• M/W

Ready for the cold?

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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ZTR KickStart, installed.

Extreme cold doesn’t have to have an extreme effect on railroad operations and maintenance. As published in the August 2018 issue of Railway Age, following are several examples of how the supply industry has warmed up to the task.


HOTSTART, a supplier to the railroad industry since 1965, is expanding its efforts to serve the market. Railroads, rebuilders and lessors based in the Midwest and East Coast prompted the company to open an office in Merrillville, Ind., for regional sales support. “We have embraced getting closer to our customers, having more ‘face time’ and more frequent site visits,” says Casey Hall, Market Manager-Railroad. “We plan to offer training from our Chicagoland office and establish regional field service support, allowing us to respond quicker to customer needs during the winter months.”

HOTSTART is among the leading companies in the industry providing locomotive diesel engine heating solutions. Heating engines during winter not only keeps the locomotives running on schedule, but also eliminates the need for idling in freezing temperatures. Among its most successful products is the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit), a self-contained water and oil preheater that uses the locomotive’s onboard fuel supply to heat the prime-mover without requiring an external shore power connection. Running on 0.5 gallons per hour, the APU “offers significant fuel savings compared to the 4-5 gallons or more per hour consumed by locomotives while idling,” says Hall. “Depending on what notch the locomotive is idling at, that consumption can be more. Depending on the ambient temperature, the water temperature in the locomotive can be maintained between 90-120 degrees F (32-49 degrees C) with the APU, and the battery charge is maintained for full cranking power when needed.”


“Use of the APU in the winter can be easily integrated into existing day-to-day mechanical operations,” says Hall. “The operator control panel is configurable to display real-time status. It offers automatic operation for worry-free heating, and the APU is compatible with existing auto engine start-stop (AESS) systems.”

For operations that have their locomotives return to the yard, HOTSTART offers electric idle reduction systems that can plug into shore power. The DLV and CLV engine heaters offer dual- or single-fluid heating, depending on the locomotive’s requirements. Both electric systems maintain locomotive water temperature above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C), “easily keeping locomotives ready for starting without idling,” says Hall. “Our electric systems come with temperature sensors, operator controls and pumps to circulate heated water and/or oil, reducing cold-start wear and tear. For operations needing installation flexibility, both electric heaters are available in modular configurations, decoupled from the standard vertical mounting plate.”


Power Drives, Inc. (PDI) is a Buffalo, N.Y.-based manufacturer and OEM supplier of locomotive idle reduction technology, fuel filtration systems, and water separation technology for locomotive compressed air systems. PDI’s PowerHouse™ Idle Reduction Technology is available in two models: The APU and the 120. The APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) incorporates a Tier 4-compliant, 9.5 hp Kubota® engine that drives an alternator, powering the pumps and trickle-charging the locomotive battery bank. It consumes, on average, 0.38 GPH (gallons per hour) of fuel once at temperature. The 120 operates from a 120/240 VAC external power source and consumes, on average, 0.35 GPH of fuel, once at temperature.

Jonathan McCullough, Manager of Mechanical at customer TNW Corp., says, “120 volts is a big advantage. The electrical requirements are lower, allowing for more locations to utilize the PowerHouse 120.”

PDI modular locomotive installation.

Both compact units feature the PowerHouse Heat Exchanger, rated at 136,000 BTUs/hour (40kW). The heat exchanger provides rapid coolant heating, maintaining coolant temperature of 100 degrees F, “even in the coldest of temperatures.”

“Idling is extremely costly in the winter months,” McCullough says. “For EMD locomotives in particular, oil consumption through excessive idling is a large expense. The PowerHouse has greatly reduced our fuel and oil consumption while reducing maintenance costs from fewer operating hours. The TXR Railway is located in town, so eliminating unnecessary idling helps reduce noise pollution.”

