Ballast Maintenance

Written by Jenifer Nunez, assistant editor
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In order to keep track in shape, an aggressive ballast maintenance program is key.


{besps}August13_ballast{/besps} {besps_c}0|1ballast.jpg| Loram’s loader car.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|2ballast.jpg| GREX consist out to deliver ballast.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|3ballast.jpg| Balfour Beatty’s RASC car.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|4ballast.jpg| Plasser American’s URM 700.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|5ballast.jpg| Herzog Railroad Services, Inc.’s, ballast dump, before and after.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|6ballast.jpg| NMC Railway Systems 324 High-Rail Excavator with 15-ft. spoil system undercutter bar.{/besps_c} {besps_c}0|7ballast.jpg| Deere 200C using RCE 12-ft. undercutter bar in an off-track process to clean mud out from under the track.{/besps_c}

In order to keep track in shape, an aggressive ballast maintenance program is key.

Railroads know that ballast maintenance isn’t something you let fall by the wayside. Ballast helps keep track tight and drainage flowing for track to stay in optimal shape. Through heavy R&D programs, suppliers are offering railroads machines that multi-task for those tight work windows.

Balfour Beatty

Balfour Beatty Rail, Inc., and its partner, Zetica, offer a suite of geophysical and geotechnical solutions for application within the railroad industry. During the past 12 months, BBRI has enhanced its Railroad Asset Scanning Car (RASC) hi-rail inspection vehicles with the introduction of upgraded GPS systems, stereo and 360-degree cameras, GPR array systems and the very latest in LIDAR scanning technology.

“These integrated systems provide greater value for the money and for the time spent on track collecting data,” noted Steve Atherton, manager of technical services. “They improve decision making based on a more holistic measurement and analysis approach. Understanding that the formation has failed in certain areas, or that moisture is ponding in others, can lead to cost-effective remediation and maintenance in a single visit. Included in the analysis are LIDAR information on surface profiles (drainage) and high-quality imagery to map assets such as tie type.”

Balfour Beatty Rail’s new ZRL200 20D high-speed LIDAR scanning system produces surface profiles of the ballast. This can be compared with customers’ trackbed templates for both tangent and curved track to identify areas of noncompliance. The system also allows detailed structural clearance measurements to be obtained during routine surveys. 

“Through these technological enhancements and our fleet of RASC inspection vehicles, we are able to offer maintenance engineers and managers a cost-effective and optimized solution for trackbed and asset condition assessment,” explained Atherton. “Our highly-experienced survey crews maximize the speed of data collection and minimize the impact on daily operations.”

Balfour Beatty Rail also develops customized data acquisition systems that integrate its GPR with existing third-party track geometry, GRMS and VTI systems.

Balfour Beatty Rail and Zetica have many research and development initiatives in progress designed to improve the use of radar technology within the railroad environment. An example of this is the deployment of the next generation of antennas that will further enhance information on the trackbed, including material types and moisture.

“Until now, this had not been fully validated by the industry,” Atherton said. “We continue to invest in upgrades to our test site so we can investigate a wider range of trackbed conditions and surface asset types. We are also assessing new inspection and monitoring technologies.”


“With ballast maintenance, as with any type of track maintenance, the ability to maneuver has always been an important factor, whether it’s the machine you’re working with or the attachment itself,” explained Matt Weyand, sales engineer at Ballast Tools Equipment Company (BTE). “Backhoe hi-rail systems are becoming increasingly popular because customers want the ability to easily perform on- or off-track tasks with the same piece of equipment.”

Keeping that in mind, BTE has a new addition this year, a BTE/CAT 450 Backhoe Hi-Rail package with a nine-foot undercutter, tamper and tie head. This machine has built-in hi-rail for quick, easy movement on- or off-track. Its four-tool tamper tamps difficult spots, such as switches and diamonds and works for off-track undercutter support. The undercutter attachment rotates 180 degrees for full access to either side of the track and is specifically designed for use with BTE backhoes.

Ballast Tools Inc.’s (BTI) Skeleton Baffle Systems (for ballast regulators) with replaceable wear plates have gone through some significant improvements in the past year. BTI’s wear-resistant plates need only one person to install and eliminate the need for change outs of entire ballast baffle systems. BTI notes that its baffle systems can now last up to four years without needing a replacement.

“Customers want to get the most out of what they’ve got,” noted Weyand. “In addition to providing parts with longer wear life, we’re performing machine upgrades on existing equipment. BTE provides undercutter upgrades, installing new high-performance motors that double the cutting speed, providing more torque in the cut. This upgrade also includes replacing the gear box and adding a customized BTI undercutter bar with field-replaceable wear strips. Not only did we make it more powerful, we reduced the need for maintenance, saving valuable time in the process.”


