Shortline Maintenance: Focus on the Fundamentals

Written by Lawrence Romaine
Shortline maintenance track joint
A track joint, measured with a level board. The distance between the base of the rail and the tie plate must be added to the static measurement.

Shortlines rely on track inspection, efficient use of resources, application of the industry’s best practices, and compliance with railroad rules and federal regulations to meet day-to-day and long-term track maintenance challenges.

There are more than 500 shortline railroads in North America. These properties grapple with track and bridge maintenance issues on a daily basis, just as the class 1 railroads do. Shortline railroads deal with maintenance issues differently, however, due to lower traffic volumes and tighter budgets than their Class 1 brethren. And while they all differ from Class 1s, all shortlines are not created equal. Those owned by major holding companies, for example, have access to maintenance equipment, personnel and financial resources that individually owned properties do not. These smaller properties often must rely on contract services to meet their maintenance needs.

A primary difference between shortlines and class I railroads is that track on class 1s is maintained to higher standards than it is on shortlines. Class 1 capital maintenance programs are designed to start the maintenance cycle at a level well above the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)-allowable safety limits for the given class of track. As the track degrades over time to a point approaching the FRA limits, a capital program is put in place to bring the track back to the railroad’s prescribed maintenance limit, and the cycle starts over again. While shortlines engage in the same type of cyclical capital maintenance programs, shortline programs are designed to start their maintenance life at a level that is much closer to FRA-allowable limits—even after a capital program.

Some of the typical maintenance-of-way issues that shortlines face include:

— Roadmasters often have duties beyond maintaining track. They often are responsible for bridges and signals; in some cases, they have mechanical or even transportation responsibilities, as well. Dealing with multiple responsibilities such as these can detract from the time the roadmaster spends on the track.

— Turnover of key employees can be high, with migration to class 1s or local jobs that pay a similar wage but are “less demanding,” i.e., with more predictable schedules and a correspondingly better “quality of life.”

— Crosstie and switch-tie condition is often marginal to poor.

— Rail flaw and track geometry testing are not always performed on a regular basis, and in some cases, not at all.

— Rail section is often 100-pound or less, and a large percentage of the routes have jointed rail.

— Many curves are over-elevated, designed for higher operating speeds by their former class 1 owners than current shortline operating speeds.

— Unless there is a source on line, the cost of transporting ballast by truck or across class 1 lines is prohibitively expensive.

— Road crossing conditions are often poor, with little or no funds available for capital upgrades.

— Many bridges are timber trestles that have had deferred maintenance; and many are not rated for 286K loading.

— Staff is often minimal; when larger projects are encountered, contractors often must be called in.

— Some states have programs to support shortline railroads with grants for capital maintenance, but many do not.

— Most capital must be spent on the main line; maintenance-starved yards and industrial leads are often in very poor condition and fall into excepted track status.

The best roadmasters know their railroad better than anyone else.

In order to deal with the myriad of challenges that a shortline faces, the Engineering / Maintenance team must focus on the fundamentals of track maintenance. Key among them is the amount of time a roadmaster spends on track. Time on track is what enables a roadmaster to manage work in the field, and to plan and prioritize upcoming projects so that they can be performed safely and efficiently with the available resources. Central to an effective program is regular and effective track inspection. The best roadmasters know their railroad better than anyone else. They learn it by spending time in the field. An adage in the shortline business is that the three most important things a roadmaster can do are: hi-rail, hi-rail and hi-rail.

The hi-rail is the catbird seat from which the roadmaster obtains firsthand knowledge of the property’s track, bridge, and right-of-way conditions; observes and interacts with the maintenance team; and ensures that work meets the requirements and that it is done safely. Getting everybody home safely is—or should be—rule 1 on every railroad. One “look the other way” concerning a Roadway Worker or Safety Rule violation is all it takes to lose all credibility, forever.

Training is a fundamental element of shortline maintenance. Roadway Worker Protection and CWR training are required annually. But what about ongoing training in Bridge Worker Safety and the FRA Track Safety Standards? Just because the regulation is silent on refresher training doesn’t mean shortline employees don’t need it. Regular training is a must. Good training and regular interaction between supervisors and staff can also help reduce staff turnover.

