A Smooth OneWritten by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
RAILWAY AGE, DECEMBER 2021 ISSUE: High-tech solutions are helping railroads improve the rail/road interface.
Whenever I approach a highway/rail grade crossing, aside from making absolutely sure it’s safe to traverse (never, ever stop on it, and don’t proceed unless there’s enough space on the other side to totally clear my car), I look closely at the crossing surface. Can I coast over it without risking damage to my 2009 Pontiac G8 GT’s 19X8-inch alloy wheels and 245/45-19 low-profile tires? Will my middle-age bones get rattled from my ride’s stiff suspension—aftermarket sway bars, bushings, trailing arms, toe links, strut tower and driveshaft tunnel braces, and other performance goodies—absorbing jolts from a rough surface?
Not if the grade crossing surface is equipped with heavy-duty concrete, composite, solid rubber or timber panels from American Concrete Products, HiRail Corp., Koppers, L.B. Foster, LT Resources, Oldcastle Infrastucture StarTrack Railroad Products, Omega Industries, OMNI Products Inc. or Stella-Jones Corp. State-of-the-art surfaces from these suppliers enhance motor vehicle safety; provide a smooth, jolt-free ride; and offer the ability to withstand long-term pounding from heavy-axle-load freight trains and fast passenger trains. Some $1.2 billion in continued and guaranteed funding for the Section 130 grade crossing program provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will help keep these companies busy supplying products to state and local transportation agencies and railroads for improvements.
American Concrete Products manufactures precast crossing panels and signal foundations suitable for a wide variety of rail weights, tie materials and widths, curved rail, and turnouts. The company has been developing ADA-compliant flangeways, because rail transit projects now require them. On the R&D side, the company continues to explore higher-strength, more-durable concrete to improve the crossing panel lifetime.
One of American Concrete Products’ recent specialty projects is a custom-shaped crossing on OmniTRAX’s Great Western Railway of Colorado LLC in Fort Collins, where precast panels were custom-manufactured. “On occasion, crossings are situated in a turnout positioned in the roadway,” the company notes. “We performed the measurements at the site and designed the crossing panels to ensure they are an exact fit. These panels are special shapes that also must be manufactured to match the rail curvature.”
Manufactured from recycled rubber, HiRAIL Corp. crossing surfaces, available for main line freight and passenger rail and rail transit customers, are designed to move water away and improve grip, and can be removed and reinstalled for track and trackbed maintenance. They are also designed to work with new fastening systems, crossties, tie plates and other track components frequently entering the market. After several years of development, the company in 2020 introduced a single, thicker tongue and groove interlocking system, which it says “is an improvement over the traditional double tongue and groove product, and is durable and robust for railroad crews to install.
L.B. Foster’s Anti-Trespass Panels, introduced in 2017, “deter trespassers and animals from accessing track and protect the safety of pedestrian trespass at rail crossings, platforms and yard entrances,” the company says. “Made from environmentally friendly material and quick and simple to install, they are designed and engineered by Rosehill Rail. The panels, made from 100% recycled rubber, are available in three styles, providing greater flexibility to site-specific requirements. All panels are delivered complete with plastic ‘planks’ and fixing screws to enable immediate installation. Extra fixing kits are available, in addition to those automatically supplied with each panel. Each kit comprises two ‘planks’ made from recycled plastic together with eight fixing screws and washers.”
The Federal Railroad Administration published a study in 2019 evaluating the effectiveness of the anti-trespass panels on pedestrian behavior, indicating there was a 38% reduction in trespassing incidents over a 60-day period. Several large transit agencies have been installing them.
The L.B. Foster Transit Products rail boot system “allows for dynamic movement of the rail when embedded in concrete, asphalt or other material to protect the surrounding materials. It also provides electrical isolation and noise and vibration mitigation, and is designed to install easier than any other available rail boot system. The complete system includes splice cuffs, adhesive, filler, tape, plates, clips and leveling beams, which are used for mounting and holding the rail in position for track embedment and offered in steel or composite material. Configurations are available for a variety of rail sections.”
LT Resources offers “sustainable track materials manufactured from engineered plastics.” The company’s ENDURANCE®-XL and ENDURANCE®-XL PLUS Highway-Rail Grade Crossings utilize a proprietary recycled polymer materials formulation and a patented manufacturing technology, “resulting in superior performance and extended service life in severe environments,” the company says. The 8-foot, 1.5-inch panels are manufactured in 6-inch, 7.5-inch and 8.25-inch heights for use with most rail sizes and fastening systems. They are lagged down to 8-foot, 6-inch or 10-foot timber or composite crossties on 19.5-inch centers. The ENDURANCE®-XL PLUS “was developed with direct input from Class I railroads to address performance issues with traditional crossing surface materials. Using the proven ENDURANCE®-XL formulation and incorporating several design improvements to address the Class I operating environment, the ENDURANCE®-XL PLUS design was implemented after two years of successful in-track prototype testing with various Class I railroads.”
