When Mother Nature throws a curveball – er, boulder on the railroad track - Union Pacific knows who to call: a pair of boulder-busting brothers.
Justin and Jamie Cordova are track maintenance employees for Union Pacific who have a combined total of 35 years of keeping the track safe in Colorado, including busting boulders too big to move with equipment.
“I always travel with my brother, and we blow up the boulders together,” said Justin Cordova, track inspector – Track Maintenance North. “It’s going to be him and I within 100 feet of that rock and we know each other’s every move.”
And, yes, it can be fun.
“Boulder busting makes me feel like a kid again,” said Jamie Cordova, section foreman – Track Maintenance North. “Setting off the charge and seeing the rock split and break into pieces and thinking ‘we got it.’ There is no better feeling.”
The Cordova brothers are part of a larger team of Union Pacific professionals who are trained to use light explosives in the mountainous regions of the railroad’s 23-state network to remove large boulders that fall on railroad tracks and block train traffic.
Subscribe to Inside Track
A good share of the team’s work is in the Colorado region, where the Cordova brothers are stationed.
Marquis Davis, general director - Track Maintenance North, has been overseeing these professionals for three years.
“Using boulder busting comes in handy when rocks are just too big,” said Davis. “You wouldn’t believe how large some of them can get.”
Track inspectors are the railroad workers responsible for monitoring track conditions and, in mountainous regions, they keep an eye out for rocks. Most times, dynamite isn’t needed, the rocks are small enough to be moved safely by excavators or they are caught by slide fences installed in areas with a history of falling rocks.
However, when the rocks are too big for the heavy equipment, the boulder busters are activated.
Only qualified and trained employees are allowed to work with explosives, using the proper safety equipment, including respirators for the dust. It can take four to eight hours to safely detonate and remove a boulder from the track, depending on its size.
The process starts with three or four employees going out and inspecting the site where the detonation will take place. From there, light explosives are drilled into the boulder and a weighted rubber mat is placed over the hole. A cord is then used to denotate the explosives, as employees stand at least 30 feet back before the switch is triggered.
Afterward, the rock fragments are safely removed, and the track is carefully inspected before train traffic resumes.
“Our boulder busting crews are top notch and they always put safety first throughout every step of the process,” said Davis.