Good track inspection starts with the understanding that the FRA Regulations (Track Safety Standards, Roadway Worker, Bridge Worker, Signal) are the law and must be complied with. Just as important, it must be understood that these are minimums, and that track workers often need to take remedial action before a defect reaches the FRA safety threshold. Track Inspectors are often under pressure, either real or perceived, to not write up defects because they don’t think the roadmaster has the resources to address them. While it’s important to empower track inspectors and foremen, they must always be made to deal in facts—facts in the form of measurements made with level boards, tape measures, taper gauges, straight-edges and other tools of the trade.

Looking for trouble

It’s also important to know where and how to find trouble before it finds you. Track-caused derailments, for example, typically occur in curves or in turnouts. Roadmasters should ensure that turnouts—starting from 15 feet ahead of the switch points through the reverse curve behind the frog—get a walking inspection every month (as required by regulation). With the often-marginal tie conditions found on shortlines, inspectors must be on the lookout for signs of plate slippage in and around turnouts and in curves. It’s always best to take remedial action before conditions reach FRA-mandated exception levels: You never know when the right train-induced action may cause a weak area to fail and result in a derailment.

Roadmasters sometimes fall into the trap of adding spikes to repair locations exhibiting wide gage and plate slippage. This might buy a little time, but only tie replacement will correct the condition.

It’s a good maintenance practice for inspectors to throw every switch, as part of every monthly inspection. While this exceeds FRA requirements, it’s not possible to properly inspect a turnout without throwing the switch. Broken and-out-of adjustment switch points are a frequent cause of derailments. While they usually occur at slow speeds and cause minimal damage, derailments still interrupt service to customers and put railroad employees and potentially the public at risk.

Managers must follow up on and verify the quality of track inspection reports to ensure that they reflect the conditions in the field. Developing employees and recognizing good performance can help retain staff. By riding with the track inspector, a roadmaster can provide minor course corrections in performance, reinforce training, and show appreciation for a job well done. Joint inspection trips can be documented as efficiency tests to comply with federal regulations; they also encourage better communication and understanding between the inspector and roadmaster. As part of this process, the roadmaster should compare recent track inspection reports with the conditions observed in the field. The reports should paint a good picture of the overall track conditions. If there is a discrepancy, the roadmaster can work with the inspector to provide a better understanding of the expectations, then follow up to ensure that they’re being met.

Another basic principle is to minimize the use of 213.9(B), which allows track inspectors the flexibility to approve operation over a sub-class 1 defect for up to 30 days, as a remedial action. Applying 213.9(B) can be useful, but it carries a risk that can lead to derailment or sudden out-of-service track. When 213.9(B) must be used, the railway should have a system in place to track the defects to ensure they are corrected before 30 days have expired. If the defects are not corrected within 30 days, the track must be removed from service until the defective condition is corrected.

Shortline bridge inspections

On shortlines, track inspectors and roadmasters often function as defacto bridge inspectors and supervisors, as well. When deteriorating track conditions are observed on a bridge, there is typically a structural issue associated with the bridge. Whenever the likelihood of this condition is identified, the track inspector must get out of the hi-rail truck and inspect the underside of the bridge to find the source of the problem. Sometimes bridge-related issues can be corrected by the local section team, but a bridge contractor is often brought in to affect the repairs.

Rail flaw testing is another important part of a good maintenance program on a shortline railroad. While some internal rail defects, such as vertical split heads (VSH), horizontal split heads (HSH), head and web separations (HWJ or HWO) and detail fractures (TDD) can be visually identified by an astute inspector, ultrasonic rail flaw detection systems provide the most accurate assessment of internal rail conditions.