DymaxRail’s Ballast Blaster Undercutter product lineup is now expanded to include a 15-foot undercutter with the Spoil Master System (SMS), which is ideal for 30 ton and larger excavators.
Features of the bar include patent-pending wear plates, which are reversible and moveable to various locations and the 360-degree rotation of the Ballast Blaster allows the operator to operate in any position either on or off the track. The heavy-duty chain and bi-directional carbide tipped cutting teeth allow the chain to work in both directions.

“The patent-pending hydraulic chain tension system keeps the unit working longer because the chain does not get loose when cutting,” noted Allen Switzer, general sales manager.

The Dymax SMS has more than a year of field work under its belt and bolts on to the Ballast Blaster like an attachment, does not require a separate engine to operate and performs with rugged toughness, says Switzer.

The remaining lineup of Dymax Ballast Blasters include lengths of 12-ft., 10-ft., 8-ft. and 6-ft.; the later is designed for use on backhoe loaders.

The new Dymax Rail Rider II Hi-Rail System will be revealed at the 2013 Railway Interchange in Indianapolis, Ind.

Switzer notes that with the Rider II, “Every maintenance task can be performed, including undercutting and tamping and added features include pulling additional cars with 45 tons of tractive effort at speeds up to 20 mph.”


Georgetown Rail Equipment’s (GREX) ballast maintenance offerings have undergone recent modifications to further improve reliability and performance.

“GREX’s Solaris is an electric over hydraulic kit that converts manually-operated ballast gates into a safe, remotely controlled operation,” explained Lynn Turner, vice president of marketing and sales. “GateSync builds on Solaris kits by providing automated and seamless ballast unloading at speeds up to 10 mph, safely eliminating the need for walking personnel and maximizing short work windows.”

Solaris kits experienced recent upgrades to mechanical and electrical hardware aimed at boosting performance and ruggedness. With a Solaris kit, one operator can unload a ballast car’s four or more gates simultaneously using the supplied remote control. These recent enhancements included improved internal hydraulic components, the associated plumbing and redesigned electrical boards, all of which enhance reliability and performance, GREX notes.

“We expect these improvements to result in longer life, less maintenance and increased durability,” said Turner.

Recent enhancements to GREX’s GateSync include the optional incorporation of BallastSaver and software upgrades for improved accuracy performance. The software upgrades offer improved car-to-car signal transmissions, in addition to an enhanced operator interface that displays real-time information to aid in the unloading process.

“With the incorporation of BallastSaver, GateSync now provides the most technologically-advanced method of quantifying and delivering ballast,” noted Turner. “Traditional ballast delivery has always been subjective, leaving too much rock in some areas, but delivering too little in others. This new, more sophisticated service, using LIDAR, takes a 3-D survey of the ballast profile along the track and calculates the exact amount of ballast needed in order to conform to a customer’s ideal standard profile.”


“After many years of research and development, we achieved yet another pinnacle in our Herzog Railroad Services, Inc. (HRSI), patented GPS ballast delivery system,” noted Tim Francis, vice president of marketing. The first was the PLUS train that was capable of high-speed delivery of ballast by GPS to the shoulders of the track. The second was the development of the SMART train, which allowed for high-speed ballast delivery by GPS to the center and shoulders, as well as the ability to monitor the flow of material, therefore reducing the chance of cars becoming off-balance and eliminating skips. SMART train technology also gave us the ability to dump up to 30 cars of ballast per mile on concrete skeletonized track.”

Both GPS trains use pre-dump surveys to determine the amount of ballast that will be spread. When there is no GPS available, this process can be lengthy and allows for a certain amount of human subjectivity, says HRSI. The human subjectivity was removed and the ProScan LIDAR truck now scans the surface of the track and determines the appropriate amount of material needed based on the railroad-provided template. HRSI notes that the LIDAR truck increases the speed at which the survey can be completed and provides a more robust survey. The ProScan LIDAR Truck utilizing a P.L.U.S./SMART Train inertial system allowed the pre-dump survey to better match the train’s technology.

“This alone was a huge advancement in our ballast delivery system technology,” Francis said. “Our accuracy when dumping is also enhanced with LIDAR surveys, allowing us to reduce the dump zones so the trains can deliver ballast closer to fixed locations.”

GPS outages still have the ability to negatively impact the trains, notes Francis. Herzog was determined to find a solution so it began research and testing on options to overcome that obstacle. HRSI’s answer was to replace the standard GPS antennas with P.L.U.S./SMART Train inertial systems similar to what the ProScan LIDAR truck employs.

