Railroads annually spend billions of dollars to ensure that America’s modern freight rail network remains the most efficient and cost-effective in the world. Over the next 30 years, freight rail traffic is expected to grow 24 percent – meaning the improvements made today are even more important to ensuring world-class service, tomorrow.
Here are just three ways today’s freight railroads are preparing for the traffic surge to come.
Siding Extensions & Additions
Along vast sections of the America’s freight rail network, railroads are adding both new and longer sidings – stretches of track that allow a train to pull over while another passes. Longer sidings allow railroads to dispatch longer trains – meaning more cargo travels across the network at once. More sidings alleviate congestion faster – ensuring greater efficiency and shorter travel times across the entire network.
Double and Triple Tracking
Along highly trafficked routes such as central and western Pennsylvania, Richmond, Va. and Seattle, Wash. – just to name a few – railroads are installing two, and even three, main line tracks.
Just as two and three-lane highways increase capacity and reduce travel time, double and triple tracking allows trains to simultaneously travel in opposite directions on the same route. Multiple tracks also reduce idling, since trains – both passenger and freight – no longer have to pull over while priority shipments pass. Less idling reduces a train’s emissions, making double and triple tracking a win for both rail customers and the environment!
Increased Rail Yard Capacity
Last but certainly not least, railroads are adding additional track within rail yards to build longer trains (and haul more cargo at once) without slowing down the rail yard’s larger operations. New track within a rail yard also eliminates the need for trains to idle outside of a crowded rail yard. Fewer idling trains means fewer blocked grade crossings, helping both rail yards and surrounding communities operate more smoothly.
Keeping Railroads Looking Like New
Of course, once new tracks are in service, it takes dedicated experts — and cutting edge technology – to keep them operating at their best. Explore below to see how freight railroads keep tracks operating like new.
1. Railroad’s Steel Spine
While railroad tracks might look much like they did 100 years ago, advanced technology has made railroad infrastructure stronger, safer and more reliable. A railroad track consists of two parallel steel rails set a fixed distance apart, called the gauge. The rails are connected to each other by railroad ties, which may be made of wood, concrete or other material. The rails are fastened to the ties by spikes, bolts or special clips, depending on the type of tie. The ties are set into ballast, which consists of stone particles that help transfer the load of the trains to the underlying foundation.
2. Anatomy Of Railroad Track
Railroad track: Parallel steel rails laid on wooden ties.
Rail: Set of steel bars placed end to end in two parallel lines.
Spike: Piece of metal used to attach the tie plate pad to the rail.
Tie: Wooden or concrete laid perpendicular to and beneath the rails.
Tie plate: Piece of metal that supports the rail.
Ballast: Crushed rock or gravel placed beneath the ties to provide a foundation for the track.
3. Built Stronger, Built Better
Thanks to advancements in steel manufacturing, the quality of steel used for railroad track has gotten much better. Today, the lifespan of rail averages 50-60 years, depending on how much freight is transported annually on the line and other factors. Railroad companies inspect their track using specialized equipment such as track geometry cars and rail defect detector cars, as well as visual inspections. These specialized technologies use laser sensors to detect track wear and tear and alert railroads to potential defects, enabling them to schedule maintenance in a safe, timely and cost-effective manner.
4. People Power
Maintenance of Way employees lay rail, install crossties and build track to ensure trains run safely at optimum track speed. More than 35,000 railroad employees nationwide perform railroad track and bridge work. When rail is scheduled for replacement, a rail gang is sent to the location to do the work. Here, Norfolk Southern has dispatched its Super Rail Gang to a site in Georgetown, KY. This gang, composed of 78 employees and 42 pieces of equipment, has the ability to lay dual ribbons of rail. The machines they use — which stretch for more than a mile from end to end — have greatly enhanced efficiency. In a six-to-eight hour day, the Super Gang can lay eight to ten quarter-mile long ribbons of rail.