Maintaining ballast below the ties

Written by Jenifer Nunez, assistant editor
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Optimal track conditions rely heavily on ballast maintenance. Ballast doesn't always get the attention it deserves. For those outside of the industry, the flashy signals, rail and crossties are what railroad lines are made of.

But those tiny rocks are what keeps the track in place and aids proper drainage, two important staples of a good trackbed. Within the following pages is RT&S’ bi-annual ballast maintenance roundup, featuring the latest technology and equipment to date. Additional photos can be found at

 One of Balfour Beatty Rail's Mark IV Tampers performs surfacing work near the Port of Long Beach, Calif.

Balfour Beatty

Balfour Beatty Rail, Inc., continues to invest in technology to make track maintenance more cost-effective and efficient. Its Track Solutions division acquired a high-output Mark IV tamper, adding to the three Mark IV and one new Jackson 6700 purchased in the past year.

“We continue to test new technology for our track inspection and measurement program that supports maintenance-of-way activities,” said R.T. Swindall, director of rail services equipment and ballast services. “One of these is the SX 8000, a new technology that detects flaws in the rail. We will be testing the SX 8000 this fall. It will enhance Balfour Beatty Rail’s existing Ground Penetrating Radar technologies and help provide even more detailed and accurate scientific information on the root causes of trackbed issues.”

Through the use of these technologies and a new process called Work Order Recommendation (WOR), Balfour Beatty Rail can provide detailed information for track maintenance planning based on scientific data. The WOR enables the company to make recommendations to the client regarding the appropriate method of track maintenance. Recommendations may include surfacing, undercutting, shoulder cleaning, trackwork, drainage work, or nothing at all.

Swindall notes that this approach to MOW has proven to reduce the need for costly rework, improve track utilization, reduce the risk of derailments and maximize budgets.

The information and results are available to the client within a desktop viewing software tool called the RASC Viewer. It offers datasets in a synchronized format that clients can use to perform high-level track inspections, maintenance planning and repair. Data sets include Ground Penetrating Radar metrics, ballast/structure profile, track video, track geometry metrics, terrain mapping and GPS-positioned results within Google Earth.

BTE equipment off-track.


“Making the job easier, more efficient and safer is the reason why customers turn to Ballast Tools Equipment Company,” noted BTE personnel. “And lately, many of our customers have been looking for a solution that gives their backhoes and excavators more mobility both on-and off-track.”

BTE developed a high-rail system to fit CAT 450 backhoe’s and CAT 308 and 312 excavators, along with various attachments that increases productivity for undercutting, tamping, cribbing and ditching. The company notes that customers can do fast, reliable and safe spot maintenance projects in any situation, keeping them on time and on budget.

“Railroads, like any other efficient industry, are looking for ways to save time and money, yet, still maintain safety and efficiency when it comes to ballast maintenance and repair,” explained BTE. “At Ballast Tools and Ballast Tools Equipment, we are committed to servicing our customers with the best performing ballast maintenance equipment available. We have recently developed superior performance undercutting chains and bits and engineered innovative solutions to plow blade and baffle box plates that wear longer and are easily serviced. Our customers are implementing these changes in the field and experiencing terrific results.”


DymaxRail, a division of Dymax Inc., has been focusing on innovation and thinking of what the industry will use today and into the future. Dymax notes its patent-pending chain system for undercutters is a prime example. With 360-degree rotation of the bar to position either on-or off-track, the operator has no limitations. The double cut carbide shark teeth allow the Ballast Blaster to cut in both directions, increasing productivity and eliminating hang up under the ties.

The BB6 Dymax six-foot undercutter is said to work well with backhoe loaders.

“These machines are always working along the railway system but usually doing only support work,” explained Allen Switzer, general sales manager. “Now they can become a more useful machine. Using the coupler system on the backhoe end, the undercutter can cut numerous spot sections. The user can switch over to the tie inserter for replacing those broken or decayed ties safely and efficiently, then switch one more time to connect to either the Dymax one or two motor ballast tamper. The backhoe loader is truly a member of the gang. And for getting this backhoe loader machine to all the various locations, the Dymax Rail Rider allows the machine to become high-railed in 60 seconds or less with no additional hydraulics for the machine. Dymax will be sharing a number of new products at the AREMA show in Chicago, September 16 – 19.”

Ballast was physically removed, then scanned by GREX's BallastSaver, which measured the volume to be 18.3 cubic feet.


Georgetown Rail Equipment Company’s latest service offering, BallastSaver, utilizes technology as an alternative to the traditional “experience tells us” methods of determining the quantities of ballast needed to maintain safe and efficient track conditions. BallastSaver combines Lidar technology, an encoder wheel and videography to calculate the existing ballast profile. BallastSaver’s software then correlates data calculations determined during a pre-dump survey with the customer provided “ideal” profile and quantifies the exact amount of ballast required to achieve the desired profile.