The PowerHouse also offers remote monitoring capabilities, which allows users to monitor operating parameters in real-time remotely on smart devices or computers. “The initial benefit is fuel savings,” McCullough says. “The oil and maintenance savings and remote monitoring are additional bonuses. The remote monitoring gives real-time alerts, keeping track of fuel savings, engine temperatures and much more. This gives piece of mind knowing our locomotives are being monitored around the clock. It’s basically set ’em and forget ’em. PDI is the only company we’ve found that offers this, and it’s one of the main reasons we decided on the PowerHouse.”

PDI adds that its water separation technology protects against frozen compressed air lines by eliminating water from them.


Cold weather extremes can wreak havoc on locomotive batteries. Generally, about 1,200 amps are required to start a diesel prime-mover. If the available current falls to 800 or below, the engine won’t turn over.

ZTR Control Systems’ KickStart™ is a compact (4 X 20-inch), lightweight (45-pound) battery augmentation device that can be installed in several locations including the battery compartment. It uses supercapacitor technology to supplement locomotive batteries during engine start-up. It’s designed to augment healthy batteries to reduce the strain on them during starting, or supply missing amps that weak batteries can’t provide. “The result is less energy drain from the batteries, longer battery life, faster cranking speed, less recharge time, improved cold weather starts, and ultimately, increased locomotive availability,” ZTR says.

Supercapacitors are virtually impervious to temperature extremes. Consisting of conductive plates separated by a di-electric material, and controlled by internal software, they store energy in an electrical field. By contrast, a battery stores energy chemically. One key difference between a battery and a supercapacitor is its rapid discharge capability. Another is longevity: Supercapacitors can last up to 1 million cycles, as opposed to 500 cycles on a battery, which typically has a two-year life span. Plus, says Brian Nelson, ZTR Director of Commercial Development, “KickStart reduces battery drain during starting to extend life by up to 50%. If a battery drains down, it will maintain a charge and be ready to assist starting, even after extended shut-down intervals.”

Yet another difference is in relation to recharging time: minutes instead of hours, using 74VDC Aux Gen power. And, a battery’s operating temperature range is typically 32 to 114 degrees F (0 to 45 C). KickStart’s supercapacitor is –40 to 150 degrees F (–40 to 65 C). KickStart also offers fault notifications and diagnostics that eliminate the need for proprietary software for setup and commissioning.

In one test, KickStart reduced required battery amperage by up to 35%, while reducing battery voltage drop by up to 38%. The current through the starting motors was consistent in both tests, as KickStart provided the additional required power.

“Our focus is on safety, efficiency and reliability,” Nelson says. “KickStart, which has been in the field for nearly 10 years, addresses reliability. We have clients with zero non-starts. Everyone is looking for power, and with the locomotive market leaning heavily toward rebuilds and upgrades, rather than new units, 2019 will be ‘the year of the battery.’”

Railway Equipment Co.

Railway Equipment Company’s Rail-NET™ remote asset monitoring is capable of monitoring track switch heaters, track switch machines, lubricators, battery chargers, batteries, crossing equipment, track circuits, generators, and cameras.

REC has developed a system to collect and circulate pertinent asset operating data. Railroad-defined data is collected via interface modules that monitor a variety of analog and digital inputs. Data is transmitted to a secure online portal for processing and accessibility. The portal allows the user to customize the data presentation as well as when an alert should be sent out and to whom, whenever an asset is operating outside normal parameters. Railroads can prioritize their responses to better utilize maintenance resources. With remote monitoring, a site visit is no longer needed. Instead, the information ensures that maintenance personnel are equipped to correct the situation before traveling to the asset.

The largest installed base is on CP, followed by BNSF, Metrolinx and MBTA.

“At CP and BNSF, where Rail-NET is installed, the structures group looks after switch heaters instead of the signaling group,” says REC Vice President and General Manager Joe Ashley. “Controlling and viewing the unit remotely helps avoid 200-mile drives in the middle of a snowstorm.

“Metrolinx acquired Rail-NET as a tool for maintenance contractor PNR RailWorks to increase switch reliability. Also, operating data is imported into Metrolinx’s data warehouse to periodically compare it with other data such as fuel invoices, switch reliability, train schedules, etc. This ‘Big Data’ comparison should help Metrolinx focus spending on where it’s most needed.

