RT&S asked railroad engineering departments what they want and expect out of their equipment and what follows are their undiluted responses. We thank those railroads that participated in this survey.
What features do you look for when in the market for m/w machinery? For example, is it safety, reliability, speed of operation, ease of getting on- and off-track, ease of maintenance, cost, productivity or something else?
Amtrak: Safety of personnel and property are always the Number One priority. We would also look for features that would make the equipment operator friendly, reliable and productive while leaving positive results.
Canadian National: I look for the kind of equipment that is safe and reliable. The units also must be relatively easy to operate and need to be the correct size for our projects.
Canadian Pacific: Safety is the first thing CP looks at. After safety, we consider reliability, availability of spare parts, ease of maintenance and repairs, production rates and versatility. We would also like to see fuel economy information for the different types of equipment in order to compare operating costs.
Kansas City Southern: Three key things we evaluate when purchasing new machinery are safety, reliability and parts availability.
Norfolk Southern: Safety is always our first concern, with machinery or anything else. We also need machinery that is highly reliable, robust enough to work in a tough railroad environment and with a production rate that will allow us to maximize short track time windows. Other important features include:
Ease of operation: We have a lot of new employees and we need machines that are straightforward in operation so people can learn to operate them quickly and efficiently.
Ease of transportation: Can the machines be moved by truck, or will they need to go by rail? Will there be weight or dimensional issues? We need equipment that can be transported across our 20,000-mile rail network quickly without restrictions and special routing.
Ease of maintenance: Some machines are far too complicated for the typical mechanic to maintain. And the more complicated they are, the more susceptible they are to breaking down. We need machines that can be quickly and easily repaired.
What is the most important single feature, after safety, for you and your railroad? Why?
Amtrak: Quality production. Optimal track conditions means less slow orders or speed restrictions to keep our trains running safely with little or no delay.
CN: After safety, the single most important feature is our production. We grade ourselves based on our production and how effectively we perform in and utilize our work blocks.
CP: Ease of maintenance. The rail industry is facing increasing pressure to find a skilled workforce to support our programs and we need equipment that enables self-diagnosis for ease of operation and to increase on-track availability.
KCS: New technology is great but ease of use brings the greatest value.
NS: Reliability. We need dependable equipment that does not breakdown or malfunction. A machine with a higher production rate, but which has a high failure rate, is less desirable than a machine with a lower production rate, but with a low failure rate.
In today's market, what new features or improvements in m/w machinery have the most appeal to you?
Amtrak: The use of Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) in equipment that require precision results. They can be set up on an LCD touch screen and are very user friendly to both the equipment operator and repairman.
CN: The most important features are continued improvements in reliability. The machines that we purchase must be reliable in order to maximize our work blocks and to reduce costs.
CP: Programmable Logic Controls installed in recent years has made a significant difference, especially with troubleshooting problems on track.
KCS: In-cab design features are appealing. The newer machinery has come a long way to help control elements like weather, noise and lighting.
NS: The new machines that we find most desirable are the DRONE machines and remote-controlled machines. Not many years ago, we had the goal of getting people off the ground and into the seat of a machine. Now, our goal is to have a computer operating the machines or have the operator using a remote control.
We are working on acquiring our second set of DRONE machines. We are using DRONE tampers now and we are looking at DRONE anchor adjusting machines. The goal is to have one operator running a lead machine with several machines behind – all linked by a computer – doing a multitude of jobs. And, we need operators using remote controls to handle as many functions as possible.
Operators positioned in safe locations using a remote control to operate a group of machines, which are linked by computer, would improve safety, quality and productivity.
If you could write the specs for an ideal m/w machine, what features would you include?
Amtrak: A PLC Production Switch Tamper with a tie finder equipped with WiFi to communicate with an unmanned DRONE tamper behind the lead unit to double surfacing and smoothing operations.
CN: The specs would include, outstanding ergonomics in the cab, as well as great visibility, well-defined safety components, plenty of horsepower and the latest in technological advances in controlling functions of the machine.
CP: Standardized engine packages, standard cab configuration and quick change from one action to another on the same equipment platform.
KCS: Reliability is the most important spec.
NS: The ideal machine would actually be a set of machines all linked by computer and operated by one person. The operator would be in a position to maximize safety by having high visibility of the work area, a well-designed and easily operated workstation and a comfortable environment. The machines would have high production rates, but not at the sacrifice of quality. They would have a self-diagnostic system to identify problems that would enable repairs to be made quickly – preferably by component change out. And, a detailed record of the work performed would be recorded by the machine and then transmitted to a central location for fast and accurate daily production reporting.
Looking at recent purchases, what big-ticket piece of equipment has offered the most benefit to your railroad? What about among lower-priced equipment?
Amtrak: One of our 32 Tool Tampers has to be the most beneficial big-ticket piece of equipment we've purchased in recent history. It doubles the production of the conventional 16 Tool Tamper. Among the lower priced equipment, the hi-rail backhoe is very versatile on- and off-track and can assist in all types of our daily construction work.
CN: The Plasser 09-32 DYNA CATs and Harsco DRONEs were our big-ticket purchases. These machines can tamp 36-44 ties per minute and are very reliable. The lower-priced items that we have purchased are the Nordco CX Spikers and the Knox Kershaw Cribber-Adzers.
CP: Purchase of new production tampers and snowfighters.
