Cold Comfort

Written by Andrew Corselli
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Photo: Bruce Kelly

RAILWAY AGE, AUGUST 2020 ISSUE, ANNUAL WINTER PREPAREDNESS REPORT: Winter preparedness is essential for avoiding frozen equipment, malfunctioning cars, service delays or even suspended operations. Fail to prepare for winter’s harsh conditions and your railroad will be running on ice—literally and figuratively. One railroad that prepares for winter’s onslaught is BNSF, which has some of the most rugged territory in North America.

“BNSF can look at this past winter as another ‘in the books,’ and to sum up overall conditions, the past winter season on BNSF’s Northern Tier was just another year as one would expect,” spokesperson Gus Melonas says. “Depending geographically, there were heavy rain periods, cold snaps, large snow dumps and frigid temps at times. Preparedness begins in early fall and proactive measures help BNSF get through rough periods, we have come to expect.

“In the Pacific Northwest, in the early part of the first quarter to start off 2020, BNSF experienced more rainfall than we’ve seen in years. However, ditching, culvert maintenance, undercutting and general track work in advance helped keep the roadbed strong. Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota prep efforts also helped with switch machine and overall physical plant upkeep. Montana’s winter produced less-than-average snowfall conditions, some indicating quite mild.

“There were out-of-the-ordinary events that resulted in interruptions, including the derailment east of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where a manifest train struck a rockslide along the Kootenai River, causing a 72-hour main line shutdown. Also, above-average rainfall totals dumped several inches of rain in Lower Mainland Canada in less than one week on more than one occasion this past winter, causing mudslides north of White Rock and suspending passenger operations at times. BNSF’s Scenic Sub also experienced heavy wet snowfall in late January, where four feet of snow rapidly dumped, resulting in the freak breaking of more than 600 trees along BNSF right-of-way from Scenic to Skykomish, Wash., causing a 36-hour main line shutdown. Much traffic was diverted via the Columbia River Gorge and Stampede pass routes during this outage.

“Even with the heavy rainfall volumes experienced this past winter in the Puget Sound region, BNSF’s construction of Catchment Walls has paid major dividends, as the walls prevented multiple mudslides from impacting freight, passenger and commuter train travel between Seattle and Everett. BNSF installed a 1,500-foot catchment wall at North Woodway in 2019 (11 miles north of Seattle), and installed an additional 1,500-foot catchment wall connection in Spring 2020 in preparation for the upcoming winter. Additionally, BNSF is currently removing numerous hazard trees as a proactive winter measure in Washington State.

“BNSF has been running longer trains (up to 14,000 feet) in the PNW, and weather had little impact on operations. Locomotive positioning has helped with efficiencies.”

The Basics

“Winter preparedness is really about maintaining network velocity,” Joe Ashley, Vice President, Railway Equipment Co. (RECo), says. “Precision Scheduled Railroading and frozen switches go together like oil and water. If the dispatcher tries to line a switch and can’t, he’ll call out maintenance personnel. If they’re lucky, that person will get out there before the train gets there and has to stop, but quite often that’s not the case. Then you end up with a train stopped in front of the switch, which can lead to delays, especially in rugged weather. So it’s important in how you heat the switch, but to also have a reliable unit that you know is going to fire up every time you call for it, whether it’s from your network operations center or you’re relying on the unit to activate itself through a series of sensors.”

“The other way people really use winter preparedness is proactively,” Ashley notes. “The people on the ground know a lot more about the weather that’s coming in than, say, the people down in Texas who are controlling the switches and the train movements. So if they know there’s a winter storm coming in, a lot of times they’ll go in there and fire up some of the heaters and critical switches for 10 minutes to make sure there are no problems ahead of the weather coming in.”

“People are now more aware of the need for winter preparedness early on,” says Peter Daigler, Power Drives, Inc. (PDI) Vice President of Business Development. “Short lines and Class I’s alike have to evaluate all locomotive costs. Fuel is expensive, and replacing key systems like starters and injectors before their expected replacement date is very costly, too. As well, water contamination in air brake lines and fuel systems can quickly turn into an expensive repair, especially in cold weather.”

Different weather conditions require different methods of snow and ice clearing, Gregor Harris, Business Development Manager-Rail, Thermon, whose clients include the freight railroads, transits and industrial facilities, says. Most locations, though, are best suited to heating systems. For locations that typically have a thaw after a storm, elements are often preferred. Further north, into the Midwestern prairies and mountains, hot air systems, gas-fired or electric, are preferred. The advantage of these is that they not only melt the snow, they actually evaporate the moisture, so you don’t have the icing problem that you can have with the elements.

