June 2010

Multipurpose, Efficient Track Maintenance Equipment in Demand

by Thi Dao, Assistant Editor

What do transit agencies want when they're looking into track maintenance? According to the following manufacturers and contractors, trends in maintenance equipment include more efficient machines and multipurpose equipment to finish up projects in a shorter time frame, specialized equipment for specific projects, and basic equipment such as tampers and ballast regulators.

In addition, with complete PTC (positive train control) installation targeted for December 2015, agencies may need to look to contractors for assistance in completing the federally mandated installations.

Plasser American Corp.

Plasser American Corp., based in Chesapeake, Va., designs and manufactures track maintenance equipment, and the company emphasizes the importance of regular maintenance procedures, which also prevent the risk of derailments and ensure rider comfort and safety.

Routine maintenance equipment includes a tamping machine, which lifts the track and packs ballast underneath the ties to level out uneven surfaces, an optional track stabilizer that settles the track and compacts the ballast to create stability, and a ballast regulator that profiles and redistributes ballast moved during track use.

According to Plasser, tonnage, train frequency and speed going over a particular area and geography or climate of track location are factors that influence the frequency of maintenance cycles. Internal policies of rail systems also determine maintenance cycles, which can range from several times a year to once every few years.

One of Plasser American's most popular machines is its Metro 4x4, a heavy-duty tamping machine specifically designed for transit and commuter railway systems. The Metro 4x4 can travel up to 45 miles per hour and comes standard equipped with fully automatic, computer-controlled (AGGS) lifting, leveling and lining systems.

The company also produces multi-tie tampers that can tamp two, three or four ties at a time. This increases productivity, as more track can be tamped in the allotted time frame. Multi-tie tampers are also equipped with automatic systems such as the ATLAS (Automatic Tie Locating Analyzing System), which locates each tie as the tamper travels along, for automatic tamping. This automation reduces fatigue as the operator does not have to work as hard to accurately position the tamper, and reduces tie damage because the tamper will always be placed in the right location.

As rail budgets tighten and agencies are looking to get more for their limited funds, Plasser has seen more requests for specialized equipment such as multipurpose vehicles that incorporate several functions into one machine. Northeastern commuter lines such as Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and MTA Metro-North are considering larger machines that have more productivity, according to Plasser. The ability to purchase larger equipment depends mostly on budget, but more frequent use of trains in the Northeast due to population size also means more maintenance requirements.

The company works with clients to provide specialized equipment. One example is with Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH), servicing New York City and New Jersey. Plasser is currently developing its VM-30, a vacuum machine capable of vacuuming ballast between ties and in the crib areas. Specifically designed for PATH, the VM-30 works well in a tunnel environment that can't accommodate large machines, as it can fit in tight areas to vacuum ballast and mud out without having to do it manually. Still in production, the machine is expected to be fully operational later this year.

Continual technological developments are being incorporated into Plasser equipment, with a few new technologies being installed in its tamping machines that make them more productive, faster and more accurate. Electronic systems have been incorporated into some machines that allow them to work automatically, taking strain off the operator.

In addition, PLC control systems are installed in every machine, making it more user-friendly for the operator and allowing for easier operator training. It also includes a built-in diagnostics system that helps operators and mechanics easily find and troubleshoot problems.

Harsco Rail

West Columbia, S.C.-based Harsco Rail designs and manufactures track construction and maintenance equipment and offers service contracts for rail grinding, track renewal, track undercutting and tie pad change-out systems.

"As the demand for high-speed rail increases in the U.S., we are being asked to find ways to build high quality track in a short time frame and at reasonable costs," says Garner Regenovich, director of sales for transits and high-speed rail. The NTC (new track construction) machine, which installs new track on a previously prepared roadbed, addresses this need. It is capable of building one to 1.5 miles of new track per day with a crew of less than 10.

On the maintenance side, Regenovich says, "We are also seeing a need for advanced rail grinding machines that are able to quickly get out on the track and re-profile the rail." Rail grinding results in a quieter, smoother ride, reduced rail and train wheel wear, and improved train fuel economy, he says.

In 2009, Harsco introduced the Drone tamper, an unmanned chase tamper programmed to tamp the ties skipped by the lead tamping machine. According to the company's Website, the operator records a short section of track while both machines are in operation and coupled. The recording synchronizes the encoder wheels and tie finders of each machine, mapping out sections of the track. When uncoupled, the lead tamper moves ahead while the Drone tamper behind moves independently of the lead tamper, tamping skipped ties. If needed, the accessories found on the Drone can be manipulated from the lead machine through a wireless Ethernet communication system.

"This unmanned machine is the first tamping machine anywhere in the world to succeed in autonomous operation regardless of conditions," says Regenovich. This includes tamping of unevenly spaced or skewed ties. He adds that the maximum operation speed is maintained even on slick, oily rails, in rain, and on any grade. The machine is capable of tamping over 10,000 ties per day.

Regenovich stresses the importance of track maintenance and its role in extending the life of track components. "Routine maintenance such as rail grinding, track surfacing and tie inspection will help ensure that both freight trains and passenger trains operate on structurally sound track," he says.

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