CORONADO, Calif. — A few final notes from last week’s National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Conference at the Hotel Del Coronado:
NS communications restructuring: One unique aspect of Norfolk Southern’s “reimagining,” — its label for Precision Scheduled Railroading-style changes — is that it has spun off its communication and signals group, historically part of its engineering department, into a stand-alone department known as Advanced Train Control. Somewhat surprisingly — at least at first glance — it also includes locomotives and mechanical shops.
“While this might seem like an odd pairing,” said David Becker, NS chief engineer, design and construction, “it’s really very forward looking, given the level of integrated train-control technology found on a modern locomotive, and the potential opportunities to leverage the investments that have been made on PTC.”
UP’s maintenance automation project: The ever-expanding search for efficiency — and to keep traffic moving by with smaller maintenance-of-way work windows — has Union Pacific working with suppliers to develop a couple of new machines to automate portions of the maintenance process. UP Vice President of Engineering Eric Gehringer showed the
One, a rail-plate handling machine, aims to reduce the number of times each plate is handled. “In our current rail-laying process, we can touch each rail plate up to 11 times,” Gehringer said. “When you’re thinking about 520 miles of rail and 3,300 ties per mile, times two plates per tie, that’s a lot of plates that we’re handling 11 times.”
The goal, Gehringer said, was to cut the maximum number of times the plate is handled to two. “We locked in a room, for two days, our best rail-laying experts, and said, come up with a solution.” One supplier developed a machine to sort the ties so they are all aligned the same way; another developed the drive train. “We get the first one in a couple of months,” Gehringer said. “The goal is to have six total. The estimate is that the machines could decrease the track curfew time for maintenance work by 9,000 hours.
Similar development is underway on a flatcar that that will automate the distribution of ties for track work, unloading the ties in groups of 14 along the right-of-way. It will cut the number of times a tie is handled from eight to two. Eventually, a train of 40 to 50 such cars would be able to distribute up to 700 ties per car, and could save 16,000 hours of curfew time.“That is a massive accomplishment,” Gehringer said. “That is pure productivity.” The first car is in its second round of testing, after the initial tests found some ties were ending up too far from the track to be picked up by tie-handling cranes.
Tougher projects: Canadian National spent about $400 million in infrastructure improvement in 2019, much of it in capacity projects, said Jim McLeod, the railroad’s chief engineer — structures, design & construction. That followed similar figures in 2017 and 2018. Further efforts to add double track and add or extend sidings figure to be more challenging.
“We’re running out of the easy jobs and the easy locations to build double track or extended sidings,” McLeod said. Recent projects have required substantial cuts through rock or work on sandy soil; they also dealt with weather, a problem for many railroads in 2019. “West of Edmonton, where we had a couple of double-track sections to put in, they had more rain than they had in 200 years. … It was really challenging.”