Pacific Spike, a 24,000-deadweight-ton ship, entered service last year with the sole purpose of transporting lengths of rail measuring 480-feet long between NSSMC’s Yawata works in Japan and the Port of Stockton in northern California.
The ship, whose stack is emblazoned with the number 480 and initials LRC for “long rail carrier,” made its first delivery at Stockton in December.
Traditionally, and in many cases still today, tracks are made of relatively short lengths of rail joined by narrow bolted plates called joint bars or “fishplates,” with space left between the ends of the rail for expansion.
As trains pass over those joints, they make the familiar “clickety-clack” sound as the wheel strikes the next length of track it’s passing over and releasing pressure on the prior length of track.
But more rail is now continuous welded rail (CWR), or “ribbon rail,” as it is sometimes called.
“So the romance of the rails and the clickety-clack went away with welded rail,” said Dave Buccolo, general manager of the California Central Traction Co. (CCTC), a short-line railroad whose Northern California network includes the track within the Port of Stockton.
The new ship, built at the Onishi Shipyard of Shin Kurushima Dockyard Co., is operated by Tokyo-based NS United Kaiun Kaisha, a company that was formed in October 2010 through a merger of Nippon Steel Shipping Co. and Shinwa Kaiun Kaisha.
The Pacific Spike is just shy of 190-meters long and has a single, narrow cargo hold that runs down the center of the ship that is 155-meters long. While a typical bulker would have transverse bulkheads between several holds, on the Pacific Spike the space on either side of the long narrow hold is reinforced with steel members to give the ship additional strength.
The ship can carry about 22,000 tons of steel rail.
Loading and discharging the steel rail is accomplished using ship’s gear.
The ship has three cranes whose movements are synchronized. An operator sits in the center crane and the movements of the cranes closer to the bow and stern are linked so that all three operate in tandem.
A long spreader bar is attached to the three cranes and used in Stockton to discharge five rails at a time.
The ship will carry 136 pound per yard and 141 pound per yard rail. So each 480 foot length of rail will weigh 21,760 or 22,560 pounds.
As they are removed from the hold, they are loaded directly onto CCTC’s railcars.
Mark Tollini, senior deputy port director of trade and operations at the Port of Stockton, explained the port is ideal for handling the Pacific Spike, because CCTC’s track runs right along the marginal wharf where the ship ties up.
The railroad then moves the lengths of rail to bins at a storage site at the port. Two-thirds of the short line is owned by UP, while the other third is owned by BNSF Railway.
At the rail storage facility, owned by UP and operated by Holland Industries, the track is butt-welded into quarter-mile lengths. These are then loaded onto special “rail trains” that take the quarter-mile-long lengths of rail to locations on the UP network where it is laid and welded together in the field to make lengths of ribbon rail that can be thousands of miles long.
Buccolo said the Pacific Spike will be used exclusively to shuttle long lengths of rail from Japan to Stockton for use by UP, making about six roundtrips per year.
“Welded rail used to be made out of rails 39-feet long,” Buccolo said. “Then as the steel mills got better they made an 80-foot rail.” Now rail producers are beginning to make longer lengths.
There are three major domestic producers of rail: Steel Dynamics, which produces rail in Columbia City, Ind.; ArcelorMittal whose rail plant is in Bethlehem, Pa.; and Evraz, which makes rail in Pueblo, Colo., as well as foreign producers such as NSSMC.
Last year, NSSMC announced its ability to manufacture and ship rails that are up to 150-meters (490-feet) long.
The Japanese steelmaker noted freight trains have become heavier and longer, while intercity passenger trains are increasing speed and decreasing weight. This “means that rails are used in a harsher environment than in the past.”
The long rails, such as those being carried by the Pacific Spike, are beneficial because they help reduce the number of welds that have to be made when railroads install CWR.
NSSMC is not the only company producing rail in longer lengths.
In its annual report, Steel Dynamics noted it produces rail in lengths of 320 feet, which can be shipped in that long length or cut to shorter lengths of 39, 40 or 80 feet, or welded together to create long rail strings of up to 1,660 feet.
After Holland makes the 1,440-foot pieces in Stockton, special rail trains transport them to where they are being installed on the UP network.
Those rail trains commonly have around 40 cars fitted with racks that the rails can flex and roll on as they travel around curves.
A common configuration is to have cars that can carry about 50 quarter-mile tracks, 10 on five different tiers. While not as flexible as a wet noodle, the long lengths of rail can bend sufficiently that they have no trouble negotiating the gentle curves on the rail networks.
The quarter-mile strings of rail will be laid out for miles and miles and then joined together in the field.
Field welds can be done by butt-welding, the same process used by Holland to join the 480-foot lengths in Stockton, or using thermite welding.
Steel Dynamics said using longer rails with fewer welds have several advantages: “longer rail takes less time to install making installation less expensive and more efficient. Second, fewer weld points mean less maintenance costs as the weld point typically consumes the majority of track maintenance time and attention. Third, and most importantly, fewer welds can enhance rail track safety.”
CWR has been used for decades and is extremely common.