Consequently, rail flaw testing is a critical part of most railroads’ track maintenance plan. Due to budgetary constraints, however, many shortlines do not remove all identified defects. Railroads can do so and remain in compliance with the regulations because FRA regulations allow operations over many rail defects at speeds of 30 mph or less. Since most shortlines operate at less than 30 mph, these defects may legally remain in the track. While leaving known defects in track is not an ideal practice, it’s a way of exercising cost/risk management. But some defects, such as transverse fissures (TD), detail fractures (TDD) Vertical split heads (VSH) and head and web separations (HWJ or HWO) over 12 inches in length, should always be removed from track, as these types of internal defects are the most likely to cause a derailment.

Most of the defects on shortlines are usually joint-area defects.

The combination of light rail sections, marginal tie conditions, and heavy loads takes its toll on joints. Properties that lack the funds to replace rail can often improve overall joint conditions through targeted bolt-tightening and crosstie-installation programs to drive down the number of rail defects found in the joint areas. This can be done as part of a capital program or by doing the necessary maintenance, one joint at a time. Tightening the bolts, correcting the joint / tie condition, and surfacing the joint area helps the joint carry the wheel loads and reduces the potential for problems in the future. Like their class 1 counterparts, shortlines can review the results from previous rail flaw tests to prepare for an upcoming test to ensure that enough rail, joint bars, bolts, etc., are on hand and distributed to make the rail changeout process more efficient.

Track geometry testing is another important component of a track-maintenance and derailment-prevention plan. Most shortlines owned by holding companies regularly perform track geometry testing. Most use contract services, but some shortlines or holding companies own their own test vehicles. Training track inspectors (and track foremen, in some cases) to understand and properly use strip chart and defect data from the test vehicles is essential. Use of the data should extend beyond remediating “critical” defects to identifying areas showing signs of degradation. These areas should be added to the roadmaster’s prioritized maintenance list.

Most shortlines use hi-rail track geometry vehicles, but at times railbound vehicles, such as those from a class 1 partner or the FRA, may be available. These vehicles have the added advantage of being heavy enough to load the track structure like a freight train would. Hi-rail geometry vehicles usually fall into one of three categories; light (hi-rail pickup truck-based); heavy (hi-rail with 10,000-pound loading at the point of measurement), or split axle (incorporating a load axle that applies a hydraulically induced vertical and horizontal load to the track). There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these vehicles, but all of them provide information that can help in preventing derailments and planning future maintenance. Light vehicles are the least expensive, can set on and off at track at most grade crossings, but do not load the track. This can be compensated for by reducing defect thresholds to below those allowed by the Track Safety Standards, and by visually inspecting all critical defects that are found and taking remedial actions based on the estimated under-load measurement. Heavy track geometry vehicles do a very good job of loading the track, but are more expensive, require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate and require longer road crossings to set on or off track. Split-axle vehicles also do a great job of loading the track, but are usually more expensive and larger. They also require a CDL and longer grade crossings.

Most of these vehicles produce several reports and a strip chart that can be used to ensure that the track is within safety limits, and to plan future maintenance. The strip chart is a continuous graphical readout of all the parameters measured by the test vehicle. Once familiar with the chart, the roadmaster and track inspector can use the graphical information to identify and monitor areas showing signs of degradation. Critical defect reports identify areas that do not meet the requirements of the Track Safety Standards. These defects are often verified in the field at the time of the test, and remedial action is applied before the track protection is released.

Other reports may include “near-critical” defects and curve data reports. The near-critical defect report identifies areas that are degrading, and allows the roadmaster to plan repairs before they become critical defects. Curve reports identify the maximum allowable speed for a curve, based on the amount of superelevation, the degree of curvature, the length of curve, etc. This information can be very useful when planning track surfacing, curve gaging, or curve rail replacement programs.

A portable track loading fixture (PTLF) applies a lateral load to the base of the rail to measure lateral displacement.

