• M/W

Preparedness Pays Off

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
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Genesee & Wyoming’s Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad is no stranger to cold weather. G&W photo

RAILWAY AGE, AUGUST 2021 ISSUE: For railroads, keeping ahead of the next “polar vortex” means boosting communications and partnering with shippers, other carriers and suppliers, early.

It may be summer, and there may be wildfires and drought engulfing a significant portion of the American and Canadian West, but planning ahead—from investments to inspections to staged resources—is how railroads, large and small, ensure they’re ready to continue safe operations when temperatures drop and snow, freezing rain and ice replace smoke and flames. 

“With the vast majority of our 113 North American railroads above the U.S. Sun Belt region, winter preparedness has always been a priority at Genesee & Wyoming operations—even before the term ‘polar vortex’ became part of our everyday vernacular,” says Director of Corporate Communications Tom Ciuba. 

Communication is key. As part of its planning efforts, G&W ensures that employees have all the necessary PPE for the season—spikes or winter overboots, cold-weather industrial gloves, jackets, hats, etc.—and that all properties undergo general maintenance and housekeeping to remove standing water or debris that can cause slipping or tripping hazards in yards once snow falls; stock up on salt or sand; maintain designated walkways and lots; and service any snowblowers or other tools that keep track clear, according to G&W Senior Vice President of Operations Support Andy Chunko. 

Union Pacific (UP) continually monitors and adjusts its winter action plans. From Mechanical and Service Design to Operations, each group has a “playbook.” “The regions, along with coordination from other departments—including our Harriman Dispatch Center and our Crew Management Services—review all details of the intended plans and walk through any changes that are necessary,” spokesperson Robynn Tysver tells Railway Age. There  an annual review of plans, in addition to a debriefing following any major weather event to understand what adjustments are needed, she says.

Railroads also work with shippers to prepare. G&W reminds shippers “how important it is to keep their facilities, lead tracks, yard tracks and switches clear of snow and ice,” G&W North America President Michael Miller says. “This ensures that crews can service their operations in a timely and effective manner. We also encourage customers to sand and/or salt walkways, parking lots and all paths where our and their employees might walk, and we ask them to plan ahead and build extra time into their service requests due to slower operations or delays caused by inclement weather. In locations prone to extreme conditions, we work with customers to develop winter preparedness plans weeks before the seasons change.”

UP even provides winter weather preparedness tips on its website. “As part of those tips, we ask shippers with rail-served facilities to take several steps to prepare for winter weather, such as clearing and inspecting gutters, drains and walkways, and making sure they are clear of any debris,” Tysver says.

Communication with other carriers is also critical, Tysver says, “to ensure a fluid network and to utilize those relationships to continue to serve our customers in the safest way possible.” 

“The three biggest areas of focus for G&W and our interchange partners during winter are communication, coordination and preparation,” G&W’s Miller reports. “Since weather can impact service, proactive communication among rail partners allows for proper planning and scheduling. AccuWeather’s reporting systems help us to identify potential problem areas in advance, keep interchanges clear of ice and snow to ensure fluid operations, and strategically position equipment and resources at key locations to minimize service disruptions. Where possible, we also strive to keep air on trains to minimize the time it takes to ready air brakes, and we encourage connecting railroads to do the same. In the event congestion occurs, we offer switching assistance and add service as required. Last but not least, we monitor railcar delays and present a plan to transportation partners if those delays are excessive.”

Technology, too, plays a role. “Over the past 10 years, we have been rebuilding our snow spreading fleet, as well as overhauling our rotary snowplows,” Tysver says. “Most of the West Coast spreaders have been completely rebuilt. We have also obtained a fleet of hi-rail equipped AF1 cold air blowers to clean switches and yard tracks. In the past several years, we have purchased a couple of PistenBully snow machines to push snow off the mountains in California. In addition, we have purchased several switch heaters in targeted subdivisions.”