“What’s counter-intuitive is that as you go further north, many customers prefer using our high-velocity cold air systems,” Harris says. “When ambient temperatures are very cold, the snow tends to be light and dry, so a curtain of air keeps snow from falling into the switch and sweeps it clear. For example, for northern locations with extreme winter conditions, using heating elements does not provide enough heat and tends to create ice. Melted snow drips into the ballast and then immediately freezes, creating ice buildup. This requires sending maintainers out with picks, shovels and torches to recover the switch. In these conditions many of our customers opt for high-velocity cold air curtains.”

Dana Logue, Product Manager, ThermOmegaTech—which works with all of the Class I’s as well as OEMs and Class II and III carriers—agrees, and adds that any hindrance could be catastrophic when looking at the big picture.

“Railroads should start prepping before any sort of freeze weather, even if it doesn’t seem like it might get that cold—the temperature can get down sooner than people anticipate,” she says. “But it really depends on where you’re located. So maybe our more Southern clients wouldn’t really have to worry about anything until November, but in Canada and maybe even in the Northeast, they might have to worry about that in October. So I would say late summer, early fall is probably the best time to start thinking about getting ready for the upcoming year.”

Hotstart is a thermal management company whose “bread and butter is the short line market but also does quite a bit with Class I’s, a lot for rebuilders, direct with OEMs, and is big with transit,” Market Manager Railroads Casey Hall says. “You can’t come into the winter without your equipment prepped and ready, because the minute you start getting those frozen rails or snow, etc., you can’t react quickly enough and have the downtime on the freight and/or passenger lines.

“Larger railroads, OEMs, transits—those big players are really sound with winter preparation. They’re discussing it and planning it and everything’s on order now. The short lines will be a little more reactive—waiting until it’s closer, more on a cash flow basis to say, ‘All right, it’s time. We’ve got to put it in’ at a last-minute junction. That’s more active on the family operated businesses; they’re a little more reactive to the winter. But all the large players in the game are already prepped. Now it’s just go-through-the-troubleshooting phases.”

Changes in Weather, Industry

Dana Logue says that ThermOmegaTech has been selling freeze protection products since the 1980s. She adds that the most notable change she’s seen in winter preparedness has been the maintenance schedule.

“Some of our customers are on a one-year maintenance schedule or some customers are every two years, so it kind of varies,” she says. “We’ve had some that change out our Guru Plug engine block freeze protection valve every four years. So it really kind of depends on the customer. We recommend changing out our valve annually, at the very least every two years.”

Thermon’s Harris, who has been in the rail industry for 32 years, has also noticed a change in winter preparedness.

“What has really changed is that snow-clearing systems are accepted by railroads as a required piece of equipment,” he says. “Historically, it was often left to the maintainers to decide what they needed. In the early days, they really weren’t too worried about the schedule. Now with the penalty clauses, it’s important to keep goods moving. It used to be, after a big snowstorm, crews went out with their picks and shovels and torches to recover the switches—but that could take days. Now, management needs summertime operation year-round. They don’t want any delays. The way things have evolved, you have to have switch heating and snow clearing devices, and they have to be reliable.”

Texas-based Whitmore Rail, a global provider of rail lubricants and friction modifiers, notes that the biggest changes it has seen are remote monitoring and the ability to shut down systems during extreme weather conditions, such as extreme cold and periods of heavy rain.

“In addition to the equipment,” the company says, “the product pumping through the equipment has changed from simple greases—which would have a limited range of useful ambient temperature range—to a range of products which have complex thickeners and either a blend of synthetic or pure synthetic base fluids. The new products are far better in low operating temperatures and allow the product to be effective at much higher temperatures.”

The Tools to Prepare

All Power Drives, Inc. models—PowerHouse™ 120, PowerHouse™ APU and PowerHouse™ AC-APU—are available with remote monitoring capabilities.

Power Drives, Inc. is best-known in the market for its PowerHouse™ idle reduction technology. “Our system makes sense for an operation of any size, as it saves fuel while reducing noise and emissions,” says Peter Daigler. He notes that more short lines are starting to realize how this one-time purchase saves them money over the long haul. The U.S. EPA SmartWay-verified idle reduction technology heats and circulates water or coolant through the locomotive engine block and cooling system to maintain a temperature of above 100 degrees F, “even in the coldest of temperatures.” It also comes in three models to accommodate shore power or lack thereof: the PowerHouse™ 120, PowerHouse™ APU and PowerHouse™ AC-APU. All are available with remote monitoring capabilities.