“After thorough analysis, we have elected to move forward and replace the GPS antennas we currently use on all of our trains with P.L.U.S./SMART Train inertial systems,” noted Francis. “This allows the LIDAR technology of our surveys to better complement our GPS trains delivery system. The inertial system allows for us to maintain our ballast dumping accuracy for a longer period of time when the GPS signal is lost.”

HRSI was recently requested to survey a tunnel that was more than two miles long. It’s R&D and operations teams were heavily involved in the process and the company says it successfully dumped using the SMART train, on both shoulders and center of the track, using its new P.L.U.S./SMART Train GNSS Inertial System technology.

Knox Kershaw

Knox Kershaw Inc. (KKI) is currently engineering some enhancements to the operating components on its ballast regulators to include touch-screen operation; integrated, programmable joysticks; hydraulic system diagnostics and general machine troubleshooting. These enhancements are expected to improve operator accuracy, decrease operator fatigue and reduce down time in the field due to misdiagnosis of machine issues. Also in the works for next year, KKI ballast regulators will have pre-programmed operations.

“KKI now offers service visits for training in operation and maintenance for its machines and other track maintenance equipment,” noted George Pugh, vice president of operations. “The company saw the need to expand upon the training offered under the typical machine warranty because well-trained operators and mechanics in the field greatly improve productivity and extend the life of maintenance machines.”

Due to customer requests, KKI is working on a new design for its yard cleaner to improve operational efficiency and transportability. Also, at the request of a transit railroad, KKI developed a brushcutter-only machine (based on the KSF 940 with brushcutter attachment) which has a blade designed to cut through dense brush and small trees.


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 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 says 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., is improving the design performance/life cycle of the linear actuators and electrical systems used in its Miner Electric AggreGate®, a stand-alone electric aggregate system. The electric stand-alone AggreGate enables independent operation of the car from anywhere within a ballast train, eliminating the need for grouping manual and automatic cars.

Miner has been working on ways to simplify the application of the aggregate systems.

“We are making these changes to help car builders and car shops streamline the applications and reduce labor costs,” explained Chris Gaydos, manager mechanical engineering.

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.

Montana Hydraulics

Montana Hydraulics provides customers its ballast plow and this year, an additional 54 Bi-Directional Ballast Plows will be added to new ballast car builds for BNSF, for a total of 169 units in service since the plow’s inception.

“We are very pleased to produce our innovative ballast plow for the railroads,” stated Della Ehlke, owner of Montana Hydraulics. “We expect more railroad MOW programs will consider our ballast plow in the near future.”   

Ehlke also notes that the yearly contract to provide ballast delivery field services for a Class 1 railroad continues to grow, as it has since 1998. Up to 16 field operating personnel manage the placement of ballast and riprap, as well as provide maintenance and repair for the specialty MOW units throughout the BNSF system.

Montana Hydraulics currently manages more than 1,600 MOW cars for its customers. The company expects to branch out to additional Class 1s in 2014.

NMC Railway Systems

A new introduction into the NMC Railway Systems’ ballast maintenance product line is the spoil system offered on the 10-ft., 12-ft. and 15-ft. undercutter bars. The bi-directional chain with fixed teeth on the spoil system allows for quick touch ups after cutting and eliminates bit replacement. The undercutter bar spoil system allows operators the ability to cut in tight locations with up to 360-degree rotation. This allows for increased maneuverability and productivity while undercutting and lessens the amount of time spent removing ballast in one area.

NMC Railway Systems says hi-rail machines allow ease and accessibility to remote track locations and with that, are receiving more requests for this machine type. The 312 or 324 Hi-Rail Excavators allows railroads the advantage of tracking on hi-rail up to 40 miles to remote locations in order to manage ballast projects. In addition, operators can move on- and off-rail without a dedicated crossing or an added machine, which helps to maximize time and increase productivity.

“For smaller projects, we have received inquiries on our 420F IT backhoe with a 6-ft. undercutter bar and 360-degree bi-directional chain,” explained Chuck Haskell, sales manager. “This machine is best for quick spot cutting on small sections of track and around track crossings for drainage issues. Our team is continually looking at ways to improve the productivity of railroad gangs on ballast maintenance projects. The increased demand for hi-rail machines has kept us busy and we are improving our product line to meet those demands.”


Nordco Inc. is deepening its ballast-related product line with the addition of two new cribbers. The first, a self-propelled, single-operator machine with track travel speeds up to 25 mph, which includes a dual monitor system for viewing of tie positioning and ballast plowing operations. This cribber also includes integrated rail clamps, ballast plows, cribber workheads and tie pushers.

