groups in order to accelerate the project."
Crews worked with the signals team to relocate controls, computers and cabling associated with running the old yard. Classification track construction also was moved up. By November 2013, the second mainline around the yard was opened. And by December 2013 — just before the start of an unusually severe winter season — all the tracks and switches in the yard were constructed, with a majority covered with ballast and surfaced.
Since then, backup power for the old and new yards has been installed, and a new compressor system that operates the retarders on the new hump system is in place. Additionally, construction of a one-mile connection between the yard and the NS Sandusky line has begun. As of mid-October, testing of the second hump was expected to begin soon.
When a train pulls into Bellevue, it enters one of 12 two-mile-long receiving tracks. From there, the cars are pushed over the hump and released one or a few at a time to one of two lead tracks. Next, a computer system determines the speed of each car based on weight and other factors. Retarders control the cars' speed as they're routed to specific tracks, depending on their destination. They're then organized into "blocks" for outbound tracks.
Building and operating two humps will help NS sort and classify cars more quickly. That's why a diamond crossover was located between the two hump leads, which will allow for two sets of cars to be classified simultaneously.
Norfolk and Western Railway leaders had expansion in mind when they built Bellevue in 1966-67; they set aside enough property to double its size when business warranted it. More than 45 years later, that time is now, says Jerry Hall, NS' vice president of network and service management.
"As we saw our volumes really ramp up over the past couple of years, we realized that we really needed to speed this project up because a lot of our growth is in the northern part of our system," he says. "The timing was perfect to get the new Bellevue on line as soon as possible. With the doubling of capacity at Bellevue, we're very confident that it can handle the increase in volume over the coming years."
Hall noted that a significant cost of running a railroad is the handling and switching of rail cars in yards and terminals. The Bellevue expansion will help NS lower those handling and switching costs, while also increasing efficiency, he says. For example, traffic moving from the Philadelphia area to Chicago currently is handled at three or four yards. With more capacity and classification tracks at Bellevue, NS will be able to sort and build bigger blocks of cars there and allow trains to bypass two other yards on the way to Chicago, saving money and handling time.
Bypassing extra yards also will help improve traffic flow and reduce delays for other railroads that move traffic on the Class I's lines in the region, NS executives say. One example is Amtrak, which operates trains on NS track between Chicago and Cleveland and has struggled with its own on-time performance problems due to freight train delays.
"One of the big benefits of the Bellevue expansion is it will save us from having to send a lot of traffic to Chicago to be handled by one of the big terminals there," Hall says.
The decision to double Bellevue's size was not a "seat-of-the-pants-type decision," according to Hall. Transportation managers relied on computer modeling tools to help determine the best locations for improving the NS network. One tool used was the algorithm blocking and classification, or ABC system, which is designed to identify and route traffic on the most efficient line. The ABC model identified Bellevue as the best route for NS, while a second tool — the operating plan developer, which can determine a proposed service plan's impact on car miles, train miles and crew recruitment — showed the yard lacked the necessary capacity to handle a surge in traffic.
After the expansion, Bellevue's traffic volume is expected to increase about 81 percent and additional capacity will be created at NS terminals in Elkhart, Ind., Conway, Pa., and Columbus, Ohio. More employees are being brought on board, too: NS announced in April 2012 that it expected 275 new railroad jobs would be added to Bellevue's employment base. This year alone, the Class I expects it will have hired 109 conductors to serve the larger yard, accommodate an overall increase in traffic and address attrition due to retirements.
Overall, the Bellevue expansion will have a significant impact on the railroad's entire network, NS executives believe.
"A lot of science and planning has gone into this project," says Hall. "It allows us to reduce unnecessary car handlings across the network, streamline the operation, and help improve customer service and the flow of traffic through Chicago. ... We're very excited about it. We can't wait to flip the switch and start using it."