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A regulatory change shook up the railroad bridge industry in 2010. Now technology is doing the same thing.
Everything changed in 2010.
That’s when the the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published its long-awaited safety standards for railroad bridges in a document known as FRA 237.
“It really brought the industry forward into the 20th century,” said Kevin Halpin, the former manager of bridges and structures for CN, and now the owner of KRH Engineering LLC.
Given that so many of North American railroad bridges were built in the 19th century, it was probably wise for the industry to join the 20th century. To do so, FRA 237 stated the obvious: lots of railroad bridges were old. And given that, the FRA required railroads that owned bridges do four things:
The result has been a surge in bridge work.
“There’s a lot of work out there,” said Mike Tweet, vice president of Koppers Railroad Structures. “More than there is funding. But that is pretty typical.”
Driving much of this work are the inspections mandated by FRA 237.
“Once a railroad has a bridge management plan in place and submitted to the FRA, it’s held accountable to that plan,” said Dave Peterson, marketing and program director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ‘s program for engineering professional development. For example, the Union Pacific says that 95 percent of its bridges are inspected a minimum of twice annually by one of 29 specially-trained two-person bridge inspection teams. UP bridges that are less than 10 years old and have no defects are inspected once annually.
“If you say you’re going to inspect a particular bridge twice a year, then you are required to do so,” Peterson.
In addition, every railroad needs to have designated bridge engineers, inspectors and supervisors.
That requirement has led to strong demand for certifications and courses to get people up to speed in bridge skills. Peterson’s school, for example, offers a two-day course called “Fundamentals of Railway Bridge Engineering and Management.”
Roughly a third of students are consultants and contractors who see opportunity in providing bridge services, particularly to smaller railroads.
“The shortline industry has some pretty good darn engineers in track,” said Halpin, who sometimes teaches at Wisconsin-Madison, “but they often don’t know much about bridges.”
Contractors are also finding work as a result of FRA 237’s mandate that railroads know and report bridge capacity.
Koppers‘ Tweet says that railroads increasingly opt to increase capacity of steel bridges across their systems. “A riveted girder built a 100 years ago, was perfectly fine for the trains of that era, but now with heavier cars and locomotives, the bridges don’t have the needed capacity.”
Railroads see that they can “repair and strengthen and that it is much more economical than replacement,” Tweet said.
Such work isn’t complex for many bridges. “It’s as simple as adding more steel,” Tweet said. But in other cases, notably truss bridges, it can be “much more technically challenging to understand what components need to be strengthened and how to strengthen them.”
Complicating matters is that it often “all has to be done while the bridge is being used,” he said.
It’s unlikely that you could find anyone today who views FRA 237 as a bad idea. Moving the industry into the 20th century made a lot of sense as trains got bigger and heavier.
But now, less than a decade after the publication of FRA 237, the people who inspect, maintain and repair railroad bridges are using new forms of technology to move into the 21st century.
And this new technology falls into three general categories: see, feel, and touch.
Drones, of course, are the best known of the new tech. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) let’s inspectors easily “see” parts of a bridge that are otherwise difficult to view.
This article first appeared on www.rtands.com
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