“BallastSaver data not only provides the precise quantity of ballast required, but also the exact locations where it is needed,” explained Lynn Turner, vice president of marketing and sales. “The information is valuable to ensure efficient budgeting for ballast programs and eliminates potentially wasteful spending. In addition, data provided aids in the prioritization of maintenance projects, allowing the customer to improve the overall safety of a larger portion of the entire system or physical plant. Furthermore, BallastSaver data will allow the life cycle of valuable assets, such as rail and crossties, to be extended due to the correct ballast profile being maintained, which ultimately reduces material costs. Railroad planning officials are able to manage their ballast programs from a loftier point-of-view.”

Since BallastSaver’s release, many enhancements have been made. An automated calibration system has been developed and implemented and the ability to view cross sections of the track has been added. Also, the software has been enhanced to detect curves more accurately.

BallastSaver, coupled with GREX’s GateSync technology, furnishes the customer with a fully-automated ballast delivery system. The result is the elimination of best guess, subjective ballast programs and institutes an objective-based logic that reduces wasteful spending.


Herzog Railroad Services Inc. says its P.L.U.S./SMART trains offer the only ballast-spreading technology powered by the accuracy of GPS. The Herzog GPS ballast unloading systems have undergone many upgrades. However, the company says in the past few years, they have seen their most significant upgrades yet.

The first was the second generation GPS ballast train, or the SMART train. This gave the railroads the option of not only dumping on the shoulder, but into the center of the track, as well.

Another recent upgrade to its GPS trains was the development of The Herzog Pro Scan Lidar truck, which replaces the traditional survey that is done before every train is dumped.

“In the past, the only option was for the Herzog technician to ride in the railroad’s high-rail vehicle and manually input the amount of ballast presumed to be needed,” explained Tim Francis, vice president of marketing. “The Herzog Pro Scan Lidar truck can now take the guesswork out of this process. The railroad representative now rides in our Lidar truck, while we scan the track to determine the appropriate amount of ballast needed based on the template provided to us from the railroad.”

With this technology, the company has the ability to shrink dump zones to 15 feet on the approach to a fixed point and five feet on the departure.

“This capability will allow for increased surfacing gang productivity by reducing track and time needed due to unnecessary pulling of ballast because of lengthy dump zones,” he noted.

knox Kershaw's ballast machinery performing routine maintenance.

Knox Kershaw

Knox Kershaw Inc. introduced a new snow switch cleaner attachment with a high-capacity blower unit to compliment the KSF 940 snow fighter/ballast regulator. The KSF 940 snow fighter can be converted to a ballast regulator in the warmer months, making it an all-season ballast regulator.

The company offers dual-gauge ballast regulators for railroads with more than one gauge, allowing one machine to be utilized throughout the whole railroad system, whether it changes from standard gauge to narrow gauge or standard gauge to broad gauge.

Knox Kershaw upgraded its small tie inserter to include joysticks and an air-conditioned cab. This machine will enable a small crew to exchange several ties an hour; it can also power the necessary hand tools required to finalize the installation process.

“Last year, we received requests from customers to design a brush cutter attachment for our ballast regulator,” noted George Pugh, general manager. “In response to these requests, we developed a design that is currently in production and is available for purchase.”

Loram's RailVac at work to maintain a good roadbed.


Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc., recently introduced a heated nozzle system to the Railvac Fleet that extends the work season. Additionally, the company developed features including track positioning, an improved sledding blade and a tie pad replacement module that enhances the capabilities of the Track Lifter and increases the versatility of the machine.

Loram’s Railvac Fleet has completed several high-profile tunnel jobs.

“Due to the restrictive clearance issues, the Railvac has proven to be the best solution to complete tunnel work,” noted Joe Ashley, manager of marketing and product development. “In addition, the Railvac’s productivity is unmatched and is a less evasive process in renewing tunnels than any other practice available. The Railvac also has unique flexibility where it can easily access and clean fouled drains and troughs outside the normal operating reach of most on-track equipment.”

The Railvac has completed several crossing rehabilitation projects, as well. This work consists of undercutting the entire crossing and excavating a trough for inserting drainage tile. The Railvac has been utilized to assist in cleaning problematic culverts and to undercut mud spots.

“Our products continue to work on all Class 1 railroads, several transit and shortlines and on multiple international railroads,” explained Ashley. “Loram continues to experience strong domestic and international interest with our ballast maintenance products.”

Miner Enterprises

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

“We have been developing a ballast plowing system to add to existing ballast cars,” explained Chris Gaydos, manager of mechanical engineering. “The plow system 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.”

Gaydos says railroads have been asking for a safe, durable, maintenance-free way to ballast that can be applied to new or existing cars and that the company’s Plow and AggreGate products provide this.