With or without access to track geometry testing data, shortlines rely on track inspection to find defects—including those that are difficult to detect visually. While hi-rail inspection is essential in that it enables inspectors to cover a lot of ground, sometimes a walking inspection of particularly troublesome areas, such as joints, known “soft spots,” curves, turnouts and switch points, in particular, is essential. In some cases, inspectors must be able see the effect of dynamic action that occurs under load in order to identify conditions that are at or approaching a defect threshold, even if static measurements on unloaded track do not indicate a need for remedial action. The use of technology devices such as portable track loading fixture (PTLF) or gage or crosslevel measuring devices that attach to or are pulled behind a hi-rail truck can help detect gage and surface defects. The PTLF is a hand-held device similar in size to a level board that applies horizontal hydraulic pressure to the base of the rail to laterally deflect the track as it might under the dynamic load of a train. Electronic track levels, which sit on the dashboard of a hi-rail vehicle, also provide good information on the track surface. While not as accurate as a track geometry vehicle, this type of instrument, along with pull-behind or hi-rail attached gage measuring devices, provide a great supplement to the track inspector’s visual inspection.

Capex plans

Capital planning and execution on shortlines are similar to the processes on class Is. But there are several important differences. Where a class I might plan to timber a stretch of track at 1,000 ties or more per mile, the shortline roadmaster often must decide how to spread the available capital over many miles to help maintain FRA compliance. This might mean balancing the use of spot-in ties with segments timbered with a higher number of ties per mile to maintain a segment of track to a level that will avoid the need to revisit the same track segment year after year. Shortlines often combine some “spot timbering” with programs of 600 – 700 ties per mile to cover timbering needs for 6 to 8 years, while keeping other areas legal and safe.

Unlike class 1s, most capital projects on shortlines are contracted; they’re often funded through government grants or loans. Creating the proper scope of work for the request for proposal (RFP) is very important. Determining who is going to mark the ties to be replaced, unload and distribute material, who is going to dispose of the scrap ties, who will ensure that environmental regulations are complied with, and how are gage and mud locations are to be handled can be complicated. They must be addressed in the project scope. In the most effective programs, the roadmaster marks the ties to ensure FRA compliance and proper utilization of the available resources.

With funding as limited as it is, shortlines have to clearly identify the scope of the projects and zealously guard against the potential for change-orders. In projects at road crossings, for example, the scope must clearly identify who will dispose of the waste asphalt, who will handle maintenance of traffic, how high the track should be raised, and who is responsible for ensuring that ends of the crossings are cleaned to promote drainage away from the track.

Before selecting a contractor, shortlines must assess the contractor’s work and safety records. The shortline must ascertain whether the approved contractor has up-to-date training and approved drug and alcohol programs. Whenever contract services are used, contractors must be managed to ensure that they comply with work and safety rules, and contract terms.

Shortlines must also have a qualified Roadway Worker in Charge (RWIC) as the point person for on-track safety for the team. Whenever possible, the RWIC should be the “part 213-qualified” employee on site as well. This person should understand the scope and quality expectations for the project. This employee, who should have a copy of the contact documents, should walk portions of the work every day with the roadmaster to ensure that the work is being performed as expected. At the end of the day, the 213-qualified employee must be confident that the track complies with FRA regulations, and that it is safe and ready for use.

For track surfacing projects, the project plan must identify the expected lift, how muddy areas and ties that are knocked down by the tamper and will be addressed, and who will unload ballast. The railroad should provide a ballast section standard that specifies how the ballast is to be shaped and dressed. Elevation charts should be provided to surfacing crews to ensure that curves are properly elevated, typically using a 1-1/2- to 2-inch unbalanced chart. When there is not enough ballast available, crews should be prepared to remove whatever excess elevation they can from the affected curves.

While track is track, shortlines, depending on their size and available resources, face a range of challenges in maintaining it. But through effective management, quality track inspection, efficient use of resources, and compliance with federal regulations, railroad rules, and the industry’s best practices, shortline operators have shown the ability to meet the maintenance challenges.

Larry Romaine is the former (retired) Vice President – Engineering of Genesee & Wyoming / RailAmerica Inc. He honed his skills in positions ranging from track supervisor to vice president of engineering on class 1 and regional railroads, and as an engineering consultant to railways, state Departments of Transportation, Port Authorities and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. #He also served on the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) Heavy Axle Load Engineering Research Committee and the Railroad Safety Advisory Committees (RSAC) on Track Integrity and Track Safety Standards.

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