Increasing our fleet of production tampers has allowed us to reduce slow orders.
Increasing and modernizing our snow fighter fleet has allowed faster track cleanup, especially in mountain subdivisions. Use of track drills, using carbide interchangeable bits, has decreased drilling time in production crews.
KCS: Due to the number of ties KCS replaces each year, the Nordco TRIPP (Tie Remover/Inserter) has been very valuable.
NS: The best big-ticket machine purchase is our new ballast cleaner, which is currently being built. This new machine, along with our current ballast cleaner, will allow us to work at a higher production rate and reduced cost versus using leased equipment.
Our best lower-priced solution came from one of our employees, who designed and constructed a simple, but highly-effective Pandrol clip applicator. We are manufacturing the machines in house at our Charlotte Roadway Shop.
What is your biggest m/w headache: track time, productivity, etc.? What kind of machine or features would you like to see from suppliers to help alleviate the problem?
Amtrak: Equipment down time with our night time surfacing units. A more advanced on-board diagnostic system that is repairman-friendly would be helpful, along with parts being more readily available for some of the larger surfacing machines.
CN: Track time is our biggest headache. High-production tampers that do not require spending additional time graphing and measuring track to be tamped. This would increase production and maximize our work blocks.
CP: Slow orders behind tie crews. We need to have more versatile/interchangeable equipment with quick on-track setup to allow us to increase production time when faced with decreased block availability.
KCS: Track and time is always the biggest challenge, which is why the reliability of equipment is so vital.
NS: Our biggest challenge is always track time. This is more of a function of interdepartmental cooperation than of machine ability. We must be able to predict the amount of work that can be performed in the amount of track time allowed. And, we must have a machine that can perform the work without breaking down or malfunctioning.
In the future, we should be able to develop machines that can link to the dispatcher's computer systems, determine track windows and production capabilities and perform the maximum possible amount of work and then clear up.
When you meet with suppliers, what are you telling them about your m/w machinery needs? Do you find suppliers responsive to your requests?
Amtrak: We have clearance restrictions due to our overhead catenary wires and third rail. Because we move people, we work our production groups primarily at night where there is less competition with trains for infrastructure. Our suppliers are always eager to meet our needs with all restrictions, speed and lighting requirements.
CN: New machines need to be more reliable. Ergonomics must be improved and there must be improvements in service and parts delivery. Suppliers are for the most part responsive to our concerns and I feel most suppliers are trying to rectify any past problems.
CP: We hold conference calls with major suppliers monthly to discuss bulletins, updates, problem areas etc. These calls allow us to determine accountability and develop action plans to correct issues.
KCS: Having an ample supply of parts minimizes downtime. We are working with our suppliers to find solutions to this challenge.
NS: We tell manufacturers that we need machines designed and built to accommodate our needs: safety, reliability, production, ease of repair and ease of operation.
The suppliers tell us: "This is what we build. We can make some modifications – at a cost. But, this is basically what you will get."
We have found some who want to work with us, but with fewer manufacturers available, it is becoming more difficult to get the machinery that we want and need and lack of competition is hurting innovation.
Checking trends, would you say today's equipment is getting safer, more reliable, more productive, or other qualities? On the negative side, what trends are out there, such as too costly, too complicated, etc.?
Amtrak: Today's equipment has more safety features than in years past and with today's technology, the equipment has become more productive. However with that being said, we don't believe many of the machines are as reliable as in the past. Extensive use of sensitive electronics in an unforgiving environment drives acquisition costs and ironically, impacts reliability.
CN: Equipment is much safer to operate today than in past years. A major challenge is keeping our mechanics and operators up-to-date with today's latest technology in equipment. Also, the cost to maintain a piece of machinery has risen dramatically over the past several years.
CP: The equipment is better ergonomically today, making it safer. Safety is our Number One priority. Cost of equipment is a major consideration, but making equipment too complicated sometime compromises our ability to operate as successfully as we would wish.
KCS: The equipment is getting safer and more productive; however, we've experienced challenges with getting service in the field for new engines. To resolve these challenges, we are working with engine vendors to understand our capabilities for making field repairs on our own.
NS: The trend is definitely toward safer and more reliable machines. While today's machinery is far superior to what was available in the past, the mistake that some manufacturers are making is getting too complicated with their designs. The more complicated a machine becomes, the less reliable and harder it is to repair. The best machines reach a good balance between simplicity and advanced computerization and electronics.
Once you've purchased m/w machinery, are suppliers adequately supporting you with spare parts? Do you feel improvement is needed in this area?
Amtrak: This mainly depends on the manufacturer. We have found some to be excellent in supporting and supplying spare parts and there are others that definitely need improvement in all areas of how they do business concerning spare or replacement parts.
CN: Getting parts to our work locations is an issue with some vendors. There should be more of a focus from our suppliers to keep parts on hand and available. Great improvements can and need to be made in this area to increase the reliability and production of our equipment.
CP: We include parts availability and timeliness in our acquisition decision-making.
Having O.E.M. suppliers stocking spare parts and not relying on their supply chain would allow us to decrease re-stocking especially on slow moving and special items.
KCS: It is a challenge and progression toward improvements is slow.
NS: Most manufacturers do a good job supporting their machines. However, sometimes the cost, especially for technicians and specialized spare parts, can be quite expensive. We try to minimize those costs by using as much off-the-shelf material as possible and by handling our own parts inventory.