A UP fact book, for example, said at the end of 2012 the railroad had 50,753 miles of track and 28,434 miles was CWR. UP replaced 834 miles of rail in 2013, and laid 97 miles to expand capacity, and laid 3.87 million new ties.
John Zuspan, president of Track Guy Consultants in Canonsburg, Pa., said all Class I railroads use welded rail and estimated 90 percent of short lines do, too.
“Typically, you don’t in yards, but I’ve seen it in many yards as well,” he said.
Anytime a railroad can eliminate joints it is saving lots of money, Zuspan said, because jointed track “is a maintenance nightmare. Any railroad that can afford it will install CWR.”
Many railroads do what is called “cut and slide,” where they cut off the ends of jointed track that may be worn and where bolt holds are present and slide them together and weld the remaining track.
In addition to reducing maintenance, trains running over welded rail are quieter; there is less wear at joints; and the dynamic impact at joints is eliminated. Zuspan explained as a train passes over a joint it creates dynamic forces that pound ballast and can weaken the subsurface of a rail bed.
Once installed, Zuspan said railroads inspect and maintain welded rail “impeccably.” For example, they skim grind rail, sometimes annually, to prevent the profile of rail from flattening, which can lead to increased friction.
“The narrower the wear ribbon on a track is, the easier it is for the locomotive to pull,” he said. Zuspan estimated railroads save millions of gallons on fuel by doing periodic grinding and rounding of the profile of track.
He noted railroads are developing and testing harder rail, but added there has been an “inherent conflict for railroads since their inception—the guys who maintain track want harder rail and the guys who maintain wheels want softer track, but they reach a happy medium.”
Zuspan also said the quality of steel in rails has improved, resulting in fewer defects.
Jointed rail has small spaces between each section to accommodate expansion.
Since welded rail does not have those gaps for inspection, its installation is much more complicated and the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration has had regulations governing the installation and maintenance of continuous welded rail since 1971.
FRA said “over subsequent decades driven by legislative mandates together with knowledge gathered from the industry and FRA’s own research, the CWR regulations have expanded.
“Today railroads are required to adopt and comply with CWR programs that cover procedures for installing, adjusting, inspecting, and maintaining CWR, as well as inspecting joints in CWR track,” the agency said.
If CWR track is not installed properly, track can buckle, “often resulting in catastrophic derailments,” according to a paper published by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.
It said between 1998 and 2002 there was an average of 38 derailments a year with damage of as much as $17 million in 2002.
Trains magazine explained in a 2006 article that “managing the expansion and contraction that comes with temperature change is important with CWR. To avoid expanding and potential buckling when in service, welded rail is laid when temperatures are high (or is artificially heated).”
When welded rails are installed, they are sometimes artificially heated to a temperature of 95-110 degrees Fahrenheit before they are secured, the Volpe paper said.
It explained “this high neutral temperature range prevents the generation of excessively high bulking forces even when rail temperatures reach 130-150 degrees Fahrenheit” through ambient temperature or friction from passing trains.
Zuspan said the optimal temperature at which track is secured varies by geographic location and is much lower in New England, for example, than in Arizona.
While some CWR is secured with spikes, fastening systems are often more elaborate, using pretzel-shaped steel “elastic fasteners” to attach rail to the plate, and plates are now sometimes secured with lag screws instead of spikes to contain the tremendous forces that may be pent up in a rail at extreme temperatures..
“Rail anchors clipped on at the ties keep the rail from getting shorter as it contracts with falling temperatures,” the Trains article explained. “Thus constrained, it shrinks in cross section (height and width), but not in length. Because it’s in tension, welded rail is treated with care during track work in cold weather.”
Ties or sleepers have also changed—some railroads use concrete, steel, plastics and composites, and welded rail is also installed with more ballast.
Zuspan noted there is a great deal of research being done on the development of strain gauges or other instruments to measure forces that build up within CWR during hot or cold weather with the hope they could help predict buckling, or “sun kink,” in warm weather or breakage during cold weather.
The University of California San Diego Non-Destructive Evaluation/Structural Health Monitoring Laboratory is currently working to develop a system that can be used in the field to measure the “neutral temperature” of rail at which CWR must be installed without the need for unfastening the rail and disrupting normal operations.
The lab said FRA’s safety statistics data between 2009 and 2013 showed buckled track caused 144 accidents, the fifth highest cause of U.S. train accidents, with associated damage cost of $76 million.
Rail sales are a growing market for steelmakers. Evraz, which filed a prospectus for a public offering last September, wrote North American rail demand was about 1 million tons in 2010, 1.2 million tons in 2011, and 1.2 million tons in 2012, based on the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) data and the NAFTA Steel Trade Monitor data. “Pending confirmation by AREMA, our internal analysis estimates rail demand of approximately 1.3 million tons in 2013,” the company said.
Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the American Association of Railroads, said in 2013, more than 6,000 miles of rail were replaced by Class I railroads as part of maintenance and replenishment programs. In 2012, AAR said $2.9 billion was spent by the Class I railroads on 45,000 tons of new rail and 16,000 tons of used rail for expansion projects.
This article was published in the February 2015 issue of American Shipper.