Thursday, March 30, 2006

AREMA to Students: Don't Bother!

AREMA (American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association) is sending mixed messages. Help me figure out which is the message I should believe.

First Message: Last September, at the Annual Technical Conference in Chicago, AREMA honored several college students for their work done in Railroad Engineering.

Second Message: A recent check of upcoming AREMA Seminars reveals that Registration Fees are quite high. For example, a one-half day seminar on Roadway Worker Safety is priced at $449. A two day seminar on Practical Railway Engineering is $625. A Concrete Tie Seminar is $500 for a day and a half. And, a one day AC Power Conference carries a registration fee of an astounding $575! I say astounding, because I'm comparing that fee of $575 with the recently completed TTCI Research Review, which included one day of presentations from various experts, a one-half day track walk of the FAST Facility including bus transportation, two lunches, one dinner, and a DVD containing all material from all presentations. TTCI's fee: $400!

I'm looking at this and realizing that there is no Student Discount for these AREMA Seminars! I am also recalling that the number of students in Chicago was pretty low.

My conclusion, therefore, is that AREMA could care less about Student Participation in their activities. The second message is the believable one, and those AREMA Members who are far sighted enough to realize that every opportunity should be given to encourage student participation in Railroad Engineering ought to be concerned.

Some of AREMA's predecessors, such as the American Railway Engineering Association and the Roadmasters and Maintenance of Way Association, made the sharing of railway engineering information a priority. If AREMA has lowered that priority to some level below making money, we've got a problem.

Especially when it comes at this critical time when Engineering Students must be encouraged to consider a career with the Railroads. AREMA, you need to change your message to a consistent "Students, we encouage you and value your participation".


Where Are the Railroad Track Engineers Going?

Monday, March 27, 2006

TTCI Is Changing the Railroad Engineering Paradigm

Gradually, but it is changing! The recently held 11th Annual Research Review demonstrated that once again. So, what's going on?

For years, make that for generations now, Railroad Engineering has consisted of making various track and rolling stock components bigger. Yes, you can point out exceptions that really were innovative, but for the most part, the Railroad Engineer's answer was to "beef it up".

Think about rail sections. In the late 19th Century, ASCE Engineers designed rail sections in five pound increments from fifty-five pounds per yard to ninety pounds per yard. Each rail carried the designation "ASCE", and some of those rails rolled over 125 years ago are still in service! But the interesting thing is that the Civil Engineers designed a theoretical 100ASCE Section; it was called theoretical because no one at the time could comprehend the need of such a large rail section!

100ASCE Rail was, indeed, rolled, and has long ago been updated with heavier and heavier rails, designed and supplied as engineers "beefed up" rail sections. Today we have a recently designed 141AB or 141RE section that is fast becoming a standard. Larger sections prove the paradigm that, "If our rail sections are causing problems, we'll make them bigger". In great measure, the same thing is true with wheels, axles, side frames, bolsters, and even ties. Once, ties were typically eight feet long. One day, they became, 8'-3", then 8'-6", and now it is not uncommon to hear of 9'-0" long ties in standard trackage.

Enter the TTCI: Their charter, as described at the Research Review, is to use "Automation and detection of dynamics that lead to the identification of high loadings and derailments, and then reducing or eliminating them." In other words, rather than simply increase the size of components, we can do things to actually REDUCE the loading! The concept is catching on, for several reasons.

Railroads are finding themselves at capacity on many mainlines. This means that track maintenance time is at a premium. Not only that, but the bean counters now assign a cost to train and maintenance delays. Add the cost of derailments, and these dollars begin to demand attention! So, if better track construction and maintenance procedures can be utilized to reduce impact loads, less maintenance time is required, and the chance of a derailment becomes much lower, too.

What kind of procedures?

Here are just a few: Looking at the wheel-rail interface, that is, what grinding or even profile design can do. More reliable non-destructive testing of wheels and rail. Identifying and reducing the forces of truck hunting. Reducing track stiffness, quantified as the Track Modulus, and making it more uniform at problem areas such as bridge approaches and bridge decks. Strengthening insulated joints. Creating new designs for rail crossings.

Not only does TTCI have quantities to back up their thoughts, but at least two sites, one on the Norfolk Southern and another on the Union Pacific, will be identified as "Mega Sites" to further demonstrate the viability of reducing dynamic loads on the track structure.