LT’s “complete” grade crossing system uses TIETEK® composite ties under ENDURANCE-XL composite panels, “extending the life of the crossing and addressing our customers’ corporate sustainability goals and their desire to utilize durable ‘green’ products with improved performance features.” Panels and ties can both be recycled.
Oldcastle Infrastructure’s StarTrack® grade crossing modules “are designed for fast installation with four hook lift anchors embedded in each piece,” the company notes. “Designed to meet AREMA standards and Cooper E-80 Loading plus 60% impact factor, they are available in custom ‘pie-shaped’ pieces to meet track curvature. Our StarTrack® HD Modules are the proven and preferred crossing of America’s largest ports and Class I intermodal terminals. With highly competitive installed and life-cycle costs, they’re manufactured to the rigid standards of the Oldcastle Infrastructure quality control programs at our facilities nationwide. Professional engineering staff and industry leading computer design software provide technical support and stamped drawings when required. In service with Class I’s and successfully tested on the Heavy Axle Load (HAL) Loop at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, more than 150,000 track-feet have been installed without a single structural failure.”
Omega Industries, which describes itself as “the largest concrete crossing supplier in the U.S.,” offers no fewer than seven types of crossing panels: Main Line Common Standard, Curved Panels, Light Rail and Transit, ADA Pedestrian Crossings, Heavy Duty/Steel Skin, Direct-Fixation Track Panels and Narrow Gauge Track. The company’s internal engineering department custom-designs and fabricates panels for compound curves and tangent track.
OMNI Products Inc., which describes itself as “the only grade crossing manufacturer with a full product line,” offers concrete, rubber and concrete/rubber combo panels. Its Embedded Concrete-Rubber (ECR) grade crossing system “is the latest generation of our patented single-component, concrete-rubber design. ECR is designed with the rubber flange seal molded into the face of the steel clad, steel reinforced concrete panels. It is the fastest and easiest concrete crossing system to install because of its unique integrated concrete-rubber design.”
OMNI’s Improved-Concrete (IC) system incorporates OMNI rubber RailGuard panels with precast concrete panels. “The steel-framed, steel-reinforced concrete panels are designed to handle heavy highway traffic, as well as heavy truck traffic,” the company notes. “The virgin rubber RailGuard panels cushion load, control surface water and provide electrical insulation. The broom-finished surface provides high friction for excellent traction.”
OMNI’s TraCast™ is “a system of precast concrete modules with a minimum compressive strength of 6,000 PSI. Elastic fasteners are used to secure the rail to the base of the rail troughs. The module design eliminates the use of ties and ballast, and a continuous protective rubber rail boot insulates the rail from electrical interference. RailGuard™ rubber panels are installed on the gauge side of the rails to provide a positive flangeway and rail cushioning. They can be easily removed with a lining bar, eliminating the need of heavy equipment, for rail inspection and repair.”
OMNI’s Full Depth Heavy Duty rubber grade crossing system “is the most durable full-depth rubber crossing available. Made of 100% virgin rubber, it’s designed to withstand repeated punishment of high-speed, heavy traffic loadings. This product’s durability, long life and low maintenance requirements make it ideal for most applications. Heavy Duty panels can be reused when a crossing is reconfigured or closed, and can be used with most rail fasteners.” OMNI’s Steel Reinforced (SR) system includes a virgin rubber panel reinforced with a ¼-inch corrugated steel plate, installed on longitudinal, pressure-treated, hardwood shims. The virgin rubber “absorbs the impact of concentrated loads such as lift trucks, while the steel plate provides the strength to carry heavy loads. The SR system is ideal for low-MGT, heavy truck use, such as intermodal yards and private industry. With the purchase of the Goodyear™ product line, OMNI is the only supplier of this type of product.”
OMNI’s Virgin Rubber RailGuard™ (VRA), made from durable 100% virgin rubber, “protects the track structure by absorbing traffic impact loads, provides a positive flangeway that controls surface water runoff, and prevents breakup of the asphalt at the rail interface. The VRA design has several benefits over other rail seal products. The panels are easy to handle and install. VRA’s greater surface area provides better cushioning to the rail and is self-supporting. Its durability makes it ideal for any traffic situation. Either asphalt or concrete can be used in conjunction with VRA. It’s designed to accommodate heavy traffic when a rail seal has been specified, rather than a full-width rubber crossing.”
Stella-Jones Corp., a major supplier of pressure-treated wood products in a variety of select wood species, produces crossing panels with “timbers that are dowel-laminated side-by-side to make a panel set that will lay adjacent to steel rails on top of ties. The timber depth is manufactured to closely match the rail height, allowing for vehicles to cross railroad tracks at a relatively smooth transition without damage to the railroad.”