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Cleaning Up Tracks Between Georgia, North Carolina

Thu May 12, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Peter Hildebrandt

The tie and surfacing gang of Norfolk Southern Railway Company has been working on the line between Charlotte, N.C., and Augusta, Ga., for several months on a section of about 190 mi. (306 km) of track. Though creosote-coated, extremely heavy and solid (ask anyone who’s ever had to move), railroad ties eventually deteriorate from steady use and untold tons of daily pressure on them.

Getting equipment onto the tracks and doing the work when the trains aren’t running on the tracks seems like a tricky job, yet railroads do manage to rather seamlessly and efficiently update worn tracks and ties on a fairly regular basis.

Robin Chapman, manager of public relations for Norfolk Southern in South Carolina and North Carolina explained that the rate at which they are replaced is perhaps more often than we may imagine: every 10 to 20 years or sometimes even more frequently, depending on various environmental factors involved. This is what is called program maintenance, and how often this reconditioning is done depends on how much rail traffic a particular line gets.

This is how the replacement and repair work starts: the ties that are in the worst shape and are most in need of repair are marked with a clearly-visible white spot. In the stretch crews are currently working on, the Norfolk Southern will replace about half the ties, or about 1,800 per mile.

That is a lot of ties. Luckily, they have a train to bring them to the right place. The train runs with loads of fresh railroad ties and a loader that sits up high on the back of the train unloads those ties in piles on the sides of the tracks. Large piles of railroad ballast rock material for the bed are piled at the side of the tracks near the road crossings. Eventually the ballast is spread evenly down the railroad line, and the new ties are spread out from their piles. A single operator double track cleaner slowly makes its way down sections of the line, brushing and cleaning off the tracks and ties to make the sections clean and clearly visible prior to the final work of replacing the ties.

Some time later, equipment comes along, picks up the new ties, lifts the rails up and inserts the tie where the old one was. Old ties are disposed of by a company that Norfolk Southern contracts with, National Salvage, based in Ohio. Because the ties contain creosote, they have to be disposed of in an environmentally sound way. A lot of them are turned into fuel for power plants, according to Chapman.

New spikes are hammered into the new ties to connect the rails to them. The spikes are driven in by spiker machines, another one of those rolling machines operated by one person. The rail workers then come in and recondition the ballast or the road bed.

The truck used to run on both tracks and the road and used extensively with this work is called a highrailer. The machinery used for this project is designed by Norfolk Southern and built in-house, according to Chapman, much of that equipment is produced at its Charlotte Roadway Shop. Some hand labor is involved with this project, but the majority of the work is machine-operated work. Some workers are needed to go in and do the finishing touches by hand.

Typically they’ll work on about a couple of miles a day, They’ll be allowed designated track time when the dispatchers will not be running any trains on that stretch, and they know that and they will do as much as they can during that window.

Then they clear out, let the trains run by and they’re given more track time so they can go back in and continue to work. The sidings (the low-speed track sections that are apart from a through track) enable work cars to be placed out of the way while the main trains still continue to run on a regular basis.

Such work has been somewhat of an evolutionary process, according to Chapman. The company is always innovating new and better ways of modifying machines to make the process more efficient. It is something of an incremental improvement over the years. Communication happens with the two-way radio system they’ve always used during such operations.

Despite the busyness of this stretch of rail line, the work of tie replacement is proceeding flawlessly and on schedule. Some of the fairly slow-moving freight trains that run through this area on a regular basis each day are carrying products from pulp mill operations taking place nearby. The plants served by this line probably haven’t even felt a pause in their full work schedule due to the steady work on the tracks.

For these important commercial investments to operate, they depend on the Norfolk Southern to get their product to where it needs to go. So, when the current section of track is finished, the crew will head down the track to work on another section. CEG

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