Working On The Railroad

Allied Construction, based in southeastern Michigan, began in 1972 with a pickup truck and a shovel. Their growth and reputation over the past 40 years has earned them the lucrative business of both the Michigan DOT and the railroad company, who enlists them to re-pave 30 to 50 railroad crossings each year.

As you can imagine, when a railroad track is in the middle of your construction site, the trains dictate your production schedule. Something Andrew Foster, resident engineer at Allied, and his team have mastered over the years.

“When we first started working for the railroads in the late 80’s, we had a bit of a learning curve to deal with,” says Foster. “Choreographing all of the equipment, traffic and trains is something that requires precise pre-planning. The trains always have the right of way, they dictate the schedule and will definitely slow down your production.”

However, paving around railroad tracks can be a successful venture if your company is lucky enough to get the business. Pavement design on a given road is expected to last anywhere from 20-25 years. Foster says that life expectancy drops to about five years for pavement surrounding a railroad crossing.

“The wear of the train causes the pavement to deflect over an inch on either side and that pavement gets fatigued that much faster than a typical road,” says Foster. “What you don’t want is a car to get caught on one of those rails or a tire getting blown on an exposed rail. That will cause all kinds of hazards if a car is parked on the rail. In rare occurrences, the pavement heaves up and a train could catch on part of that pavement. That’s been a mess when that happens,” adds Foster.

All the more reason to educate yourself on these type of jobs and position your company to be able to work with the railroad companies in your area should the opportunity ever present itself.

Safety first

“The first thing to know about working for the railroad is safety is always the primary concern,” says Foster. “You want to maintain a safety program that will keep everyone safe on the job, nobody’s life is worth a job.”

Along with Allied’s in house safety program, consisting of wearing PPE, long jeans, and steel toed boots, their employees must pass a background check before they can even be qualified to work on the railroad.

“We subscribe to E-Railsafe for that,” says Foster. “Anyone who comes within the right away of the railroad crossing needs to have a background check done. If anyone has a felony or other crimes on their record, they are not allowed to go near the railroad tracks.”

“It has to do with homeland security and they are especially critical of the railroads since they usually are moving materials they don’t want on the roads; acids, petroleum, coal, etc.”

All of the employees also have to take a written test to make sure they understand the regulations of working on the railroad, what to do if a train is approaching along with general safety. “There is an entire section on homeland security,” says Foster. “Our employees have to know what to look for if there is something suspicious and how to report that to the railroad police.”

The employees must also wear ID badges with their name and photo on them when working on these crossings.

“It’s important to know that we’re working with the railroad company,” says Foster. “The guys who work for the railroad are in control of the project. They stay in contact with the central dispatch and know when the trains are coming and at what times.”

“When we get to the jobsite, we usually go through a job briefing with the railroad company. They talk about what protection is in place, what signage on the railroad is up so the trains know they are entering a construction zone or if they are locked out completely. We discuss where the nearest hospitals are, what the pertinent phone numbers are for emergencies and what trains may be scheduled to be in the area.”

“If we get there at 8 A.M. and they let us know a train is going to come through at 10:30, we know how to plan our sequence of construction and what we think we can get done in that timeframe. At 10:15, we clear off the track until the train passes and we’re given clearance to come back into the right away of the tracks again.”

“But if they tell you to back of the tracks, you back off,” adds Foster.

Railroad in control

“The railroad property itself is actually completely separate from normal county or township properties,” says Foster. “Those right-aways have been there for hundreds of years and they can close them down whenever they want to. The saying goes the roads cross their tracks, their tracks don’t cross the road.”

The railroads will work with the municipalities and governments to let them know when work will be done. Allied construction will typically go in the Friday before they plan to work on the site to set up detours. The following Monday, Allied will saw cut the pavement out for them.

The railroad will usually remove the existing rails through the intersections and ties from the crossing themselves, says Foster. They then re-compact the stone underneath and put new ties and rails back in place. Then it’s time for Allied to complete the job.

“They usually give us a call that Wednesday and we shoot for that Friday to put the pavement back in. We try to get out there before we pave to see how high they raised the tracks. We’ll shoot some grade and calculate out the slopes, see what we need to change the approach. We try to keep those under 3-4%.”