“In colder climates, we focus on engine idling, which can burn up to 5.5 gallons of fuel per hour just to keep the engine at a temperature warm enough to prevent damage from freezing,” G&W’s Chunko explains. To prevent this loss, G&W outfits locomotives with Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) to keep the engine-cooling water and lube oil warm. “APUs only burn about one gallon of fuel per hour when in operation, which cuts down diesel emissions and saves on the amount of lube oil used,” Chunko notes. “When possible, we also install electrical plug-ins, which allow us to keep engines warm without idling.”

Railway Age talked with suppliers to find out their winter preparedness tips—and product delivery lead times—as well as the latest cold-combatting technologies to help railroads clear the next “polar vortex.” Their responses follow.


The Hotstart APU is a stand-alone diesel-driven solution that integrates with onboard AESS to reduce idle times, save fuel, reduce oil consumption and charge batteries. Hotstart photo

Hotstart designs and manufactures idle reduction systems that heat and circulate locomotive engine water and lubrication oil. “We offer a variety of electric shore-power solutions ranging from 120V to 575V configurations for short haul, long haul and transit applications,” Market Manager-Railroad Casey Hall tells Railway Age. “Hotstart also manufactures APUs for applications where required shore-power is not available. The Hotstart APU is a stand-alone diesel-driven solution that integrates with onboard AESS (automatic engine start/stop) systems to reduce idle times, save fuel, reduce oil consumption and charge batteries.”

To prepare for the season, Hotstart recommends that railroads perform maintenance on existing equipment per operation manuals, as well as a “first run” procedure to verify proper operation, Hall says. “Common replacement components and wear items should be thoroughly inspected and replaced as needed prior to first run. For new equipment, we recommend customers allow enough time to purchase, deliver and install equipment prior to harsh weather conditions. Additionally, train crews should be trained on proper installation/utilization of such equipment prior to being put into service.” 


NYAB supplies the DB-60 II Control Valve with Brake Cylinder Maintaining (BCM) to improve the safety and reliability of brakes, especially during the winter months. NYAB photo

“As we develop new products and solutions, ensuring they operate at low temperatures in a reliable way is one of our key requirements,” NYAB Director of Marketing Deepak Kumar tells Railway Age. Railroads must be able to stop a train every time, regardless of operating conditions or train consist makeup, he says.

NYAB supplies the DB-60 II Control Valve with Brake Cylinder Maintaining (BCM) to improve the safety and reliability of brakes, especially during the winter months. “Under extreme cold temperatures, rubber and other components within the brake system can become quite hard and lose their ability to seal air,” Kumar explains. “The BCM feature ensures that if there is air leakage in the brake cylinder, for instance, it will continue to supply air.” He likens it to an insurance policy. 

The company also offers the VV1000-T Oil Free Compressor that unlike an oil compressor does not need to be kept warm, limiting the need for locomotive idling during the winter. “Our Canadian customers have really benefited from this technology, and continue to outfit their fleets with it,” reports Kumar, noting that the compressor has an eight-year overhaul cycle.

NYAB’s LD-1000 Air Dryer has a three-stage filtration system to remove compressor-produced impurities and humidity from the air, according to Kumar. This is especially important, he says, so water doesn’t freeze in the system and stop locomotive operation.  

On the R&D side, NYAB continues work on new rubber compounds for use in its pneumatic systems to increase seal reliability at lower temperatures and over longer time periods.


nVent offers a complete range of solutions that improve railway safety and reliability, including third rail heating and switch heating systems that help keep trains moving in winter. nVent RAYCHEM illustration

“Even though it’s the peak of summer, this is really the time of year to test your systems,” says Bob Silva, Marketing Manager for nVent RAYCHEM, which provides deicing and snow melting solutions for contact (third) rail and switches to prevent service interruptions. “Make sure they’re still functional, and there hasn’t been any mechanical damage. You don’t want to wait until the freezing weather arrives before you realize that systems need to be upgraded or replaced or installed.”

This is particularly important as delivery delays are common. “The supply chains have become more and more globalized in the past few years, and there are so many constraints at different locations along those supply chains that it makes it difficult to really ramp up immediately and supply products,” nVent RAYCHEM Rail Products Leader Sudhir Thorat tells Railway Age. “So you really need to plan ahead, and if you are waiting for the last minute, it’s going to be difficult to have the product available at the right time.” 