“With the PowerHouse™, there’s a huge fuel cost savings, a positive environmental impact of not running locomotives constantly during the night,” Daigler says.

Daigler adds that winter preparedness “saves more than just one kind of green. In addition to the PowerHouse™, PDI has various other innovative solutions to tackling locomotive inefficiencies.” Two address water contamination: the Compressed Air Dryer Water Separator and the Diesel Dehydrator.

“The Compressed Air Dryer Water Separator is a water separator installed after the air compressor, right off the intercooler,” Daigler explains. “Originally designed for GE locomotives, the Compressed Air Dryer Water Separator is a drop-in solution that packs a punch by tackling the basics: It separates water from the air so that water does not build up in the air lines, since those air lines feed all air requirements, specifically the brake lines. In the winter, that water can freeze and cause the braking system to malfunction, which obviously is a big problem.”

“It is common knowledge that water contamination is also a huge problem in diesel fuel.” Daigler explains. PDI’s Diesel Dehydrator “filters the diesel fuel, but it also has an integrated water separator. The water gets pulled away from the diesel fuel so that the locomotive can run more efficiently. The Diesel Dehydrator can help prevent algae bloom in the tank because it is removing the water from the system.”

PDI’s Diesel Dehydrator units have been installed on many Class I locomotives and have been sold to rebuilders, “who make inclusion of the unit standard in a rebuild, due to the increase in fuel injector longevity,” Daigler says.

Railway Equipment Company (RECo) switch heater installation.

Joe Ashley notes that RECo has been offering gas hot air blowers for at least 30 years, and it’s “probably our biggest mover.” The gas hot air blower, whether it’s two or five hp, “is really the most effective means of keeping the switch clean in the winter,” he says. Along with the heaters, RECo is seeing more people installing fiberglass switch covers in the switch, which aim to keep snow out.

“Trains often will drop or drag snow in, which can cause problems, because even if the heater was kicked on when it detected snow coming in, it might be too late, Ashley says. “It could really plug up a lot of stuff. So the covers do a really good job of keeping that snow from causing issues.”

Ashley points to RECo’s Sno-Net® for low-visibility areas. It works with a cellular device on the heater that allows the user to access the heater through a mobile phone application or a website and control the heat or diagnose a problem.

NYAB DB-60 II Control Valve with BCM (Brake Cylinder Maintaining)

Deepak Kumar, Director of Marketing for New York Air Brake (NYAB)—which provides brake and air supply systems for locomotives and freight cars for all the Class I’s and car and locomotive builders—says that when NYAB designs products, it keeps the harsh winter conditions in mind to “help the operations work efficiently and safely in frigid conditions.”

NYAB’s flagship products include the DB-60 II Control Valve with Brake Cylinder Maintaining (BCM), the LD-1000 Air Dryer and VV1000-T Oil-Free Compressor. BCM continually compensates for changes in brake cylinder leakage, which is made worse by cold temperatures. It maintains brake pressure up to a certain point, restoring any leakage and maintaining braking force.

NYAB VV1000-T Oil-Free Compressor.

“Our LD-1000 Air Dryer eliminates moisture from the train’s air supply system,” Kumar notes. “You have an oil-free compressor pumping air, and right in that circuit you have a dryer. Therefore, in cold temperatures it would prevent freeze-ups. Our air dryer not only removes the moisture but also oil and any other contaminants through its three-stage filtration system.

“Our VV1000-T Oil-Free Compressor is a state-of-the-art product, sophisticated technology. If you compare it to the oil compressor, that oil in cold temperatures freezes up and has major issues with start-up. Railroads have to keep their locomotives running all the time to make sure that there’s enough heat being produced and the compressors stay warm. This obviously burns a lot of fuel; it’s not efficient.

“Cold weather leads to leakage, which could very easily compromise the safety of the system if you’re not pumping air reliably. The Oil-Free Compressor is effectively able to provide that capacity in cold weather. It does not need the engine to be running, and because there’s no oil it can start very quickly. To fill a system from empty to full charge, for example, our oil-free compressor takes less than three minutes. With an oil compressor it can take seven to eight minutes.”

