Renewal Train Replaces 23 Miles of Aging Rail

A custom track-laying device has been replacing aging union pacific rail track and ties in the Houston area. Ed Mayberry watched the process as the track renewal train installs rail and concrete ties in one pass.

Union Pacific's $29 million project is improving 23 miles of rail line from Spring to the Washington Avenue corridor.  Wooden ties have a life span of only about ten years, but Union Pacific's Jason Melsheimer says the new concrete ties will last longer. 

"The railroad all over the country is getting rid of all the joints so you don't hear the 'clickety-clack' as we're going, which—it just eliminates a lot of variables for safety reasons.  This new track is, the rail is welded together.  They come in quarter miles 'strings,' they're called, and it's all welded together.  It'll be one just continuous piece of rail all the way through, when we're done."

The 30-car track renewal train installs concrete ties and rail in one sweep, as it inches along behind a site preparation crew clearing the way.  The old wooden ties are picked up and discarded rail is threaded out as the machine works its way down the track, working at about a mile a day.

"You'll see this, that's the old tie pickup, that's picking up all the old stuff.  Then there's a plow there that's pushing all the ballast out of the way.  And then right behind that, that's where the new ties are coming in.  There's a spacer there, it goes every two feet."     

The rail-mounted TRT 909 installs up to 5,000 ties in a 12-hour day—16 ties a minute. 

"And these guys have a pretty busy job.  They're standing here and making sure that there's no broken ties or ties that are skewed so that they line up straight when they're going up the chute here."  Ed: "And they stop if there is one?"  "Yeah, and then they have to pull them by hand."

Three sets of gantry cranes move the concrete ties from rail cars to the TRT to drop into place, and the machine then threads the new rail onto the lines.

"These guys up front here, underneath the machine, they'll run a spike puller that's removing all the spikes from the existing ties.  And then it's also where the rail threading's going to start.  This is our new rail starting to get threaded towards the new ties, and then they're pulling that so we can start lifting that old rail out of place."  Ed: "You've got a couple operators underneath here?"  "Yeah, there's two guys.  They're down there all day, that's what they do."

You can see the legs and feet of two workers who are seated in a cab down under one of the rail cars.  The next part of the chain—the new rails that are being welded together and clipped onto the new concrete ties. 

"These are called induction heaters.  These heat up the rails to—in this area, it's 115 degrees—and seated into the plates there, and then right back here is the automatic clipper, it shoves the clips on."
  
The 200-member crew will move to another part of the country when this replacement project is completed.  Union Pacific is spending $2.5 billion this year to improve its rail system.

Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...