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Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Progress Rail’s patented ADFF (Acoustical Direct Fixation Fastener) was created “to provide noise and vibration attenuation expected from high resilient DF units.”

RAILWAY AGE, OCTOBER 2020 ISSUE: Gauge-holding capability, resiliency, noise reduction, ease of installation and maintenance, low life-cycle cost, safety: Railroads rely on fasteners with these qualities to perform under heavy traffic.

For as long as there have been rails sitting on crossties—the foundation of railbeds since the industry emerged in the early 19th century—there have been fasteners. Yet even after roughly 200 years, fastener technology is still evolving. The mainstays of this industry segment (other than for traditional cut spikes, still the dominant type because they’ve always done what they’re intended for)—Howmet Fastening Systems, L.B. Foster, Lewis Bolt and Nut Co., Pandrol, Progress Rail and Vossloh North America, among others—continue to innovate. 

The Allegheny Portage Railroad, between Altoona and Johnstown, Pa., used stone “sleepers,” as they were called nearly 200 years ago.
Photo: Allegheny Portage National Historic Site

Market Conditions, Long-Term Outlook

2020 has been a year of uncertainty for fastener demand in the transit industry. According to Sarah McBrayer, General Manager, Transit Products, L.B. Foster Co., “The transit market has declined in some areas of North America and increased or pulled forward work in other areas based on funding and track time impacts from COVID-19. Many of the negative effects are often highlighted, but we have seen some very positive impacts as well. Reduced ridership has allowed for increased access to perform maintenance on track systems and unease regarding funding has pulled work forward to ensure the funding remains available to complete scheduled projects. But L.B. Foster has also used time this year to internally focus on our new product development and R&D efforts.”

On the freight side, “new railroad construction requiring new concrete ties has slowed,” according to Progress Rail. “This had a natural impact on demand for elastic fasteners. Railroads have also deferred maintenance and certain capital projects, mainly due to PSR. However, with maintenance often staying within a certain cyclical range, many projects cannot be postponed any longer, and we should see more activity in the coming months. If a customer has a tie problem, it becomes a ballast problem. The cost then becomes exponentially higher.”

 On the transit side, “the U.S. government has invested heavily in new expansion projects due to an expected, long-term uptick in ridership, and we have been busy supplying customers with the fastening products they need for the past several years,” Progress Rail says. “We see this continuing for the foreseeable future.”

 For many years, Progress Rail notes, “there was an emphasis to make products last longer. For example, at one time, rail was expected to last around three years. Now, with improvements, that life cycle has been lengthened to roughly six years. Consequently, demand for products that support installing that rail can slow down. The industry should come out of that most recent cycle in 2021, pending no other unforeseen challenges.”

“Like many other manufacturers navigating the current market conditions due to COVID-19, our sales tend to remain flat, and in some cases, decline dependent upon the industry,” says Howmet Fastening Systems. “Our sales to the railcar industry are directly tied to build rates across different manufacturers, and when shutdowns and reduced build rates occur, the demand decreases for our fasteners. But our Huck 360® lockbolt for track construction and maintenance has seen a gradual upward trend that does not seem to be affected by the current market conditions.”

For transit products, Howmet is “continuing to introduce new products to the industry. We continue to grow within this market space both with legacy products and new products introduced. The rail market has always been one of our key markets, and the industry has always proven to be resilient. Looking to 2021 and beyond, the forecasts are encouraging. We are currently working with many large railroads and transit agencies on future track and bridge opportunities.”

Due to the global pandemic, Lewis Bolt and Nut Co. “is currently seeing slightly less demand for both freight and transit rail products. We expect this trend to last through the end of 2020. Looking forward to 2021, there is still uncertainty, yet we feel that maintenance programs for the freight railroads could be similar to 2020.”

What Customers Want

“Customers have consistently requested corrosion resistance and ease of maintenance across multiple product lines used in transit systems,” says Sarah McBrayer. “The L.B. Foster Transit Products engineering team has focused on developing new, high-performance coatings for various applications across transit systems to address these concerns. These coatings offer several performance enhancement features, including corrosion and rust control, extended life span in wet environments, debris and dirt resistance, and improved electrical isolation. Noise and vibration mitigation have also been a constant area of concern for our customers.”

For Progress Rail, “Our transit and freight customers are always looking for well-priced, long-life products that are American-made and safe to use in the field.”

Lewis Bolt and Nut clients “are requesting that we continue to innovate and design products that improve efficiencies, and lower the overall cost of ownership. The new Quick-Set® Hook Bolt System, as well as the brand new and improved G2® Evergrip, are examples. Many other new products are in the pipeline, and are soon to be released for in-service testing.”

Howmet customers “are asking for safer and more innovative products. Innovation and safety have been key to our past successes and remain at the heart of our market strategy. We will continue to develop safer products at a lower cost, while solving current issues that are introduced by various joining methods.”

What’s New?

L.B. Foster high resilient direct fixation fastener

During the past year, L.B. Foster “has successfully completed qualification testing for our high resilient direct fixation suite of fasteners for use in special trackwork areas,” says Sarah McBrayer. “These fasteners offer superior noise and vibration mitigation in special trackwork areas that results in dampened noise levels in residential and commercial areas and a more comfortable ride for passengers. With coordination between our Pittsburgh R&D and Atlanta Transit Products Engineering and Laboratory teams, and utilizing finite element analysis, state-of-the-art testing equipment and our depth of industry know how, we remain focused on the development of next-generation products and systems with improved performance characteristics based on customer demand to maintain our standing as an industry leader within the transit fastener market.”

