It’s been nearly 200 years since the railroad boom began to change the landscape of North America. Although many of the basic track components are still the same — ties, rail, spikes, plates and frogs — how they come together has changed quite dramatically, particularly in the past 10 years.
The track on which railroads and connecting industries operate is being reconfigured, rehabilitated and expanded to accommodate not only the growing volume of trains but also longer and heavier trains and cars. Doing business with railroads now requires meeting their more demanding standards. Railroad track and operating requirements are designed to help them run safer, more productive, scheduled operations. The good news is these mandates also can produce efficiency benefits for your operation as well.
When it comes to maximizing track efficiencies, there are lots of variables and options to consider. An experienced track contractor can help evaluate the alternatives and work closely with servicing railroads to not only meet their requirements, but also secure input and buy-in for your plans.
Biannual track inspections help maximize productivity
The days are gone when railroad representatives routinely inspected industrial track and suggested action plans. You can’t count on railroads to alert you to track defects. Railroad inspectors generally examine track only when they suspect a defect or safety concern. More times than not, you will only know there is a problem when a car leaves the track and the railroad notifies you they have discontinued service until your track has been repaired. This also comes with an invoice for rerailing cars.
It is your responsibility to maintain your own track and ensure it complies with railroad and FRA requirements.
If they find a serious defect, the railroad will not hesitate to “red flag” or discontinue service until repairs are completed. This hopefully happens before a serious accident or derailment.
Taking a preventive approach will cost less in the long run and eliminate problems associated with a track outage, including safety risks, shipping delays, demurrage charges, rerailing or derailment services, unexpected, unfunded repairs and bad publicity. That begins by performing routine housekeeping to keep track clear of grain and product debris and turning to a qualified track contractor to conduct inspections twice a year, generally in the fall and spring.
A thorough inspection involves walking the entire track, evaluating the subgrade and drainage, rail, ties, ballast and turnouts, including switches and frogs. Oftentimes the inspection team will perform routine maintenance, such as adjusting switches and tightening bolts. If a pressing deficiency is identified, the contractor will notify the facility manager so immediate action can be taken. A few days after the inspection, the contractor will present a report detailing a track evaluation and an assessment of each turnout in the facility. The contractor also will provide a long-term capital spending plan as a tool for the budget process. On-going inspections and maintenance help eliminate huge financial surprises that occur when track is not maintained properly.
Track rehabilitation programs range from catch-up to rail replacement
Any track rehabilitation program should take into account these factors:
- The facility’s business objectives and expansion prospects
- Servicing railroad regulations and operating plans and schedules
- Carloadings per year
- Loads vs. empties
- Environmental impacts, including geographic constraints
- Overall existing track conditions: drainage and rail, tie and switch conditions
- The use of standard rail sections deemed acceptable by serving railroads
A typical catch-up track rehab scenario for a grain facility involves replacing approximately 10% of cross ties and 50% of switch ties and resurfacing the track. This program addresses the weakest components first and assumes the rail is in satisfactory condition. Cost estimates can range greatly, from $15,000 and up depending on the factors previously mentioned.