That’s among the reasons nVent RAYCHEM has been working to solidify its supply chain—even before the pandemic began. “We want to make sure that we have reliable partners to work with, and they have good quality raw materials, they have reliability in their lead times, and they support us for any customizations that customers might need,” Thorat explains.

nVent RAYCHEM is now partnering with Power Resources International (PRI) to provide solutions for the transit industry, particularly through the Northeast and down to Washington, D.C. The advantage is “coupling nVent RAYCHEM’s industry-leading heating solutions with PRI’s engineering, controlling and system integration capabilities” as well as its local presence in West Babylon, N.Y., the company reports. “Today, we are in process of providing the switch heating and contact rail heating solution to the Long Island Rail Road Floral Park to Hicksville line extension.” nVent RAYCHEM is providing engineering support and heating products, while PRI is designing and supplying the control systems to keep trains running in the harshest environments. 

Today, customers more often expect manufacturers to be “solution providers,” Thorat adds. “They want vendors to take ownership of their application and provide the entire engineering package.” They also want connectivity, he says. Having controllers that can communicate through different protocols—from SCADA to the cloud—to a central location is important and has become a focus for the company.


PDI PowerHouse Hybrid. PDI photo

Railroads and rebuilders alike are concerned about fuel usage, emissions, maintenance and noise pollution due to idling in the winter months. Because of this, PDI developed the PowerHouse idle reduction system, which allows for locomotive shutdown even in the coldest temperatures. The system heats engine oil and circulates heated coolant through the locomotive engine block and cooling system to maintain a fluid temperature above 100°F, via a diesel-fired heating unit, according to PDI. 

The company recently developed the PowerHouse Hybrid, which it tells Railway Age “completely eliminates the engine as part of the APU and powers itself directly from the locomotive battery bank. No engine on an APU was a message PDI heard loud and clear from our customer base. That’s why we developed the PowerHouse Hybrid.”

The Hybrid runs off of the locomotive batteries for up to seven days without starting the engine, PDI says, and does not require three-phase power; when plugged into an external 120 VAC power source, the Hybrid charges the locomotive batteries.

The Hybrid requires, on average, less than 5 amps to power a diesel-fired burner to keep coolant and oil warm while the locomotive is shut down. It also monitors locomotive coolant system and battery “health,” sending warnings via text messaging to railroad personnel.    

Because water can wreak havoc on locomotive systems, PDI says, it designed a compressed air water separator. This drop-in solution works with standard locomotive air dryers to remove water for proper locomotive function. The company’s Diesel Dehydrator also removes water and it filters particulates from diesel fuel. A locomotive rebuilder recently installed the system for a railroad customer experiencing issues due to the high water content in the fuel. The result: The Diesel Dehydratorremoved 99.5% of the water, increased the fuel injector lifespan by four, and boosted overall locomotive performance, PDI reports.


Progress Rail Kershaw® Model 60 Snow Fighter. Progress Rail photo

Preparing for winter is all about planning, positioning of resources and assets, and ensuring those assets are maintained and ready, Progress Rail Director of Marketing Scott Garman tells Railway Age. To help keep customers running, the company offers the Kershaw® Model 60, a multi-purpose machine platform that can operate as a heavy-duty snow fighter and tackle a range of maintenance-of-way jobs. It is equipped with benching snow wings, a high output snow auger, and a high speed V plow or four-season plow with flanges. In the warmer months, the Model 60 can be used as a ballast regulator or brush cutter.

In partnership with a Canadian customer, Progress Rail recently developed and delivered the first of its new-generation high-output snow fighters, Garman reports. This machine is powered by a 415-hp CAT C9.3B diesel engine, coupled to upgraded drivetrain components including a new power-shift transmission and variable displacement traction pump and motor. It also incorporates all-new heavy-duty axles, and can transmit 30% more tractive effort than previous models, according to Garman. 

Progress Rail’s Rail Blaster, a rail conditioner system, uses compressed air to help railroad personnel blow snow from the rails. 

