Ballast maintenance for the best roadbed

Written by Jenifer Nunez, assistant editor
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Loram Railvac 3 working on CSX.

For proper support and drainage along the railroads both big and small, a good ballast maintenance program is key.

{besps}March13_ballast{/besps} {besps_c}0|1ballast13.jpg|Hasrsco’s Spreader Ditcher out on the tracks, ready for ballast maintenance.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|2ballast13.jpg|Plasser American Corp. washes ballast for reuse on the railroad.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|3ballast13.jpg|NMC Railway Systems’ 10-foot undercutter.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|4ballast13.jpg|GREX’s BallastSaver out on the rails performing an inspection of the ballast profile.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|5ballast13.jpg|Ballast cars from Herzog Railroad Services, Inc., ready on the rails for distribution.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|6ballast13.jpg|Dymax’s Rail Rider II.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|7ballast13.jpg|The Loram Railvac 3 doing work on CSX near the Stuart Tunnel in Magnolia, W.Va.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|8ballast13.jpg|Balfour Beatty’s Plasser RM80 ballast undercutter moves down a stretch of track in rural Montanta. The RM80 is capable of operating at high speeds, even in areas where ballast is encrusted, resulting in less track time.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|9ballast13.jpg|Deere 200D Excavators using RCE off-track undercutting process.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|10ballast13.jpg|Nordco’s rebuilt Jackson 6700 Production Tamper.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|11ballast13.jpg|A Tensar geogrid being installed.{/besps_c}

For proper support and drainage along the railroads both big and small, a good ballast maintenance program is key.

Not just any type, shape or size of rock is fit to be part of a railroad maintenance program. There is a specific science to the selection process, upkeep and replacement of ballast and suppliers across North America are utilizing the most advanced detetction technologies and the most efficient machines available to help the railroads keep track stable.

Balfour Beatty

Balfour Beatty Rail, Inc., has been working towards transforming the way the industry assesses and corrects trackbed issues. The company offers an assortment of solutions designed to save money by zeroing in on trackbed conditions. A number of devices work together to assess levels of fouling, identifying wetbeds and ballast pockets, known indicators of sub-grade problems.

The Rail Asset Scanning Car (RASC) is a track vehicle equipped with multiple sensor systems that capture information. For example, the RASC’s Ground Penetrating Radar sends electronic magnetic pulses through the trackbed that return and furnish a clear picture of ballast conditions beneath the surface. The RASC is also equipped with Lidar laser technology and other devices for the mapping of the ballast surface, along with track assets and terrain/geographical features.

“This is a great convenience and time-saver for our clients,” said Steve Atherton, technical services manager of the company’s Rail Services division. “We realize they don’t want anyone tying up the tracks any longer than absolutely necessary. Track time is money and we minimize that time using the RASC technology.”

On the development front, Balfour Beatty Rail has been working with its partner, Zetica Rail, to build onto the RASC’s capabilities. A particular focus has been integration of multiple trackbed inspection solutions. Balfour Beatty Rail and Zetica have researched the uses of RASC technologies around the world in order to broaden capabilities in the United States. The ongoing studies include the investigation of derailment sites, formation settlement and trackbed construction detail.

Additionally, a new system of measurement is in place to analyze and assess the materials that ballast undercutters handle on the sites. During 2012, Balfour Beatty Rail continued to use Work Order Recommendation (WOR), a software-based system that determines the most cost-effective maintenance plan. Using the data gathered from a number of technologies, WOR recommends whatever work is necessary, even informing the client when there’s no current need for maintenance services.

“Railroads are always looking for ways to trim maintenance costs and this is one effective way we can make that possible for them,” said R.T. Swindall, director of operations for the Rail Services division.


DymaxRail recently released its 15-foot Ballast Blaster with a spoil master system. The blaster expands versatility for those using 29- to 35-ton excavators. The Blaster Bar is 15-feet in length and can be used for ballast removal at switches. The chain is designed to cut in both directions and features a complete 360-degree rotation.