Good stuff! Thank you, TTCI, for encouraging us all to look at Railroad Engineering problems in a new way!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Another Blog of Note

I have been remiss in linking to Cold Spring Shops, a blog that is always fun to read and almost always creates new wiring in my brain, all in an entertaining way. The writing is described as, "Observations on economics, the academy, the wider world, and things that run on rails". Of course, that last part is of particular interest here.

Check it out, and see if your brain benefits from an overhaul in the Cold Spring Shops. The link is on the right, too.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Another Fun Web Site!

Check out Albert Einstein making an important point as noted on the Union Pacific website:

Just go to this website, and create your own Einstein image to add impact to whatever. You will also find a couple of other fun images that you can personalize.

Monday, March 20, 2006

AAR Notes Expenditure Increase, What Could It Mean?

Check out this article from the AAR Website. Capital Expenditures for Railroads are going up at the incredible rate of 21% in '06! I wish my IRA had that kind of growth.

What will it mean? I have already heard some suppliers comment that, if you can't make money in this market, you need to do something else. Now, we will be looking at even more pricing pressure.

Most track material manufacturers and suppliers I know of are looking at any new work wondering how it will fit into current production schedules, rather than considering whatever pricing will get the job. If it doesn't fit the schedule, the price goes up. Even if it does fit, the capacity of the competition is considered, and the price still goes up. Now, the industry will be asked to produce 21% more, just for the Class One Railroads.

At least two things will probably happen, besides price increases.

First, Public Agencies will be amazed at the amount of that price increase, if and when Request for Proposals are issued for a particular project. Some people say that public money is getting tighter all the time, with dollars once intended for transportation being diverted to Katrina Repair Efforts, as well as the War in Iraq. Higher track material prices are going to squeeze Light Rail and Commuter Rail projects even more.

Second, more foreign suppliers will be looking at the US Market with an eye to capture part of it. We have already seen rail from Japan used in US Railroad Projects. Now, other manufacturers and suppliers will follow. Being a believer in the Free Market System, I think the ultimate outcome here will be positive. Over the long term, competition will increase, product selection should increase, and prices should drop as well.

It should be noted that if such a scenario of international involvement happens, material prices will drop for the Class One Railroads, but not necessarily for Public Agencies. That is due to the famous "Buy America" clause that is part of all Federally Funded projects. Unless these foreign suppliers actually build their manufacturing facilities on US soil, their products will not qualify under "Buy America". So, Agencies will be stuck with dealing with homegrown manufacturing facilities, and the aforementioned capacity and pricing issues, at least in the short term.

Not only that, but I haven't even mentioned the potential for supplier mergers and buyouts, something that has been rumored for some time, at least as a way to counter the humongous size of the Class One Railroad customers. That could happen, too.

$8 Billion is a big number. A 21% increase also gets some attention. Interesting things are sure to happen in the next year or two with the Railroad Supply Industry. And, if you believe what I wrote some time ago, it is an indication of continuing strength in the US Economy. Hang on!

Friday, March 17, 2006

. . . and Back from TTCI!

Almost everyone agreed that the 11th Annual Research Review was the best yet. There were more attendees than ever. It is almost to the point that some of the Test Center facilities are being swamped.

I will blog about various thoughts later. But, in the meantime, let me tell you that the MOST exciting thing to me was the participation of college students! A brief overview was given during the sessions themselves, but out in the hallway were posters that detailed specific projects.

Check out some of the research that was presented. The Railroad Engineering Program at the University of Illinois presented "Prospects for Energy Recovery from Freight Locomotive Dynamic Brakes" and "Optimizing the Aerodynamic Efficiency of Intermodal Freight Trains". The Zachry Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A & M University provided "Automated Wireless Instrumentation for the Monitoring of Potential Landslide Hazards". And Virginia Tech had several presentations involving Train Crew Fatigue, including how to measure it unobtrusively and how to prevent it.

U of I has long been know for filling the pipeline with very capable Railroad Engineers. The recent addition of the Aggies and VaTech is most welcome, and will hopefully continue.