For locomotives, Progress Rail offers the EMD® AESS. A “fully integrated software solution, it monitors critical operating parameters during locomotive idle operation—safely and effectively shutting down the engine when all factors are satisfied,” Garman says. “When any one of the predetermined limits falls outside of the target range, AESS will restart the engine.” 

What are customers asking for? They continue to “demand more value for money, increased productivity, and reliability and fuel savings,” Garman says. “They are also eager to embrace more sustainable solutions and more and more advanced rail technology solutions connecting their assets to back-office solutions. Our Progress Rail Uptime suite of products is an example in this area.”


RECO bungalow-enclosed gas hot air blowers for Canadian Pacific. RECO photo

“With the pressure around Precision Scheduled Railroading, no one wants to be delayed for any reason,” RECO Executive Vice President and COO Russ Gehl tells Railway Age. To manage snow at switches, RECO offers electric hot air blowers, gas hot air blowers, hybrid systems (gas hot air blower with electric heating elements), and pan or crib heaters, among other equipment and accessories.

“We work with our customers on how they want to be prepared for winter, and have the flexibility in our engineering, design and manufacturing team to do that,” Gehl says. 

Today, railroads are most interested in snow melter performance, fuel efficiency, reliability and monitoring, he says. RECO offers Sno-NET® as well as an app to monitor and turn on and off assets, but railroads can also use them to tap into asset operation and performance data. “They’re writing more winter protocol that’s based around the snow melters’ indications and what the weather systems are indicating, rather than dispatch just turning the unit on because it’s cold outside or because of a prediction of snow,” Gehl says. Why? “Because gas is expensive; electricity is expensive.”

RECO provides small-profile electric units for transit customers, including Montreal’s REM (Réseau Express Métropolitain) project, all the way up to large bungalow-enclosed gas hot air blowers for Canadian Pacific, where they are tying into the Sno-NET site for ongoing snow melter monitoring since it’s a challenge to get to certain sites, Gehl says. 

Among RECO’s newest offerings are fiberglass covers for hotbox detectors to help keep snow out and some of the heat in. “We have a new design that we’re very excited about,” Gehl says. More cost-effective, it will help make covers easier to install and reinstall, he says.  

On the R&D side, RECO is looking to modify tie ducts to make them lighter weight and more cost effective as steel prices rise. 

Gehl advises railroads to be ready the winter season earlier than ever, as equipment lead times are longer. “As the year has progressed, we have come into more struggles,” he says. “And in the past two months, we’re having ongoing conversations with railroads about how the supply chain looks so they can plan for installs.” RECO’s engineering team is spending more time making sure parts are available, too. Gehl says they’re more often asking questions like: “Can we use this gas style that’s also approved to utilize in a snow melter if our current supply is out?”


Thertmon Movable Point Frog Heating – Type FSM. Thermon photo

Electric hot air blowers, gas hot air blowers and calrods (elements that clamp directly to the running rail) are among the products Thermon offers to mitigate snow and ice conditions at the switch. “A good rule of thumb is if you’re within 100 miles of I-70 or north of that 100-mile band, you’re probably going to consider installing one of these appliances,” Business Development Manager-Rail Ben Lecher says.

The advantage of gas hot air blowers is capacity. “They are far and above any other technology from an output standpoint,” Lecher says. “When it comes to the ability to melt a lot of snow in extreme climates, they are unparalleled.” The cons: They take up more space than the other two options and require both gas and electric utility sources since they have electric controls and electric solenoid valves, for example. 

Customers are looking for connectivity and greater operational efficiency, Lecher says. That’s why Thermon has partnered with third-party vendors to provide connectivity solutions when required, and installs devices such as rail temperature thermostats to derate heaters if track is sufficiently warm, for instance. Lecher also reports that one transit customer is adopting hybrid technology: installing both calrods and gas hot air blowers. They regularly run calrods, but if there is a substantial snowstorm, they’ll divert to gas hot air blowers.

