Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rail workers blend old technology with new

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Allen Jones has found out that no matter how sophisticated the world is, working for the railroad still requires the use of a sledgehammer and a switch broom, the Morning Sun of Blue Springs, Mo., reports. These two hand tools are still the most frequently used implements when doing track work. The sledgehammer, of course, is for driving steel, pushing rails wider and setting flags. The switch broom has a hoe-like end for removing rocks from between the rails at railroad switches. The broom end of this tool is used to sweep dirt, leaves and snow from between the rails.

 

"I like when a new guy asks what he will be doing," Jones said with a grin. "I tell him he will be swinging a sledgehammer eight hours a day.

 

Jones works for a railroad contractor, Richards Construction of Blue Springs. The company is contracted by the railroads to do much of their heavy work and large building projects. Maintenance crews employed by the railroad do the regular maintenance jobs, but from time to time, the railroad line needs contractors to do some of the larger jobs. And on these jobs, time is the big element.

 

Recently, the company replaced a large railroad crossing on Highway 150 on the south side of Kansas City. "We worked about 17 or 18 hours on that project," Jones said. "We did most of the work at night."

 

Hired as a heavy-equipment operator, Jones is now foreman on many of the railroad projects in the southern district. His company works mostly for Kansas City Southern but does some projects for other railroads and construction companies.

 

In many cases, Jones also is a certified "flagman" on a construction project. He keeps track of the trains and makes sure none come when men are working on the rails. Modern radio and telephone technology are used, but old-time round steel flags are also used to give directions and warn the engineers about workmen up the line.

 

The steel signal flags are set on a square steel leg that is driven with a sledgehammer into the ground beside the tracks. The flags then sets down over the steel leg. A yellow flag means "danger" and a red one means "stop."

 

"If an engineer sees a red flag, he instantly hits 'emergency stop,'" Jones said.

 

Safety is a priority for railroad construction workers. "I've never known anyone hit by a train that did well," Jones said dryly.

 

"One of the things about railroads is they tear up things," Jones said. "The line is inspected every day. When the rails get too wide or the roadbed begins getting soft, making the rail jumps up and down, then repairs are needed."

 

Jones likes the variety and learning part of the job. Sometimes he must travel, although he prefers to stay home at nights. But, whether he's at home or on the road, in the back of his work truck there will be a sledgehammer and a switch broom -- two railroad tools that have been a constant as long as there have been railroads.

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