ThermOmegaTech GURU plug installed on a compressor.

ThermOmegaTech’s Guru Plug freeze protection valves sense locomotive cooling system water temperature. When it gets close to freezing, the valve will  pop open and drain everything out before any freeze damage can occur.

“We do all sorts of temperature control valves, but for the railroad industry, we do locomotive freeze protection,” Logue says. “We released Guru PC, our passenger car potable water tank freeze protection, about seven years ago. This is something that we’re really trying to market in North America. We’ve been working with some of the larger transit agencies here as well as in Europe.”

ZTR Control Systems’ flagship winter preparedness offering is its SmartStart IIe, which reduces idling. “Instead of guessing when to end ‘manual shutdown’ policy based on weather forecasts and gut feel, the system will automatically maintain engine temperature and keep the battery ready to go,” the company says.

In addition, ZTR has other winter preparedness technology, such as its NEXSYS system, which improves traction in wet and icy conditions. In high-horsepower applications, NEXSYS automatically adjusts engine power to the environmental conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.). ZTR’s KickStart product aims to help with cold-morning engine starts. The AxleGen is designed to reduce accumulation of ice and snow and is a non-contact technology unaffected by extreme temperatures, water ingress or ice build-up. Its snow plow control system automatically adjusts the plow’s power and speed to the snow conditions (wet, packed, fluffy etc.).

Hotstart has equipment that can improve AESS systems by keeping coolant and lube oil flowing to maintain operating temperature, enabling fast restarts.

Hall says that Hotstart has equipment that can improve AESS (automatic engine start-stop) systems. “We can tap into an AESS and instead of a locomotive running all night, it can actually be shut down,” he says. “Our equipment will keep coolant and lube oil flowing to maintain operating temperature, so the locomotive can be restarted at a moment’s notice.”

Hotstart APU

Harris says that Thermon last fall, after two years of monitoring and fine tuning, introduced its new ArcticSense snow detector, with improved drifting snow detection. In addition, he says Thermon has “started to get a few more ‘nontraditional applications,’ such as overhead cranes and conveyors for industrial facilities, as well as a project in Newfoundland for a mine application, a radial conveyor stacker for moving mine tailings,” and “a variety of new detectors and scanners being installed by our customers for whom we are designing systems to improve their winter reliability.”

The Eglinton Crosstown LRT Maintenance and Service Facility in Toronto uses Thermon Fastrax Hellfire 400 gas-fired switch heaters, shown here installed and operational. 50 of these units are installed in the yard.

Wabtec’s latest cold-weather-battling systems are its ABDX-CM (Cylinder Maintaining) and ABDX-CMHW (Cylinder Maintaining and Hot Wheel Protection) brake valves, and its Automatic Parking Brake (APB).

“Wabtec’s work on the ABDX Brake Cylinder Pressure Maintaining feature will address leakage out of the brake cylinder air circuit due to leaking rubber seals in the brake cylinder (packing cup and pipe flange gasket), the piping system (pipe flange gaskets) and the control valve or empty-load valve (various rubber seals),” the company says. “Our work on the ABDX Hot Wheel Protection feature will address leakage into brake cylinder from leaking rubber seals in the control valve. Leakage into the brake cylinder can result in overheated wheels (potential wheel damage) and high brake shoe wear. The Brake Cylinder Pressure Maintaining feature is production-ready and can be provided on any ABDX Control Valve. The Hot Wheel Protection feature is nearly production-ready; we are just waiting on a new die casting, with samples expected before the end of the year.

“Our Automatic Parking Brake (APB) will automatically secure a train on a grade whenever an emergency brake application is made. The APB will retain at least 90% of the emergency application shoe force, even if the brake cylinder air pressure has leaked off completely. We expect to have limited quantities available for field test in 3Q2020.”

Spectrum Inc. SureStart™ Flex Control Cabinets with Individual Circuit Control.

Driven by requests to provide a more flexible, precise control of its snow-clearing and ice-melting technologies, Spectrum Inc. recently released a new line of SureStart™ Flex Control Cabinets with Individual Circuit Control. The new design, which features the ability to individually heat specific switches in a track system with a single control cabinet via signal, is geared specifically toward energy and cost savings.

