We've all seen it at one time or another: Discarded railroad ties lying next to the right of way where new ties have been installed. So what happens to those old ties?
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Union Pacific is using new high-tech work equipment to more quickly remove ties. The railroad annually replaces between 3 million and 4 million railroad ties. Railroad ties are literally the foundation on which railroads are built. They are perpendicular pieces that support the rail, holding it upright and keeping it properly spaced. Tie gangs work across Union Pacific’s 23-state system, like a moving factory, installing and replacing ties year-round along the company’s more than 32,000 route miles.
Rigorously maintaining quality rail infrastructure is central to our ability to operate safely within the communities we serve. It helps prevent derailments, provides a safe path for train crews and avoids shipment delays for customers.
Typically, contractors have used trucks and front-end loaders to pickup used ties along the right of way. It can take multiple trips to gather all the ties and transport them to a rail facility, where they are loaded onto a train for departure. On a good day, contractors can pick up around 2,500 ties.
Now, a new high-tech work equipment is speeding up the used-tie cleanup process. The Maintenance of Way Tie Pickup Work Equipment has two giant excavators that ride along the top of a series of connected 70-foot-long rail cars. Operators in the excavators – which look like front-end loaders – pick up tie bundles left in stacks along the right of way. Depending on the ties’ size, each rail car holds 500 to 700 ties, which is about the same number it can pick up in an hour.
Once the rail cars are fully loaded, the train departs directly to one of three facilities where ties are recycled or shredded for cogeneration fuel. Used railroad ties are not offered to the general public for reuse.
The new system doubles the number of railroad ties that can be disposed of per day, to nearly 5,000.
Union Pacific’s first Maintenance of Way Tie Pickup Work Equipment recently followed a tie gang in Western Nebraska.
“This demonstrates Union Pacific’s commitment to the environment and the communities where employees live and work,” said Gordon Thompson, assistant vice president – Track Renewal and Replacement, Engineering. “It’s important that we clean up after ourselves, removing debris from the community, as well as reducing the emissions from trucks.”
The Engineering team is slowly breaking in the new equipment, regularly monitoring and assessing ways to improve it for the future.
“Like anything new, you find things that are missing or need to be modified,” Thompson said. “By the time future crews use the equipment, their results will improve our previous numbers.”
Crews are drawing up lists of recommended improvements and modifications for the supplier, that include everything from how the excavators operate to the height of the step from the ground onto the equipment, to placing handholds on cars.
“Safety is key and our employees are looking at all aspects of the equipment to make it as well-designed as possible for future machines,” Thompson said.
Union Pacific plans to purchase additional tie pickup equipment over the next 15 months.