“The two monitors allow the operator to see the work area clearly,” noted Dana Michaels, marketing manager. “One monitor shows the tie area, allowing precise positioning of the tie with the tie pushers. The other monitor, which has a split screen format, shows the left and right ballast wings, allowing precise shaping of the ballast area.”

The second, a crane-controlled small tie cribber, which expands the use of an existing crane by adding cribbing capabilities. After an adapter kit is installed, the crane then powers and controls the cribbing functions on this portable option.

“Nordco has also been steadily deepening its replacement parts services, in particular, developing replacement parts for tampers,” explained Michaels. “We now offer almost a complete line of replacement parts for the Jackson 6700 models, as well as the entire Mark I-IV tamper series. In many cases, we have identified components that fail due to flaws in their original design and we have used that information to develop stronger, more reliable replacement components.”

Nordco says railroads are consistently asking for tools that keep their employees safer, while simultaneously increasing productivity. Therefore, Nordco has been fitting more of its equipment with fully-enclosed, extended cabs that protect multiple crew members during work and travel modes.

Plasser American

Regular ballast cleaning is one of the mainstays for low maintenance cost of tracks and turnouts and a long service life of the track material, explains Plasser American Corp.

“Basically, the working principle of a ballast cleaning machine is always the same: The ballast material is excavated, the material is screened to separate ballast from spoil, the cleaned ballast is returned to the track and the spoil is taken away,” said the company. “However, there is a wide spectrum of operating conditions which influence the choice of the machine best suited for the job.

This includes the size of the track network, working with long-term track possessions or short intervals between trains, cleaning in tracks, cleaning plain track, cleaning turnouts and on-track cleaning or cleaning where the tracks or the turnouts have been removed.”

Plasser’s new machine, the URM 700, performs continuous-action, rail-mounted ballast bed cleaning on plain track, as well as continuous-action ballast bed cleaning in turnouts, which has beenachieved through development and construction. The system also incorporates a screening car and material conveyor and hopper units.

“The core component of the URM 700 is its excavating unit in the form of a sword with a horizontally-rotating excavating chain,” the company said. “The excavating width of the sword can be varied infinitely and without manual operation up to a width of 20 feet. There is no preparation work required to dig an entry hole for the guide bar.”

It can be used on either side of the machine and is supported on the other end when slewed inwards. The excavating unit works without support only in short transition areas.

The excavating depth is variable and the formation slope can be adjusted. Special lifting clamps hold the turnout in position until it is filled with ballast from the slewing conveyor belts. Shoulder excavating units first clear the area at the tie ends. After the return run, the sword is slewed in and the ballast bed material is sent to the shoulder excavating unit. If necessary, new ballast can be added to the cleaned ballast. Complete exchange of ballast is also possible.

“The URM 700 is a good example of the innovative spirit in our company,” noted Plasser. “New machine models are tested thoroughly under actual worksite conditions before they are handed over to our customers. Due to the fast and independent installation and removal of the excavating guide bar, the URM 700 can also work cost-effectively on short sections of track (spot cleaning).”

Progress Rail

The Kershaw Division of Progress Rail Services Corp. has recently launched its new Model 4600 Ballast Regulator. This machine addresses many issues that have been discussed with customers during product meetings. The machine is designed utilizing a cab forward design, offering enhanced visibility and improved operator ergonomics. It addresses issues regarding component location and accessibility, making all components easily accessible for maintenance purposes.

Progress Rail Services is also active in offering new designs of ballast regulators for the international market, including high-powered machines with hoppers for transferring ballast, sand fighting machines and single-pass ballast regulating machines. Ballast cleaning and ballast reclamation is another area where Kershaw has been actively working with customers. Kershaw recently delivered a new KSC2000 High Speed Shoulder Cleaner that is capable of cleaning the shoulder ballast, screening and spoiling the waste and returning the cleaned ballast back onto the shoulder.

“Our equipment leasing subsidiary, Progress Rail Equipment Leasing, also has a full fleet of ballast maintenance equipment that is available for short-term rental or long-term leases,” noted Randy Chubaty, national sales manager. “Progress Rail Equipment Leasing offers customized leases based on each customers need and each lease can be structured to satisfy any requirement.”


Rail Construction Equipment Co., which offers all of its products through rental, leasing and sales programs, is currently building a larger hi-rail excavator with a bigger undercutting bar. The larger machine will have more hydraulic power to perform more efficiently in hard conditions and the longer bar will be beneficial for switch undercutting.

Dennis Hanke, sales manager, says the company has received requests for greater versatility for switch undercutting, which has resulted in RCE developing this larger machine.

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