• M/W

Ballast Maintenance, Delivered

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor

RAILWAY AGE, NOVEMBER 2020 ISSUE: While most aspects of railroading have not been immune from the effects of COVID-19—namely, a drop in business—many railroads have been “working smart” and thinking ahead, taking advantage of lower traffic levels to get a jump on maintenance-of-way projects, before work windows re-tighten when operations return to pre-pandemic levels. State-of-good-repair and other projects are continuing, and railroads are using a variety of high-production, high-tech-driven track machines to perform the work. Ballast programs are among the most important of these.

OmniTRAX, for example, “is planning for explosive railcar volume growth and is preparing a comprehensive plan of general M/W across our rail lines in anticipation,” says Senior Vice President of Engineering Anthony Cox, who adds that the company is completing new engineering for more than 80 miles of track on the Georgia-Florida Railway—taking it from excepted status to FRA Class 2 status. “The focus of the effort is making each railroad even safer and improving performance for our shippers and Class I partners by optimizing the care of the track and rest of the rail property, and by using analytics to predict, schedule and execute our maintenance programs.” 

OmniTRAX typically lays down about 5,000 tons of ballast per year to ensure safe operations. For 2021, it has planned track hardening projects for the 509-mile Nebraska, Kansas & Colorado Railway—replacing 40,000 ties and more than 2,000 tons of ballast, plus surfacing—and the 31-mile Panhandle Northern Railroad in Texas—13,000 new ties and 1,000 tons of ballast, plus surfacing. 

Kansas City Southern reports that it is planning undercutting, tie distribution, out-of-face surfacing projects and capacity projects for 2021. As well, it is working to upgrade some of its current ballast M/W fleet to “enhance its utilization and functionality.” 

— Optimizing costs and work windows and continuing R&D are among suppliers’ latest efforts to keep ballast in good repair.

Railway Age contacted Balfour Beatty, Custom Truck & Equipment, Herzog, Knox Kershaw Inc., Loram/GREX, Miner, Mitchell Equipment Corp., Montana Hydraulics LLC, Plasser American, Progress Rail and Railmetrics to find out about market conditions for their products and services, what customers are asking for, and what’s new in the pipeline or in R&D. Ontario Trap Rock, a ballast supplier, also weighed in.

Balfour Beatty

Engaging with customers is key, says Steve Atherton, Divisional Manager Track Solutions, so service providers and suppliers “can make certain of where they’re heading.” And many, he notes, are focusing now on budget optimization, which means they need a better understanding of asset conditions to ensure proper investment. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) technology, for instance, is “coming into its own” because of it, he points out. 

Atherton says Balfour Beatty is also looking at using a combination of technologies that includes GPR data to help railroads determine more accurately how much ballast is needed for replacement and how much can be reclaimed via its fleet on production undercutters, for example. 

Custom Truck & Equipment

For ballast maintenance, customers often request the Spec 760: Hi-Rail Rotary Dumps, says Patrick Brown, Sales and Service Coordinator, Rail. The Spec 760 features a 14-foot, 12-cubic-yard elliptical dump body that uses a 180-degree rotating turntable and telescopic hoist to achieve its rotary function. If selected as an option, the dump bed may be operated via radio remote control, which effectively “streamlines the operation of the 760 and optimizes the operator’s track-time,” he notes. Many of the company’s other offerings—hi-rail SUVs or service trucks, for instance—are often used as ancillary vehicles. The X2 Model is the latest iteration of Custom Truck & Equipment’s railcar mover, which can pull gondolas, railcars or ballast carts. 


Herzog’s fleet of specialized on-track equipment serves railroads from initial right-of-way assessment to final track bed stabilization. 

“As freight traffic slowed in Q2 and Q3 of this year, the railroads caught up on a lot of their track maintenance work,” Vice President of Ballast Operations and Railcar Leasing Ryan Crawford says. “Our ballast crews took advantage of the longer work windows and really maximized productivity.” 

Looking ahead, “an increase in utilization looks promising once 2021 budgets are complete and projects are released,” he adds. “Even without additional track and time, our equipment excels under operating models that maximize asset utilization, such as Precision Scheduled Railroading.”

Herzog’s newest iteration of its LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) Truck offers enhanced right-of-way inspection. Traveling at track speed, this hi-rail vehicle can replace manual track surveys over long distances.

“The new LiDAR Truck can traverse more miles and collect more data in one work window, as it can continue surveying over crossings, bridges and switches without stopping,” Crawford says. “We can deliver data to the customer quicker than ever.”