“No matter where you are positioned to the track the operator has total flexibility,” noted Allen Switzer, general sales manager. “The chain is hydraulically tightened by using a patent-pending tightening system. The operator doesn’t need to get out of the cab to tighten chains every two hours. The new spoil master system has been developed to pull the ballast away from the chain easily and is a great feature where track beds are relatively flat. No extra power source is required to be added to the excavator saving the owner money.”

Dymax also offers its Rail Rider II. The remote-controlled system includes a power cart with a 240hp engine and hydraulic pump featuring the ability to use hand held-tools for the gang. The machine cart has two hydraulic motors to propel the Rail Rider with the excavator mounted. Dymax notes that removal of both carts along the track takes five minutes or less. The Rail Rider II can achieve speeds up to 25 mph and pull 50 tons of material in an additional cart.


Georgetown Rail Equipment Company (GREX) has been working to refine BallastSaver, its newest inspection technology, which it says provides railroads the ability to objectively define their ballast needs. During the past several months, enhancements have focused on finding new features, such as lateral instability detection and improving inclement weather inspection capabilities.

“BallastSaver is unique because it is preprogrammed with the customer’s ideal ballast profile,” said Lynn Turner, vice president of marketing and sales. “Since each railroad has their own ideal profile for ballast shoulders, BallastSaver customizes it’s inspections for every customer and provides railroads an unbiased inspection across their system or subdivision. Uniform inspection provides accurate ballast assessment and allows planning for delivery of precise amounts only where needed. Our customers are recognizing the benefits of this and are responding to the availability of BallastSaver technology.”

BallastSaver data can be collected during daylight or in the dark, rain or sun. One new feature that BallastSaver now offers is Lateral Instability Detection (LID). There are certain conditions in which a track shoulder can be completely washed away or eroded, thus exposing the ends of the ties. Turner says these instances weaken the track’s lateral stability and create dangerous conditions that can result in derailments.

“When these conditions occur suddenly, they are identified by regular track inspections,” said Turner. “However, when these instances develop slowly over time, they can easily be overlooked and become accidents waiting to happen. BallastSaver automatically identifies these areas and reports them for immediate remediation.”

BallastSaver can be used as a stand-alone service or in conjunction with GREX’s ballast delivery system, GateSync, which takes the precise location and amount of ballast needed, which is provided by BallastSaver, then executes a precise ballast delivery dump run at up to 10 mph.

Harsco Rail

Harsco Rail’s Spreader Ditcher is a versatile maintenance machine used to plow heavy snow, spread ballast and cut trackside ditches. Originally introduced in the 1960s, Harsco points out this machine has continuously evolved for use by the railroads.

Recently, Harsco realized the Spreader Ditcher was in need of some updating to aid North American railroads with their winter maintenance and summer roadbed re-profiling programs.

At 53 feet long and weighing 160,000 pounds, the new Harsco Spreader Ditcher machine features an operator control cab, front plow, side wings, two non-powered bogies, AAR couplers and an APU for electrical/hydraulic power.

“With these updated machines, the railroads will not only fend off snow and ice, but achieve benefits in ballast spreading and ditching efforts,” shared Craig Sandsted, product manager.

Harsco says railroads primarily use the Spreader Ditcher to reduce the time it takes to clear or re-profile their ballasted tracks. The machine is able to cut fouled ballast from the end of ties and plow clean ballast on the track. Carrying and distributing clean ballast, the machine helps move the ballast to produce the correct track roadbed section. The Spreader Ditcher also plows in center, right or left hand direction, while retrieving ballast deposited outside the toe line.

“We have had this machine in our product line for a long time. It is exciting to still be manufacturing the Spreader Ditcher today, especially with the updated features,” shared Sandsted.


The Herzog Railroad Services, Inc. (HRSI), GPS Ballast Train took a big step in its evolution in 2012. Although the trains may look the same on the outside, HRSI says there have been many changes made internally.

Since the first generation GPS train, HRSI upgraded its computer circuit boards, wiring, door cylinders and flow sensors. All of these upgrades were made to increase the unloading accuracy and efficiency of the train. The company says further development of the Herzog ProScan Lidar Truck has also helped the evolution of its ballast trains. The ProScan Lidar Truck can replace the standard manual pre-dump survey with an automated one utilizing lasers to determine the appropriate amount of ballast needed.

