The railroads’ ideal M/W machine

Written by Mischa Wanek-Libman, editor
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Every railroad has a different ideal when it comes to machinery, but safety, reliability and ease of use are common factors found on every wish list.


The ideal maintenance-of-way machine may exist for some railroads, but it may still be “in the works” for others. When it comes to m/w equipment, safety remains the top feature required of the railroads, followed by ease of use, rate of production and ease of maintenance.

RT&S surveyed the Engineering Departments from North America’s Class 1 railroads. Their answers show what those departments need and expect out of their machinery and what they would like to see in future equipment incarnations. RT&S thanks those railroads who participated in this survey.

1. Main factors 2013

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?

Canadian National: 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 and accessibility to spare parts, ease of maintenance and repairs, production rates and versatility. We would also like to see fuel efficiency information for the different types of equipment in order to compare operating costs.

Kansas City Southern: In maintenance-of-way machinery, KCS evaluates operational safety and related features, reliability and productivity.

Norfolk Southern: Safety is always our first concern, with machinery or anything else. We also need machinery that is highly reliable, sturdy enough to withstand an outdoor environment and year-round use, which also has a production rate that allows 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 easy to operate so employees can learn to use 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 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.

2. Most important feature

What is the most important single feature, after safety, for you and your railroad?  Why?

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. We look for equipment that has self-diagnostic systems to assist with troubleshooting in the field. These systems will increase productivity and reduce downtime of our fleet by quickly pin pointing defective components and improving preventative maintenance opportunities.

KCS: After safety, KCS puts priority on reliability and productivity. As traffic volumes grow, work windows shrink, so it’s critical that machinery functions well and achieves maximum productivity during these track outages.

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.

3. Appealing new features

In today’s market, what new features or improvements in m/w machinery have the most appeal to you?

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 while in the field.
We are interested in the new Drone Tampers to increase productivity on production tampers.

KCS: More compact machines that allow for easy on/off-track capabilities have the greatest appeal. The ability to set on to the rail from small crossings is also a benefit. Smaller units require less space in tie up locations.

NS: The new machines that are the most useful are Drone machines and remote-controlled machines. We are working on our second set of Drone machines. We use Drone tampers now and we are testing a Drone anchor adjusting machine.

We want equipment that allows operators to use 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.

4. Specs for the ideal machine

If you could write the specs for an ideal m/w machine, what features would you include?

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 and cab configurations, quick change applications from one action to another on the same equipment platform (multi-purpose machines).

KCS: A multi-purpose machine would be ideal. For example, a rail/testing machine, all-in-one rail ultrasonic and geometry testing, etc. Again, the objective would be to maximize productivity during work windows.

NS: The ideal machine would 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.

5. Machines with the most benefit

Looking at recent purchases, what big-ticket piece of equipment has offered the most benefit to your railroad? What about among lower-priced equipment?

CN: The Plasser 09-32 DYNA C.A.T.s and Harsco Drones were our big ticket purchases. These machines can tamp 36-44 ties per minute and are very reliable. Also, the purchase of the Bi-Directional Rail Pick Up Unit will increase our production rate of rail pick up. The lower-priced items that we have purchased are the Nordco CX Spikers with auto-feed capability and the Knox Kershaw Cribber-Adzers and Clip Applicators.

CP: Purchase of new production tampers and snowfighters. Increasing our fleet of production tampers has allowed us to reduce and minimize slow orders across our network.
Increasing and modernizing our snow fighter fleet has expedited track clean up and line restoration especially in mountain sub divisions.
Use of track drills using carbide interchangeable bits has decreased drilling time on production crews.

KCS: Recently, KCS has been focused on equipment renewals and has purchased standard, albeit newer, more efficient equipment, such as spiking machines and tampers.

NS: The best big-ticket machine purchase is our new ballast cleaner. This machine, along with our current ballast cleaner, allows us to work at a higher production rate and reduced cost versus using leased equipment.

We are currently putting in service remote chain saw/grappling bucket combinations on our material handling trucks to cut trees off the track after severe storms. These are worth their weight in gold because they improve safety and productivity during inclement weather.

6. Aspirin for the headaches

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?

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. Also, a single, ride-on production unit that could insert and remove lag screws.

CP: Slow orders behind tie crews. We need to have more versatile/interchangeable equipment with quick on-track set up to allow us to increase production time when faced with decreased block availability.

KCS: Securing track time on a busy railroad is the greatest challenge.

NS: Our biggest challenge continues to be track time. However, we are addressing this with new productivity initiatives that are paying high dividends. This is a function of interdepartmental cooperation more than machine ability. But once we have the track time we must have a machine that can perform the work without breaking down or malfunctioning.

Only a year ago we were talking about being able to link to train dispatchers’ computer systems to determine track windows, today, we are actually seeing some of that come true with good results. With these advancements, we would like to see improvements in material distribution, unloading material just ahead of the gangs at night as technology advances and GPS capabilities allow.

7. Relationships with suppliers

When you meet with suppliers, what are you telling them about your m/w machinery needs? Do you find suppliers responsive to your requests?

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 [the railroad feels] 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 and, yes, suppliers are responsive to our requests.

KCS: There appears to be a lot of innovation in the industry right now as technology develops at a rapid pace. Suppliers are actively reaching out to railroads and pitching new ideas.

NS: We have good relationships with our suppliers and they always try to meet our requests and requirements. Price is usually the biggest obstacle.

8. Recognizing trends

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 machinery being too costly, too complicated, etc.?

CN: Absolutely, the 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 more ergonomically suitable at present, which makes it safer. More machines now have climate controlled cabs for operator comfort. Tier 4 emission control for diesel engines is big concern for end users.

KCS: Reliability and ease of use are improving with the current models of standard equipment.

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 designing equipment that is too complicated. The more complicated a machine, the less reliable and harder it is to repair. The best machines have a good balance of simplicity, advanced computerization and electronics. Again, cost is always a factor.

9. Spare parts

Once you’ve purchased m/w machinery, are suppliers adequately supporting you with spare parts? Do you feel improvement is needed in this area?

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. Absolutely, 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 accessibility as part of 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. Some of the lead times on parts from OEM’s are extremely long.

Categories: Class 1, Track Machinery