“This new design is geared specifically towards energy savings and cost-conscious Class I, Class II and industrial rail yards,” Spectum notes.  “In some situations, 24/7 snow melters on un-utilized track is a waste of valuable resources. Our Flex Individual Circuit Control allows for the precise control of track switch heaters in a multiple circuit cabinet.  When tracks are in use or about to be used, only the required track switch heaters need to be activated by dispatch or local control; thereby, slashing energy costs and increasing the longevity of the Flat Jacket Cal Rods and Crib Heater Elements.”

Spectrum’s Sure Start™ Flex Control Cabinets are available in 2-12 circuit designs “using high-quality COTS (commercial off the shelf) components,” the company says. “Replacement components can be sourced from a local commercial electrical supply house, reducing down time. Spectrum does not use any proprietary software, computer panels or hardware in our designs. These units have been proven in the most rigorous Class I and Class II railroad systems throughout the U.S. and Canada. SureStart™ Flex Control Cabinets are known for their ease of installation, ease of maintenance and years of service.”

Spectrum manufactures SureStart™ Flex Control Cabinets and RRSH Hot/Cold Air Blowers in Cleveland, Ohio. “Each has the capacity to power both our Flat Jacket Cal Rods and Crib Heaters so that a high level of flexibility and customization can be achieved within any design specifications,” the company points out. “Each unit can be controlled manually, via sensors or remote relay. We are ready for the 2020-2021 winter season. Flat Jacket Cal Rods, Crib Heaters and Junction Boxes are always available for immediate shipping.  Our lead times on built-to-order control cabinets and hot air blowers have been dramatically reduced with additional investments in automation and manpower in our production facilities.”

Whitmore Rail installation.

Whitmore has synthetic-based, all-season flange lubricants as well as solid sticks for flange lubricant and tread friction modifiers the company says “require no changes between summer and winter seasons. If a customer chooses to use mineral oil-based products, the changeover from summer to winter can be done by mixing our summer and winter products, which are fully compatible, and this eliminates the need to empty reservoirs. The timeframe to changeover from summer to winter grades is quite long in most places. The changeover should occur when the ambient temperatures average below 85°F and above 25°F. This would give you a window of a few months in the fall to switch products.”

nVent Flat MI Switch Heating System

nVent offers a wide range of rail heating and control systems that effectively melt ice on switches and critical transit infrastructure, including contact rail and overhead catenary contact wire. “This offering brings together core nVent capabilities that include the industrial heating technology and expertise of nVent RAYCHEM and the extensive railway industry experience and high quality components of nVent ERICO,” says Dan Whiteley, Global Marketing Manager, Railway Solutions. “With our comprehensive rail heating portfolio, nVent has been the go-to supplier of snow melting and de-icing solutions that freight and transit railroads trust to protect critical track infrastructure from inclement winter weather.”

The nVent Flat MI Switch Heating System, a core part of the nVent rail heating product line, “is a proven solution for melting ice on track switches,” notes Whiteley. “It features a flat profile, constant wattage heater element. We recently introduced a new, AAR-certified heater element to the nVent Flat MI Switch Heating System product line that brings greater performance, reliability, fit and functionality. The new heater element undergoes rigorous quality testing to ensure there are no defects, significantly reducing the likelihood of premature system failure once installed. The innovative heater design features unique flat profile (.340 inch x .625 inch), wider yet shorter in height than competitive heaters. This profile helps the heater maintain contact with the rail for proper conductive heat transfer, as it’s less likely to bow away from the rail. Due to this efficient heat transfer, the heater not only consumes less energy, it also runs relatively cooler, minimizing the risk of track fires. It also contributes to improving reliability and longevity of the heater, avoiding costly replacements and service interruptions. With less height, the heater element is an easier fit in tight spaces, such as in between the stock rail and wedge brace located at the entrance of a turnout.

“Another advantage of the nVent Flat MI Switch Heating System heater element is in the flexibility to meet a variety electrical and engineering specifications. The heater element can be manufactured to operate at voltages up to 750V, allowing nVent to meet the needs of our customers who have different voltage requirements, some of which require 600V, 625V and 750V. The heater element can also be manufactured for AC and DC power, with design options to meet various wiring configurations, including single ended (positive to negative, two point connection) or double ended ( positive and negative for a single point connection). Finally, we can provide systems where the heater element wattage differs at various segments up to 500 watts per feet, should the customer prefer higher or lower heat output in certain areas. Standard sizing of the heater element goes up to 34 feet; however, we can provide custom lengths to more than 100 feet.”

To paraphrase a wise man, failing to prepare for winter is preparing to fail.

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