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By Michael Popke
Railroads continue to ask suppliers of special trackwork components to make their offerings easier and safer to install, and to last longer — be they turnouts, switch point guards, insulated joints, frogs or other products.
“The main emphasis has been on reducing the impact put on trackwork that leads to degradation of components,” says Scot Campbell, director of Class I sales in the Engineering and Track Services Division of Progress Rail, which is field testing what the company believes is a more efficient rail-welding technique.
“Railroads need us to keep getting better,” adds Ken Ouelette, vice president of marketing for special trackwork supplier voestalpine Nortrak, which has made improvements to products and facilities over the past year. “They want to see products that last longer and are easier to install.”
And freight railroads likely will want more of them this year, some suppliers say.
“We anticipate things will pick up from last year, when there was a bit of a downturn in the freight market,” Ouelette says.
Progressive Railroading recently contacted suppliers of special trackwork to learn about their latest product offerings and the trends that impact that market sector. Five special trackwork suppliers responded, either by phone or email. Their edited responses follow.
The expansion of Atlantic Track’s facilities in recent years — including ones in Memphis, Tenn., and St. Clair, Pa. — indicate a commitment to infrastructure technology and capacity, said Jeff Grissom, the company’s vice president of engineering and operations, in an email.
In Memphis, Atlantic Track now provides more dedicated, product-specific manufacturing work centers for compromise rails, guard rails and plate work.
In St. Clair, the installation of an enhanced electric third rail machining, processing and assembly work center better positions the company to serve the industry, Grissom said.
Budgets for special trackwork materials appear steady at most freight railroads, Grissom said, adding that he has detected a slight uptick in Class I activity when it comes to overall maintenance. At the forefront of the special trackwork discussions are issues of turnout geometry at the point of switch entry and mainline speeds through turnouts, Grissom said.
The industry also is working to better define the parameters for full-flange bearing crossings and their ideal usage as it pertains to crossing angle and signalization within heavy-haul applications, he added.
“Flange-bearing technology has been around for decades in transit to eliminate that ‘ticka-tacka, ticka-tacka’ pounding of the train against the ties,” he said. “Now it’s evolving in heavy-haul applications, too.”
Meanwhile, L.B. Foster Co. notes a “continuing drive by the rail industry for long-lasting, highly reliable insulated rail joints as a key requirement for their special trackwork, as well as for mainline track,” said Sid Shue, general manager of the Allegheny Rail Products division of L.B. Foster, in an email.
L.B. Foster, which designs and manufactures high-performance insulated rail joints for use in special trackwork, collaborates with heavy-haul railroads and transit agencies to design the company’s insulated rail joints according to their needs, Shue added.
The company’s products include double rail joints for turnouts and crossing diamonds, insulated joints for girder rail profiles, U69/U33 guardrails and transition insulated joints. L.B. Foster’s special trackwork insulated rail joints can be furnished in bonded or poly kit form, plug form, or preassembled to customer-furnished prefabricated or machined rails.
L.B. Foster also manufactures a range of special insulated rail joint plates, either in solid polyurethane or polyurethane/forged steel designs, canted or uncanted. The company’s special trackwork insulated rail joints are available as premium or super-premium models for extended service life.
The super-premium model — the ENDURA-JOINT® — features an insulated rail joint plate, high modulus joint bars and ceramic end posts that serve as a key structural component.
“We are cautiously optimistic for our insulated rail joint business due to the recovery in heavy-haul freight activity that began in late 2016 and continued into 2017,” Shue said. “This should translate into a rebound in maintenance and expansion opportunities.”
Officials at Progress Rail, too, continue to scout out opportunities. A subsidiary of Caterpillar, Progress Rail developed the first lift frog in 2006, as well as a vertical switch to complement the lift frog.
In 2008, Progress Rail produced its first flange-bearing crossings installed in track. Since then, it has manufactured a total of 17 flange-bearing crossings in track, with another 18 in the design and installation process, company officials said.
Additionally, the company’s full flange-bearing diamond is designed to eliminate wheel contact at the flange way intersection of the diamond, and reduce impact that leads to accelerated maintenance and replacement of castings and subcomponents.
“We continue to work on and improve these products,” Campbell says. “You’re always going to learn new things after you design them and see how they work in application.”
Progress Rail also has introduced a new rail-welding technique that allows more flexibility and ease of installation for track crews. The technique uses a narrow-head, electric flash butt welder requiring only eight inches of clearance, which allows for greater access to tight spaces, the company says.
“Flash-butt welding is a much more reliable solution,” says Chuck Ewing, Progress Rail’s vice president of welding and track services, adding that field testing began earlier this year. “It’s much stronger and increases the life of the turnout.”
Other suppliers also continue to improve their products and systems. Perhaps best known for the moveable point frog it introduced to the North American freight market more than a quarter-century ago, voestalpine Nortrak recently introduced the Heavy Point Switch, which is thicker than other switches (especially at the tip area), and designed to strengthen and extend the life of switch points. It also is compatible with all turnout geometries, regardless of manufacturer, voestalpine Nortrak’s Ouelette says.
The ClickTite Rail Brace features a patent-pending design that increases clamping force while decreasing the risk of rail roll-out during turnout installation, and a new Safeguard Guard Rail Fastening System substantially reduces potential for hand injuries during installation by eliminating the need for a hammer or special tools, according to the company.
The system evolved out of discussions with Class I officials who expressed concern about the safety of in-the-field workers, Ouelette says.
Additionally, voestalpine Nortrak as of press time expected to launch a new online store in May that will offer 26 varieties of turnouts to the industrial rail market, with possible expansion to other markets later.
The company also completed a major project in April that improves the working conditions and efficiency at its manganese steel and ductile iron foundry in Decatur, Ill.
“This unique facility allows us to fully control the supply chain for critical components in our special trackwork products,” Ouelette says.
Some suppliers have expanded their offerings by going the acquisition route. In January, the Vossloh Group acquired Rocla Concrete Tie Inc., the largest manufacturer of pre-stressed concrete railroad ties in North America. Rocla also offers concrete switch ties for special trackwork.
“With this addition, Vossloh is now capable of offering complete concrete tie turnouts solutions in North America, including special trackwork, concrete switch ties, rail fastening systems, and mainline switch machines,” the company said in an email.
The acquisition follows a longtime strategic partnership between Rocla and Vossloh North America companies.
Rocla already supplies concrete switch ties to Vossloh subsidiary and special trackwork manufacturer Cleveland Track Material Inc.
“This partnership has yielded many references for concrete tie turnouts and crossovers, especially for transits on the Northeast coast of the U.S.,” the company said. “By leveraging the extensive rail infrastructure capabilities of the group, Vossloh North America companies are coordinating and creating synergies that enhance our total offering.”
“We are making our technologies better for each other,” added Cory Burdick, vice president of transit sales, referring to the link between concrete switch ties and special trackwork. “Ultimately this link will translate into greater efficiency, especially [for] the end users. ... We see an opportunity to offer our customers with lower overall costs, faster response times, and a single point of contact, creating true value for our customers.”
Michael Popke is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer. Email comments or questions to email@example.com.