If you find yourself driving along U.S. Highway 30 east of Grand Island, Neb., between now and mid-November, you may catch a glimpse of a one-of-a-kind Union Pacific train.
A U.P. modern track renewal train called the TRT 909 — the only one in North America — is replacing rail and installing concrete ties on a 34-mile stretch of railroad that runs parallel to the highway between Grand Island and Clarks, Neb.
This train does it all — extracts old track, removes wooden ties, installs concrete ties, places new rail and heats the new rail so that it functions properly.
The $29 million central Nebraska project is part of U.P.'s $3.6 billion investment this year into its 32,000-mile rail network.
The TRT 909 is a special piece of equipment because it “revolutionized the ability to lay new track or renew track quickly without having the railroad either slow or be taken completely out of service,” said U.P. spokesman Mark Davis.
Years ago, a 34-mile track renewal project could take up to three months, requiring grueling amounts of physical labor. A track would have been completely shut down, delaying the transfer of goods for customers.
While the TRT 909 isn't the only tie-laying machine out there today, it is the most efficient. Developed in 2007, it lays down rail, ties and rock ballast in one sweep, doing a 34-mile job in 26 days.
That continuous flow keeps goods moving for customers, Davis said.
The TRT 909 by the numbers
>> One car on the TRT 909 can carry 210 concrete ties, which weigh more than 700 pounds apiece.
>> The TRT 909 has between 15 and 30 cars, depending on the job.
>> It lays 12 or 13 ties per minute.
>> Installing 4,000 new ties in a day would be considered a success.
>> The train renewal crew will lay more than 88,000 ties for the 34-mile Grand Island project.
>> So far this year, the crew has laid more than 402,000 ties on new railroad across the country.
>> The track renewal team consists of 145 Union Pacific employees, plus other contracted employees.
>> The crew works eight days in a row, then has seven days off.
The TRT 909 also reduces the physical labor for workers, said Brian Zelasney, a track supervisor who's working on the stretch of rail between Grand Island and Clarks.
“It takes away a lot of the hand work for the guys, and it makes it safer for everybody to get the job done,” he said. The 145-person track renewal team, plus other contracted employees, move with the TRT 909 from location to location.
The track renewal process using the TRT 909 goes likes this:
A preparation crew works in front of the TRT 909, welding new rail together and tearing out crossings. It lays the new rail alongside the existing rail.
The TRT 909 — which is between 15 and 30 cars long, depending on the job — follows behind. It pulls spikes and old wooden ties. Then, it replaces the wooden ties with new concrete ones exactly two feet apart, installing between 12 and 13 per minute.
The railroad industry has been making a switch from wooden ties to concrete ones since the 1980s because concrete is more durable, especially along heavy tonnage corridors like the one east of Grand Island, Zelasney said.
“There's lots of coal trains running through there, and the concrete holds up better than wood,” he said.
As the new concrete ties are positioned, a heater heats the new rail to a proper temperature so that it can expand and contract depending on a region's climate. Elastic clips are then fastened and nailed to the concrete ties.
Behind the TRT 909, a quality control team secures rail with clips and checks for any inconsistencies and a surfacing crew dumps rock and surfaces the track. A big magnet swings through to pick up any excess materials, and V-shaped grate makes the bed rock smooth around the railroad.
A rail train separate from the TRT 909 then picks up quarter- mile-long pieces of old rail. The train has 50 pockets that holds the old rail that will be reused or recycled.
The Grand Island project alone includes installing 88,400 concrete ties, spreading 115,000 tons of rock ballast to create a stable roadbed, renewing the surfaces at 16 road crossings and replacing six switches, the devices that guide a train from one track to another.
Already this year, the track renewal crew has installed more than 402,000 ties in various states, from California to Illinois, Zelasney said. Their next stop is Texas.
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