“This technology will drastically reduce valuable track time needed for pre-dump surveys and remove the human subjectivity from the equation,” explained Tim Francis, vice president of marketing. “When the Herzog ballast trains are used in conjunction with our ProScan Lidar Truck, we make sure that the ballast is placed where it is needed.”

In late 2012, Herzog Railroad Services, Inc., was asked to write a new program to provide for a more robust ballast spread on concrete ties for new construction skeletonized track. The new program now allows the company to dump 30 cars per mile on concrete tie new construction projects with its GPS SMART train. The company can dump 10 cars to each shoulder and 10 to the center of track using GPS technology at a dumping speed of six mph; a 75-car GPS SMART train can be dumped in about 30 minutes.

Knox Kershaw

Knox Kershaw Inc.’s (KKI) KSF 940 can be equipped with ballast or snow equipment, based on location and season. Recently, a brushcutter option was added to the machine in order to give it more versatility.

“Based on requests from transit railroads, KKI has developed a special wing for its line of ballast regulators that is designed specifically for tight clearances, such as platforms and retaining walls,” noted George Pugh, vice president of operations.

KKI now offers two convertible gauge ballast regulators that can convert from standard (56.5-in.) to wider gauges and from standard to narrower gauges.


Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc., offers ballast services that include shoulder ballast cleaning, spot undercutting with the Loram Railvac and track lifting with the Track Lifter Undercutter Series (TLU). The company has expanded features of the TLU, which include track positioning, an improved sledding blade and a tie-pad replacement module. Loram says it has also added enhancements to its ballast cleaners and Railvacs that improve travel efficiencies and safety.

“Loram’s customers continue to spotlight speed, performance and reliability when asking for equipment and services,” explained Scott Diercks, product development manager. “Railroads continue to pursue advancements in machine performance that will optimize productivity. Productivity gains allow our customers to complete more work during a season and reduce costs. In addition, new technologies are beginning to enter the market that assist with assessing and planning work needs. These tools allow our customers to use their budgets in the most effective and efficient manner.”

Loram points out that railroads are aware of the long-term sustainable benefits through increased budgets for ballast maintenance activities. Diercks says customers are working to maintain their ballast section in a preventative maintenance mode.

“Strategically, this allows our customers to cover more of their system rather than only focusing on problematic areas,” he noted. “In addition, it lowers overall costs, increases traffic throughput and provides more return on their investment.”

Loram has also seen a trend to coordinate equipment with system work gangs during major track outages. Utilizing work blocks in this fashion allows Loram to provide optimal production and reduce lower overall cost for the customer.

Currently, Loram is expanding its fleet of Railvacs for specialty ballast evacuation in areas of tight clearances, such as ballast deck bridges, switch winterization, tunnels and on transit properties. The company notes that its Railvac is designed to work on tough Class 1 railroad conditions, but flexible enough to accommodate transit and commuter railroads. It is designed to apply 5,000 pounds of force, coupled with a rotating nozzle to break up tough material. The machine also features remote joystick controls and nozzle flexibility to reach hard-to-reach track structures.

Miner Enterprises

Miner Enterprises, Inc., has been committed to improving the design and performance/life-cycle of the linear actuators and electrical systems used in the Miner Electric AggreGate®, a stand-alone electric aggregate system.

“The system enables independent operation of the car from anywhere within a ballast train, eliminating the need for grouping manual and automatic cars,” noted Chris Gaydos, manager of mechanical engineering.

The company has been developing a ballast plowing system to add to existing ballast cars, which will use the existing cars, Miner AggreGate power supply system, including electric, hydraulic or pneumatic. A manual version of the plow can be applied to any ballast car.

During the past year, Miner has provided twin cylinder, remote-control-operated ballast systems for cars exported to South America. In addition, Miner provided AggreGates to FreightCar America, Inc., for a 162-car BNSF build and continues to supply various models for car conversions and ballast car upgrades. Miner AggreGate is available in pry bar manual, push-button or remote-control operations using pneumatic or electric power to operate the gates.