Lead times for Thermon products—like those for other manufacturers—have grown, Lecher says. “I would encourage railroads to do their inspections and get their switch heater needs for this-coming heating season sooner rather than later.” And until the global supply chain changes, “they probably almost need to be thinking about next winter when they’re concluding this winter,” he says.


ThermOmegaTech’s GURU® Plugs sense water temperature and snap open when the engine is shut down and temperatures are close to freezing. ThermOmegaTech photo

ThermOmegaTech’s GURU® Plugs help protect locomotive cooling systems from freeze damage, according to Dana Logue, Railroad Product Manager. Installed on locomotive engine-coolant water storage tanks and water-cooled compressors, they automatically monitor water temperature. The plug’s thermal actuator senses water temperature and snaps open when the engine is shut down and temperatures are close to freezing. “This allows for the system to drain before freeze damage can occur,” explains Logue, who notes that the plugs “are completely mechanical and require no electrical or air connections to operate, and will protect your investments all winter long.”

Since customers request different connection types for their GURU® Plugs, ThermOmegaTech offers the GURU® DL 2.1 and Magnum GURU® plugs in various configurations, including “in a tee or cross body, with different flange styles such as grooved flanges and gasket seals, flat-faced flanges, or a combination of both,” says Logue. More recently, ThermOmegaTech added a cross-style body with a 1-1/4 Male NPT to a 1/4 Female plug to its product line, based on customer feedback. Additionally, all GURU® Plugs are available with anti-tamper domed caps to prevent tampering with the valve resetting stem.

The company also offers freeze protection for passenger cars. “The GURU® PC thermostatic valves continuously monitor ambient temperatures and will automatically drain the car’s potable water system before freeze damage can occur,” Logue says. “Once the car heat is restored, the value will modulate closed, allowing for the tank to be refilled before returning to service.” 

ThermOmegaTech recommends that customers change out GURU® Plugs every 18-24 months “to ensure optimal performance and avoid nuisance dumps.”


Wabtec’s Advanced Rail Cleaner improves adhesion and related tractive performance. Wabtec photo

There are several technologies Wabtec provides to keep locomotives running during the winter months. Among them are Advanced Rail Cleaner, “a hardware- and software-based solution that improves adhesion and related tractive performance”; Thermostatically Controlled Intercooler System on Air Compressor to prevent freezing; and AESS improvements to support the engine during sub-freezing temperatures. Wabtec also offers various heaters to prevent moisture freezing in brake systems.

“We work with customers to evaluate product performance across all operating ranges and have developed some unique solutions to protect the compressed air system in extreme weather from freezing up,” Wabtec says. “Additionally, the Evolution Series Tier 4 locomotive performs exceptionally well in extreme cold, making full horsepower down to a recorded -46°C due to the superior design of the engine-charged air system.”


ZTR is introducing the ability to monitor SmartStart® and KickStart™ through telematics. ZTR photo

ZTR offers the Locomotive Battery Saver System, which “adds intelligent logic to managing energy onboard the locomotive”; SmartStart®, an AESS system; and KickStart™, “a supercapacitor technology that augments the lead acid starting battery,”  providing “standby” energy, Sales Director Brian Nelson tells Railway Age.

The company is introducing the ability to monitor SmartStart® and KickStart™ through telematics. Customers want to understand what’s happening on their mature locomotive fleet—outside of the 91-day and 182-day inspections, Nelson says. “So we’re working hard to provide them with insight.” Software updates can also be pushed out to the locomotives, rather than performed during inspection periods.

Historically, ZTR has been known for work in the low-horsepower shunting and switching market, but with its more recent KickStart™ product, it has found a foothold in the high-horsepower market, according to Nelson. “There are a couple of Class I’s that have been very prescriptive in identifying which of their high-horsepower units are bad actors [from a starting perspective], and they’re finding KickStart™ to be a nearly 100% solution for them,” he says. KickStart™ is now entering pilots in ZTR’s export markets, including South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. 

On the R&D front, ZTR is looking into alternative battery chemistries that are stable; don’t require maintenance; and could be combined with its supercapacitor technology in a single unit, Nelson says. “This way, we could deliver both the starting capability with a battery product, but also have the supercapacity standby capability.”

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