Watching the tumbleweeds blow briskly across this barren desert landscape, the furthest image from one’s mind is a traffic jam. Yet one of the biggest bottlenecks in the USA occurs at a 6-mi. (9.7 km) stretch of railroad in this remote New Mexico canyon. On any given day, freight trains may be backed up 100 miles awaiting their turn to slowly navigate this winding, single stretch of rail.
Built over a century ago, with mules and manpower, this line has been obsolete for decades, halting the progress of two-mile-long trains making their transcontinental journeys through these high bluffs and valleys.
Now, with plenty of horsepower and the ingenuity of 34-year rock-breaking veteran “Blaster Jack” Lawler and his team from Ames Construction, this notorious path of congestion is receiving an overdue facelift. The plan is to create two rails of track that follow a more direct course, which should double both travel speeds and freight volume.
“You might try to catch me, but you’ll never pass me,” are the famous words of Lawler, drill and blast superintendent for Ames Construction, a heavy civil and industrial design-build general contractor based in Burnsville, Minn.
Aided by three Sandvik tophammer drills — two DX700s and a DX800 — Lawler’s team of specialists shoot 14,000 to 28,000 yds. (12,800 to 25,600 m) of limestone and embedded shale each day.
“We take rock off by layers, usually three to four, by pulling in and backing out,” said Lawler. “The trick is to blast enough rock to stay ahead of the dozers and excavators, but not too far as to interrupt the dirt work behind you.”
It’s a trick Lawler has mastered. Ames is on schedule to complete the grade work on this project in just 18 months, which is sooner than expected. And about a decade sooner than it took to complete the original track.
Runs Like Clockwork
Productivity alone isn’t what earns Lawler his paycheck. It’s his impeccable degree of timing and precision in a most demanding environment.
“You see, the biggest challenge in working for the railroad, is the railroad,” explainsed Lawler. “The railroad keeps running as fast as you do. They don’t stop shipping freight, nor should they. So everything we do must be carefully planned.”
Ames typically makes two blasts per day. Lawler lays out his plan and informs the railroad of his blasting times one day in advance. Then he’s forced to stick to it.
“We have a 30- to 35-minute window to make our blasts,” noted Lawler. “So we make every minute count.”
After each blast, railroad inspectors monitor the tracks for debris and damage to the track. If any debris is spotted on the track, an Ames crew must quickly remove it.
But it’s the vertical cliffs and close proximity of the current rail line that pose the biggest challenge. The new rail lines will be elevated above the existing rail. In many areas, the new rails look as if they are literally right on top of the existing rail. This steep terrain often forces Lawler to drill in pre-splits and remove the rock in halves. Lawler drills 3-in. (7.6 cm) diameter holes for pre-splits and 4- to 4.5-in. (10 to 11 cm) diameter production holes.
In some areas, due to the steep edges, he said they must remove material in 10-ft. (3 m) lifts.
“We have 16 feet of ditch between the current line and the new lines, so there’s no room for error,” explained Lawler. “The rock has to go somewhere. We just make sure it doesn’t fall on the track.”
The accuracy of Ames’ drilling is obvious. The drill marks against the split rock say it all: they are perfectly straight, resembling corn rows in a Midwestern field. While skill and experience play a big role, Lawler demands continuing training for his operators.
“All new drills have new little secrets,” explained Lawler. “At the start of this project, Sandvik sent a drill master to our site and spent an entire week with us on product training. This was a big help to our operators in teaching them how to best utilize these machines in a variety of conditions.”
180 Degrees of Separation
With space at such as premium, Lawler credited the unique, excavator-like track design of his Sandvik drills as critical tools for this job. Each rig’s articulated boom is mounted on a revolving 180-degree superstructure that allows the operator to swing 90-degrees to either side. He said this provides operators with an ideal view in these close quarters.
“The 90-degree cab swing is a must on this job,” noted Lawler. “This gives us the room we need to work right next to the wall and keeps the operator parallel to the drill line so that every hole is drilled evenly.”
In addition to closer offset spacing and greater accuracy, operators say the cab swing helps speed production by greatly reducing set-up time.
“You can certainly cover more area quicker with the 90-degree cab swing,” said Tim Marks, an Ames operator on the site who’s been drilling rock for 34 years. “Other drill configurations require you to constantly reset yourself, by pulling in and backing out, to achieve the proper drilling angle. But the 90-degree cab swing lets you straddle the holes and drive right down the line.”
Marks pointed out that rear vision is just as important as forward vision. That’s why his Sandvik DX800 is equipped with three remote cameras mounted to the undercarriage. By glancing at the in-cab screen, he can see what’s directly behind the machine and what’s behind each track.
“This adds a great element of safety,” said Marks. “The cameras let you work with much more confidence.”
Safety lies at the heart of Ames Construction. Established in 1960, Ames is a family-owned firm that ranks among the USA’s 100 largest contractors. Four regional offices located west of the Mississippi River specialize in the construction of airports, commercial infrastructure, highways and bridges, mining facilities, railways and water resource structures. In 2007, the company received the prestigious Construction Safety Excellence Award from the Association of General Contractors of America.
“Safety is the way of life at Ames,” explained Nick Hensel, on-site service manager of Ames. “Our safety record gets us invited to bid on jobs.”
At the start of each shift, all employees attend a 30 minute safety meeting, followed by a 15 minute in depth job briefing at the job site. Due to the nature of the canyon and railway, there are numerous blind corners, hills and narrow areas. All employees must radio ahead prior to traveling through the job site and ask for permission to enter these safety-critical areas.
“As a service manager, I spend my day traveling throughout the canyon,” added Hensel. “It’s great to know that Ames puts these steps in place to make sure my co-workers and I do it safely.”
The key to keeping this job moving is to not let it stop, noted Hensel.
“My job is to keep Jack happy,” he said with a grin. “That means keeping the drills running and diagnosing any downtime before it happens.”
Hensel’s approach to preventive maintenance includes stringent inspections after each 8-hour drill shift. The drills are the only machines that run two shifts, including one evening shift, and are his number-one priority.
Much like the terrain, the elements in this canyon are unforgiving. Frequent wind gusts — often above 40 mph — are a daily occurrence and the dust places an undue burden on both the operators and service staff.
“We blow out filters on the excavating machines twice a day, so we keep plenty of filters on hand,” said Hensel. “We’ve never had to change filters on the drills until the specified 300 hour interval, but we check them anyway.”
Prior to this project, Hensel and another Ames service technician attended an extensive, four-day training course conducted by Sandvik. He credited this service training for helping him know what to look for.
“The Sandvik service course, along with the reliability of their drills, has been a key to maximizing uptime,” explained Hensel. “We don’t like surprises. So we go into every inspection looking for problems, examining all critical areas for leaks and wear. Seldom is there ever an issue, but we’re ready just the same.”
Paramount to Ames’ preventive maintenance plan is keeping a large inventory of parts at the job site. A 20-ft. (6 m) container filled with Sandvik parts and tooling serves as an on-site depot.
“We consulted with Sandvik before breaking our first rock,” added Lawler. “Based on our production schedules and the expected wear on the machines, we projected the kinds and volumes of parts we’d need, and ordered them all up front.”
At a time when many companies are looking to reduce parts inventories, Lawler said this up-front stocking program has paid big dividends for Ames.
“The drills lead this entire project,” said Lawler. “If the excavating equipment catches up to the drills, everything shuts down. So we make sure that doesn’t happen.”
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