Everyone I spoke with was genuinely excited about the contribution made by these collegians. And, almost everyone agreed that this was a great way to get more college students interested in Railroad Engineering as a career choice. These topics were just a sample of others, and all of the projects I saw indicated the benefit of looking at today's railroad operations thru a different paradigm, and coming up with great ideas that escape those of us preoccupied with everyday problems.

There is reason to be optimistic about the future of this industry.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Off to TTCI

And just as I noted before, the weather in Pueblo in March will make you wonder whether to pack a golf shirt or a parka!

So right on cue, the weather in Denver was apparently pretty nasty over the past weekend. So maybe flying into Colorado Springs is the best idea this year. Hopefully, things will clear up and be reasonably nice for the trackwalk on Wednesday morning.

The TTCI sets on the High Plains about twenty-five miles northeast of Pueblo. Weather systems come and go like minor conference entries during March Madness.

Tuesday will feature the usual lineup of interesting items seen at the TTCI Reasearch Review. Special Trackwork and Reduced Impact Track have often led to much discussion in past years.

I'll see if any progress has been made on increasing the life of rail crossing diamonds, and let you know of any other developments, too.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Needed: A New Paradigm for Track Inspection

During my formative years with Railroad Track, the old heads gave me many tidbits of knowledge that each of them thought important enough for me to remember. Some of it was flat-out wrong, like the time I was told, "that fine chat makes way better ballast than that big granite rock." Some of it I did not want to hear, like the time I heard, "Diamonds are created by time and pressure." You might have guessed that someone told me that during the pressure cooker of a derailment clean-up.

But some of what I heard was profound. Sometimes, a simple statement illuminates, often in a very deep and widespread way, exactly why things are the way they are. Such a statement was, "Track Inspection is based on the exception. We look for those exceptions that make bad track out of good track."

The exceptions that we would find included such things as defective joints for whatever reason, defective ties, defective rails, degraded ballast, poorly fitting switch points, as well as line and surface defects that did not meet Company Standards. No doubt this idea of finding the exception is a good rule to follow. But maybe, we need to widen our beam of light to illuminate more possibilities.

I am thinking about the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, and how coal dust has created major track maintenance problems.
Looking at the track to the right, from the Powder River Basin by the way, it is hard to imagine finding a defect, or an "exception that makes bad track out of good track." But indeed, there is something going on here that led to big maintenance problems.

I have to admit that I do not have a quick answer to this problem. I also readily admit that I am not aware of much of any new thinking regarding more comprehensive track inspection methods. No matter, it is a problem worth discussing, the sooner the better.

Part of the reason for such discussion is that, when more and more light rail and commuter rail operations carry more and more passengers, there will be less and less tolerance for any accidents. Inconvenience, lost time, or the unthinkable injury or loss of life, will become major issues. The DOT has already started to look at specific ways to prevent human error. Looking at ways to anticipate and find defective track must be talked about and developed now. The passengers and other customers of today and tomorrow will not simply allow us to wait until "inspection by exception" finds the problem.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

David Gunn is STILL Hitting the Nail on the Head!

Even if he isn't at Amtrak! Imagine what would happen if we had David Gunn as Secretary of Transportation and Norman Mineta as CEO of Amtrak. But I digress.

Gunn was part of the "Building Inter-Metropolitan Rail Corridors" Forum recently held at the University of Delaware. He had some very interesting observations.

Point: We are losing mobility for freight and passenger at an alarming rate, and that applies to not only rail, but also highway and even airlines! Currently, the infrastructure cannot keep up.

Sidebar: As a Track Material Supplier, I can say that the demand for track material has not varied significantly in the past twenty years or so. The wild ups-and-downs associated with rail car orders do not apply here. Wear and tear on the track has increased significantly. Rebuilding that track has not been keeping up, at least based on the delivery of material.

Point: There is about to be a major paradigm shift in how we see our petroleum based transportation system, as a result of demand coming from the exploding Chinese economy.

Point: Cities and States now understand what the Feds do not concerning the funding and subsequent building of transportation infrastructure.

Sidebar: A realistic look at the U. S. Congress reveals that it has been and probably will always be reactive and not proactive. And this is the organization that seems to pull, or not pull as the case may be, the Amtrak strings.

Read the whole thought provoking story with Mr. Gunn's comments here in the University of Delaware Daily.