Nordco's ballast regulator.


“As part of our ongoing continuous improvement initiatives, we recently redesigned the hydraulic system on our M7 ballast regulator to improve the functionality of the machine, as well as to provide a cooler running hydraulic system,” noted Bob Coakley, director of sales and marketing at Nordco. “These changes improve the service life of the hydraulic components. In addition, we also added an on-board air compressor for powering auxiliary tools.”

Nordco introduced new ballast regulator attachments that are transit and third-rail friendly and meet the clearance requirements of most transit organizations. Customers can also have their existing ballast regulators, regardless of the original manufacturer, rebuilt or remanufactured by Nordco. Even machines 20 years old can be upgraded with new cabs, engines and hydraulic systems to like-new condition, with a full factory warranty.

Nordco also introduced a new product designed to help reduce on-track safety incidents involving work equipment. The NordstarTM Proximity Awareness creates “virtual” alarm zones and warns the equipment operators with audible and visual alarms when other machines are too close or if another machine is approaching too fast, so both operators have an opportunity to react. The system can retrofit to any piece of work equipment or on-track vehicle.

Plasser American's RM-802.

Plasser American

“Plasser American understands the importance of maintaining ballast to achieve long lasting quality of track,” noted Plasser. “The processes required to do this include ballast undercutting/cleaning, shoulder cleaning, subgrade renewal and ballast management. Plasser works continually with its customers to supply them with the tools required to achieve this.”

Clean ballast is extremely important to maintain track geometry, notes Plasser American Corp. and says scheduled ballast undercutting-cleaning to create proper drainage and removing fouled material from the track is the first step to long-lasting track. Plasser supplies machines, such as the RM-80, which can undercut and clean plain track, as well as switches, high-capacity double screening unit machines, such as the RM-2003 dual shaker undercutter-cleaner and the RM-802 High-Speed Undercutter-Cleaner, which works with pre-dumped ballast and the FRM-802 Shoulder Cleaner. The RM-80 was upgraded with design changes this year, allowing the machine to undercut switches from either side, thus eliminating the need to turn the machine around.

“In instances where the track quality cannot be maintained due to weak subgrade or continuous fouling from the subgrade, a subgrade renewal machine may be used to correct the problem,” explained Plasser. “Subgrade renewal machines remove the ballast layer, as well as the sub-ballast layer and replace it with a formation protection layer and a layer of ballast. The formation protection layer prevents material from coming up and fouling the ballast, prevents water from seeping down into the subgrade and distributes the load on the track over a larger area reducing the stress on the subgrade by increasing the bearing surface.”

Plasser’s PM 200-2 R Formation Rehabilitation Machine, which in one pass can remove the ballast and sub-ballast, recycle the removed material and then install a compacted formation protection layer and a ballast layer. All work is performed without physically removing the track, allowing for shorter track outages.

Plasser American's RM-802 ballast undercutter system.

The BDS 100/200 Ballast Distribution System can accompany the high-speed 09-3X tampers. The machines are equipped with plows to profile the ballast, hopper and conveyors to distribute ballast as needed and double brooms to sweep up and store excess ballast and for final track dressing. MFS Hopper/Conveyor cars may be added for additional ballast storage. All work is performed in a “one pass” operation.

“Plasser’s PBR-2005 Ballast Regulator continues to be popular due to its ability to plow, profile and broom in one pass,” said Plasser. “The unique design of the shoulder plows allow the machine to reach out and pull in ballast, which was previously beyond the reach of conventional ballast regulators. The machine is also available with an optional double broom. The PBR-2005 is ideally suited to work behind two-tie tampers or tamper and pup tamper combinations where it can easily keep up with the tamper.”

Progress Rail Services

The Kershaw Division of Progress Rail Services Corp. launched its Model 4600 Ballast Regulator. This machine addresses issues that have been discussed with its 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' machine performing ballast maintenance.

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 one pass ballast regulating machines. Ballast cleaning and ballast reclamation is another area where Kershaw has been actively working with customers; this includes high-speed shoulder cleaners and undercutters.


Rail Construction Equipment Co. continues its program of providing on-and off-track ballast cutting units, either for sale or lease, to help customers acquire equipment.

“Versatility is the key. Our customers are asking for the machines to be able to perform our rail maintenance tasks to get the best bang for their buck and limit down time,” noted Dennis Hanke, railroad specialist.

Currently, RCE is working on smaller high-rail excavator units to provide a wider range of versatility to customers. The company plans to have units available by the end of the year. RCE will also unveil a larger machine that can handle large undercutter heads for doing switch ballast undercutting.

RCE's undercutter hard at work.

Categories: Ballast, Ties, Rail, Class 1, Commuter/Regional, Intercity, OFF Track Maintenance, Shortline/Regional, Supplier News