After a LiDAR survey, railroads can view a detailed ballast profile and prioritize areas of concern using reports that highlight hotspots, inch lift profiles or dead rock areas, for example. That data can then be “loaded onto one of Herzog’s patented GPS ballast trains to dump rock onto track shoulders and centers at precise locations according to the survey’s specified quantities and GPS coordinates.”

Herzog’s Automated Conveyor Train allows railroads to unload at a rate of 2,000 tons of ballast per hour in areas for washouts, new construction or stockpiling. It can distribute material in curves with one operator.

Knox Kershaw Inc. 

Customers today are looking for “improved diagnostics, advanced technology, and machines that reduce the number of workers on the ground,” says President and COO George Pugh. 

The company’s KBR 925 Ballast Regulator, which was redesigned in 2019, is for ballast work on all types of track. “Superb visibility, especially the wing areas, makes it the ideal machine for final profiling,” Knox Kershaw says. Among the upgrades for 2020 are steel tubing for hydraulic lines in the main frame, a repositioned hydraulic tank for added front-end weight with a 130-gallon capacity, and a doubled fuel capacity of 220 gallons. In addition, its Danfoss PLUS+1® System includes a 12-inch color touch screen monitor to display machine functions and diagnostics and help operators optimize productivity.

In R&D, Knox Kershaw is currently working on a new Plate Layer, Plate Shifter and fully redesigned Tie Crane, Pugh reports.


As a result of the pandemic, services in the freight rail sector have “seen some softening,” Loram/GREX tells Railway Age. “The reduction in rail traffic has prompted some customers to reduce maintenance spending, while others are taking the increase in track availability to maintain or increase work windows. Overall business has held better than forecasts from earlier in the year.” On the transit side, there has been “a larger slowdown in ballast and grade work, but not as much as originally forecast. In the early days of the pandemic, some machine startups were delayed as transit ridership dropped off almost completely. As spring turned to summer, deferred maintenance plans still required completion and business picked up to typical summer/fall machine utilization.” The company anticipates “a strong close of the year” for both sectors.  

Loram says it provides “the right equipment to resolve root-cause problems that are creating accelerated ballast and grade degradation,” and takes a “holistic approach to track maintenance planning by utilizing GPR, LiDAR, geometry car and other data points to understand the full scope of issues in tracks.”

On the equipment side, customers continue to ask for faster, more efficient machines, the company says. It is developing equipment—like the MHC60 Material Handling Car—to increase productivity, and reinvesting in and upgrading existing equipment.

Loram is also investing in R&D. “In addition to the effort that is always applied to developing new equipment and features for our ballast and grading product lines, we are also investigating better ways to aggregate and post-process data that both Loram and the railroads are collecting,” the company reports.


Miner, which offers AggreGate ballasting systems, says there has been a growing interest in “night ballasting and using our solar-charged lighting system.” 

This stand-alone lighting system uses solar panels to store energy for powering LED work lights at night. It is available with standard electric, air-powered and manual AggreGates, and as a retrofit option for existing cars.

The solar-powered, electric-battery-operated stand-alone AggreGate enables independent operation of the car from anywhere within the ballast train, says Miner. 

The company is now fulfilling a 375-car order that features the AggreGate with stand-alone lighting. (The LED flat-panel arrays are affixed to the railcar undercarriage.) The first cars began rolling off FreightCar America’s production line in mid-August. Delivery is expected to wrap up by year-end.

According to Miner, the AggreGate can effectively ballast the gauge and field sides of rail independently or simultaneously. Large guillotine-style door openings are designed to stop ballast flow with minimum effort, the company adds, making it easy to shut off ballast at switches, crossovers and bridges. Engineered as a fabricated and completely assembled unit, and available in both weld-on and bolt-on models, the AggreGate can be applied to new or existing hopper cars. 

Mitchell Equipment Corp. 

“Inquiries for our products have been strong, especially in the area of our Hydraulic Drive Rail Gear, which we offer for hydraulic track excavators,” says President Estel L. Lovitt, Jr. 

“We are also developing a Hydraulic Drive System for Wheeled Excavators that will have our Out & Down Outriggers system installed that can reach over third-rail found on transit systems. The big advantage of this machine will be its good approach and departure angles for getting on/off rail without a crossing and its ability to provide full stability when working over the side. This machine will also be able to use our Tamper Attachment.”