“MBTA bought Rail-NET as a tool for contract commuter rail operator Keolis. MBTA has been pleased with the performance of our gas hot-air switch heaters; this success should lead to higher adoption.

“The signal group at BNSF is interested in a new control module feature that allows it to ‘plug-in’ via various radios to a data aggregator BNSF is installing in 30 bungalows on the Emporia Subdivision as a proof of concept, to send exception reports to internal BNSF systems.”


Thermon Group Holdings, Inc., San Marcos, Tex., acquired CCI Thermal Technologies Inc., in October 2017. CCI Thermal, through acquisition of Fastrax in 2012 and the Hovey Industries SCD product line in 2016, consolidated snow clearing device products for track and switches.

The SwitchBlade and Hellfire products (acquired from Hovey) have been in service on Class I and transit railroads for decades. The company expects the North American market for snow clearing devices to grow. “High-performance, reliable snow clearing devices are key to successful winter movement of trains across most of the U.S. and all of Canada,” says Thermon.

Fastrax will carry on under the Thermon Heating Systems brand. “The railroads are familiar with our products; however, the Thermon name is new to many of them,” the company says. “We continue to sell to the Class I’s. We have transit customers in Canada and the U.S.: Toronto’s Metrolinx/GO Transit, Toronto Transit Commission, Calgary LRT, Edmonton LRT, VIA Rail, Maryland Transit Administration, MBTA, RTD Denver, SEPTA, Utah Transit Authority, WMATA and Amtrak.”

Thermon SwitchBlade.

Among the company’s recent projects are the Toronto Union Station Rail Corridor revitalization project for Metrolinx, where Thermon is supplying 50 new Hellfire heaters and 149 upgrade control panels to bring existing Hellfires up to the current design, all of which will connect to and be remotely controlled and monitored by GO Transit’s SCADA system.

The Eglinton Crosstown, Ottawa’s Trillium and Confederation lines, and Edmonton’s Valley line are using Hellfire systems. Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION LRT has installed customized hybrid systems consisting of SwitchBlade and FEB products for their main line and MSF yards. Denver RTD selected SwitchBlade systems for the Eagle P3 expansion project, and as part of the North Metro expansion in 2016, with 43 control panels and more than 130 heated switches. Thermon also supplies to several short line and industrial railroads, such as Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore Company of Canada and the Quebec North Shore & Labrador.

“Hellfire has several new enhancements,” says Thermon. “These include a new network-compatible controller with an RS-485 communications port and MODBUS protocol to allow for remote control and monitoring via the internet or SCADA system. Other enhancements include design changes as a result of testing to AREMA standard 11.5.1, Recommended Environmental Requirements for Electrical and Electronic Railroad Signal System Equipment; a new 100% stainless steel burner design for improved efficiency, flame signal strength and minimized maintenance; a continuous fan mode operation that eliminates in-rush currents and is ideal for drifting snow locations; a burner defroster that ensures reliable ignition, and improved access panel seals to keep controls clean and dry.”


nVent offers “a diverse range of solutions that improve railway safety and reliability, including heating systems for melting snow and ice on track switches,” the company says. “With our portfolio of advanced electric heat trace cables from nVent RAYCHEM and cable fastening clips from nVent ERICO, we offer an innovative self-regulating switch heating system that performs in the harshest winter conditions, and is significantly more energy efficient than conventional systems.”

This system is based on nVent’s proprietary self-regulating heating cables that automatically sense changes in rail temperature to deliver heat along the length of the cable, where and when it is needed. nVent says that “by eliminating wasted energy, our self-regulating heating system is up to 30% more energy efficient than conventional systems, adding up to significant energy cost-savings. This intelligent system does not require a control panel for operation, and requires little maintenance once installed.”

nVent provides full service design and engineering support for each switch heating system, and offers a range of value-added options, including control panels and sensors.

nVent Rail Switch Heating System.

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