NMC Railway Systems offers the 320EL excavator package with an undercutter bar and four motor tie tamper.

“The 320EL design provides increased performance and durability, which allows for easy transportation to and from the operator’s jobsite,” explained Chuck Haskell, sales manager. “Available with undercutting capabilities, the set-up is ideal for removing ballast in all areas of track line.”

New to the NMC Railway Systems product line, is the 15-foot undercutter bar with spoil management system (SMS). The redesigned undercutter bar features a 360-degree rotation, a bi-directional chain with fixed teeth and a self-tensioning chain system to lengthen the life of the undercutter chain. The company says it is best utilized on a Cat® 329EL off-track excavator.

“This past year, NMC Railway Systems has increased its rental fleet inventory to incorporate more custom engineered products,” said Haskell. “We have found that customers have a strong need to add products to their rental inventory that can help increase jobsite productivity during key ballast maintenance months. Products like the Cat 420F IT Backhoe with an undercutter bar, two motor tie tamper and tie inserters, to the extremely versatile 312 HRE (hi-rail excavator) with a 10-foot undercutter bar, are both available on a rental contract. These products, along with other custom equipment, provide increased performance and improved track maintenance projects in short windows.”


Nordco Inc. recently expanded its machine and parts rebuild capabilities for production tampers.

“We are able to completely rebuild and upgrade virtually any production or switch tamper on the market,” noted Bill Straub, president of Nordco Equipment Services. “In addition, we now carry an extensive line of Jackson 6700 rebuilt parts and components and we continue to expand our offerings each month.”

Straub says that railroads have been searching for ways to expand the useful life of their maintenance-of-way assets.

“The opportunity to completely rebuild, essentially creating a new asset for a fraction of the cost of a new machine, is key to achieving this goal,” he said. “Our continuing emphasis on expanding our rebuild business is designed to meet this cost-saving need.”

Plasser American

The Plasser RM 900 VB ballast cleaning machine offers a cost-savings to customers by reusing ballast, instead of replacing ballast, in addition to a number of versatile uses. The machine is fitted with the necessary work units for ballast recycling with optional supply of new ballast; ballast cleaning with optional supply of new ballast and full excavation with optional supply of new ballast.

The RM 900 VB incorporates a primary ballast screening unit and a crushing plant to sharpen ballast edges for recycling, in addition to the ballast undercutting/excavating chain and the high-performance eccentric screening unit, with dust suppression system. Other features of the RM 900 VB include the two track stabilizing units, which work to achieve the best possible initial track geometry quality and a sweeper unit. The sweeper unit sweeps ties and can pick up surplus ballast for redistribution. This is used to compensate for any shortage of ballast in the worksite.

Plasser also offers its RM 95-800 W, which is equipped with an impact crusher to sharpen the reusable ballast and a ballast washing unit.

“In combination with the vibrating screening units, this achieves a very high cleaning quality of the re-installed ballast,” noted Plasser. “Besides the outstanding cleaning result, residue from the ballast is also washed away. Due to the integrated water treatment plant, the washing water can be re-used to a large extent. All of this is carried out on-track and achieves a considerable reduction of the transportation cost and the associated pollutant emissions. Only the non-reusable share of fine particles is taken away and this brings considerable cost savings.”

In full operation, the RM 95-800 W performs the following stages of work: excavation of ballast, pre-separation, sharpening, screening, washing and returning ballast to the track. Additionally, it is possible to have a continuous supply of new ballast, which allows more material to be added and the track geometry is measured before and after ballast bed cleaning.


Rail Construction Equipment Co. has recently made some upgrades to help production and improve the routine maintenance of its undercutter bars. The company offers its under cutter excavators through sale, rental or lease programs.

Dennis Hanke, sales manager, says that versatility of equipment and the ability to work on- and off-track are at the top of customer requests.

“The most important thing the we feel our customers need to do is set up a good plan and a job site prep process, he said. “This, with the proper equipment selection and set up, will provide higher production in the long run.”

Categories: Ballast, Ties, Rail, ON Track Maintenance, Track Machinery