Progress Rail’s patented ADFF (Acoustical Direct Fixation Fastener) was created “to provide noise and vibration attenuation expected from high resilient DF units, while matching the anchor bolt pattern and rail seat elevation of standard DF units. Until now, that has never been done. The acoustical performance has been verified by independent, recognized acoustical track experts, and we have been awarded multiple contracts to date. High attenuation DF products are a specialty of Progress Rail, and this product is a significant step forward in DF innovation and evolution.”

Progress Rail ADFF

On the freight side, Progress Rail developed an American-manufactured, long reach Safelok-type Elastic Fastener for a Class I recently, and the company “continues to provide that to the market for other customers.” Additionally, Progress Rail has a joint venture with Schwihag to manufacture American-made E clips for transit and freight customers.

Lewis Bolt and Nut recently designed and developed and is currently manufacturing its new G2 Evergrip Screw Spike: “The new G2 has a significant increase in fatigue resistance along with new, tie-grabbing barbs designed to prevent backout. In this new and improved design, the barbs are located lower in the screw, allowing us to dramatically strengthen the screw spike in its most critical area, roughly two inches in the shank below the head of the screw spike. We take pride in continuous improvements to our facilities and manufacturing processes. We have recently added a new manufacturing building to increase capacity. Along with increasing capacity, we are always improving our manufacturing processes to be safer and more efficient by way of automation.”

Lewis Bolt and Nut G2 Evergrip Screw Spike

One of Howmet’s more recent track products is the Huck 360® lockbolt: “The innovative shallow-groove design gives these fasteners more tensile and fatigue strength while providing 30% more surface area interference. The H360 Nut engages on the bolt grooves to make a high vibration resistant fastener. They are easily installed with standard tools and provide the confidence known with Huck.”

Howmet Huck 360® lockbolt

In some parts of the world,  rail fastening system theft creates significant safety and security problems. Pandrol has developed engineered theft-resistant fastening systems that make it very difficult to remove clips without special tools. The company’s Anti-Theft system incorporates e2000 series clips and is known as the eAT2000 fastening. “Once the clip has been installed, a notch on the clip’s center leg interlocks with a matching protrusion that is cast inside the housing on the shoulder,” Pandrol explains. “This mechanism is very difficult to see in the installed assembly, so that it is difficult for thieves to figure out how to remove the clip. They won’t come out, but it’s not obvious why. Clip extraction is extremely difficult unless performed by use of a special extraction tool, which makes it very difficult for an unauthorized person to remove the product from the track. The eAT2000  uses high wear resistant materials in the insulating components that ensure longevity. It also offers a high level of creep resistance, involves no threaded components that can strip or corrode, and it avoids the use of plastic dowels in the tie.”

For ballasted concrete ties, Vossloh North America offers the W System series, described as “a line of highly elastic fastening systems specifically developed to meet the rigorous standards of North American railroads. The shoulders of the concrete tie provide stability to the track and fastening system that allow for the transfer of forces generated by traffic. This highly elastic system absorbs vibrations, and avoids structure-borne noise caused by a rolling train.”

Slab tracks require direct-fixation fastening systems that must meet special requirements to deflect forces generated by a rolling train. Vossloh’s DFF series products “provide a single support point in slab track with a screw-dowel combination for anchoring, and are equipped with Vossloh’s patented Cellentic rail pad, which is made of a highly elastic elastomer that provides the essential flexibility required in direct fixation fastening systems. The DFF 21 features a reinforced base plate with a larger surface area. The DFF 300 UTS (Urban Transit Systems) is designed to dampen vibration and mitigate noise, which is a significant benefit in the urban transit environment.”

R&D Efforts

Progress Rail has developed the DF (Direct Fixation) Block, which has a patent pending. “Instead of providing the direct fixation assembly, which is the rubber molded assembly that sits on a slab or plinth, we deliver the DF fastener attached to a reinforced, precast block,” the company says. “The anchor bolts are torqued to recommended levels so contractors do not have to handle bolts, inserts, washers or adjustment plates. The DF Block’s installation removes the need for coring rebar stirrups into the invert, removes the need for placing rebar and forms to create plinths, and eliminates the need for a post concrete pour lift to fix voids created by air or water trapped under the units. This substantially reduces the amount of time needed for construction, as well as improves safety and quality by omitting multiple steps in material handling and labor previously required. The DF Block is lighter weight and more cost effective than similar products on the market and allows for routine vertical and lateral adjustment if required. This product and procedure is catching on rapidly and has been favorably received by transit authorities, contractors and consultants.”

“R&D has always been the core to our success,” notes Howmet. “As we continue to study new applications for track, bridge, car, locomotive and other markets, we can take what we learn during the development stages and translate that across different markets and introduce viable solutions to common fastening problems.”

The Camden & Amboy Railroad linked Bordentown through Jamesburg to South Amboy, N.J., via horse-drawn cars. Rails were spiked down onto granite sleepers reportedly produced by inmates at New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. Builder Robert Stevens later replaced the granite sleepers with squared-off wooden crossbeams. Stevens was also responsible for development of the T-shaped rail and railroad spikes still in use today.

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