What the surveying crew measures determines how far out they have to go with the pavement. When the crew shows up on Friday, they mark the areas and mill into the pavement. “We do this to be sure the asphalt has something good to tie into,” says Foster. This is accomplished with a Gehl 7810e skid steer with 18” and 24” mill attachments. Foster and his crew will bring in a larger mill if needed and then clean up with broom attachments for the skid steers.

“We typically mill out 20’ either side of the crossing 2 inches to 3 inches in depth, depending on the needs of the crossing,” says Foster. “The railroad has become more and more concerned with the smoothness of the crossings and milling out further from the crossing has helped meet that goal.  We clean the area and haul out any broken material and millings to the plant for recycling.”

Once everything is cleaned up, Allied will install wedges next to the rails. There are different materials that the railroad company can choose to do the rails. The material utilized in between the rails can range from concrete, asphalt with rail seal (a rubber joint that allows the flanges on the rail wheel to traverse the pavement area without damaging the asphalt), wood, and even a plastic block made from recycled grocery store bags. The plastic blocks have to be handled with care since the heat of the asphalt can melt or deform the plastic.

“The railroad company will look at the local traffic volumes to determine what material should be used between the rails,” says Foster. “If we’re in a heavier industrial area, they will go with a beefier crossing material, like wood, in between the rails.”

Allied then applies a tack coat to the cleaned surface then paves the area with a Caterpillar 1055D or 655D paver. “We use a large highway paver to make sure that we are achieving consistency in the material and maintaining slopes and grades across there.”

“We achieve compaction through the use of vibratory rollers, in fact we just added a new Bomag 138 AD-5 with the Economizer asphalt compaction monitoring system.  This system helps us monitor the compaction we’re achieving in real time from the roller.”

The company then lets the pavement set overnight before removing the barricades and moving on to the next crossing.

“The biggest challenge for railroad crossings is the thickness of the pavements encountered,” says Foster.  “The tracks are designed to handle quite a bit of deflection for the heavy trains traversing the rails and the pavement has to be designed to handle that movement.  The areas within 5 feet of the track can sometimes be 15 to 18 inches thick.”

This thickness has made the approach work sway to milling instead of complete removal with full depth within 5 feet of the tracks Foster adds.

The types of mix used on these crossings can also very greatly depending on the road the crossings are on. “We tend to use heavier aggregate based materials and even install some polymer modified superpave mixes when the traffic load is high enough,” says Foster. “These crossings can range from 40 tons all the way to 250 tons of asphalt on a crossing and up to 4,000 tons on a rail yard.  I always meet with the railroad foreman before we pave to determine the types and quantities of materials we will utilize on each crossing.”

Perfecting the plan

When there’s a train coming through your jobsite, you’re probably not going to be as productive paving as you are in an empty parking lot. However, Foster and his team have learned the ropes and how to stay productive during down times.

“We have a general idea of what lines are busier than others now,” says Foster. “If a line has both freight and Amtrak trains running through it, we need to have an idea of how many trains are going to be in the area and what that means time wise for us. In other areas there might just be a morning and an afternoon train. Most of the time we are able build those times into the proposal for doing the work just based on our experience.”

Foster suggests keeping a full paving crew on hand, even for these smaller jobs. “You would think with these lower tonnages and lower quantity of work, there would be less guys,” says Foster. “But in between trains coming through, you have to work as fast as you possibly can to get as much done as you can, so we keep a full paving crew going while we’re out there.”

Allied has also learned that keeping your equipment in tip top shape to potentially avoid any problems when working with the railroad company. “Equipment breakdowns, while sometimes unavoidable, are not tolerated well by the railroad,” says Foster. “The tracks are essentially controlled by a central dispatch center and getting rail time to work on the crossings is a time consuming and sometimes difficult process. Keeping your equipment in top shape will save a lot of frustration in the future.  We tend to maintain a fairly new fleet of equipment to minimize any interruptions in our paving process.”

“We have learned to play nice with the railroad. There have been times there’s been a train parked across the tracks while we have two hours of daylight left to finish the job. You don’t want to make them mad, but the job needs to be done. We’ve figured out how to deal with these jobs over time.” 

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