According to Lovitt, a Wheeled Excavator Railcar Mover/Material handler is now in the testing phase. The advantage, he says, “is with our Weight Transfer Couplers; we can develop more tractive effort for pulling railcars while handling materials.” Also in development:  hydraulic drive systems for “very large track hydraulic excavators and RT cranes that normally cannot travel on rail.”

Montana Hydraulics LLC

For Montana Hydraulics, the market for field services remains strong, and “interest in our ballast car components—center mounted plow, hydraulic side dump system, ballast car sliding tarp system and our new ballast gate—has been very high recently,” says owner Della Ehlke. “No sales in the pipeline yet, but the interest in products seems to be rebounding. Our longer-term outlook for field services and ballast car products is very positive.” Customers, Ehlke adds, are asking for “anything and everything that keeps their ballast cars in service and productively dumping rock, with an explicit focus on safety.” Another need: upgrading manual ballast cars to automated systems.

Early this year, the first group of 10 Montana Hydraulics Bobcat ballast car tarping systems began operating. They help prevent moisture from getting into loads of ballast and freezing, thus allowing ballast unloading in winter, Ehlke says. The company’s newest product is the BDS Ballast Gate, which offers “substantial” clearance, so a conveyor can be placed underneath for stockpiling and transloading.

Ontario Trap Rock

Regional Sales Manager, U.S. Operations Bill Sanders reports that Class I ballast volume has fallen more than 50%, while regional and switching volume has been consistent. This is due, in part, to PSR as well as the pandemic, which has taken a toll on spending with freight traffic down, he says. 

For 2021, the company anticipates volumes to be “relatively flat,” with more short-term work for Class I project-specific needs, such as new sidings.

Plasser American

Plasser offers several ballast-cleaning machines. These include the RM80, a “workhorse” that undercuts and cleans plain track as well as switches, and high-capacity double screening units.

The company’s PBR2005 Ballast Profiling machine can plow, profile and broom in one pass. The shoulder plows’ design allows the machine to “reach out and pull in ballast, which was previously beyond the reach of conventional ballast regulators,” Plasser says. The PBR2005DB, it adds, is “ideally suited to work behind two-tie tampers where it can easily keep up with the tamper in a ‘one pass’ operation.”

The Plasser Ballast Distribution System can profile, pick up excess and unload ballast where it is needed at any location, including switches and road crossings, in one pass, according to the company. In addition, the BDS100/200 “continues to be the ideal machine to accompany our high-speed 09-3X tampers or multiple tampers working together.” 

Plasser’s MFS Hopper Conveyor series of cars are available in various sizes, and additional cars can be coupled together to increase capacity. These cars can be used with Undercutter and Shoulder Cleaners for loading waste material or carrying new ballast and to add storage capacity to the BDS100/200 system.

Progress Rail

“The demand for freight rail products has been impacted” during most of 2020, says Vice President of Maintenance-of-Way Operations Mark Wuenstel. “However, it is picking up for North America and appears strong
for international.”

What are customers looking for? They are “constantly seeking ways to do more with less,” he says, and want a collaborative partner providing “automated solutions that aid in safely preventing or reducing potential issues from happening, while increasing overall productivity.” That’s why Progress Rail, in conjunction with parent company Caterpillar, is working on technology advancements for its M/W equipment. 

“By developing safety enhancements,” Wuenstel says, “we can help add to the operator’s confidence—making it easier to avoid potential damage to the machine and lessening the risk of safety hazards for those working with and around the equipment.” Progress Rail also offers retrofit kits to upgrade technology on M/W fleets “for an extended productive life cycle and enhanced safe operation.”

As for R&D, Wuenstel says, “Progress Rail continuously works with customers to consider innovative ways to improve the design of our legacy machines. Additionally, we are developing new products that will streamline and optimize M/W machine use.”


At Railmetrics, the LRAIL railway inspection sensor system has been drawing interest from railway operators and private inspection service providers serving the freight and transit sectors, due to its “multifunctional and compact aspect,” Principal Consultant Richard Fox-Ivey says. And with track time always at a premium, he adds, “our customers are looking for sensor solutions that go beyond basic geometry measurements and provide additional capabilities, such as tie grading and fastener inspection all in the same pass.”

On the R&D side, Railmetrics will soon start its fourth Federal Railroad Administration-funded project related to the development of track condition change detection technology. 

“The work combines high-speed 3D laser scanning and artificial intelligence to detect subtle yet important changes in track conditions over time, before maintenance or safety thresholds are met, in order to spot potential future problems,” Fox-Ivey says. 

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