You’ve got to spend money to save money

Posted by Tyler Trahan
on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

At the Wheel-Rail Interaction Conference this week, the goal of everyone present is to make railroads safer and more efficient by reducing unwanted forces which cause wear and damage to both rails and wheels. Efficiency, of course, equals money saved.

One of the poster children for saving money by optimizing the wheel-rail interface is the Red Line of the Los Angeles Metro. When the line opened in 1993, the wheels of its subway cars needed to be trued every 5,000 miles and replaced after 19,000 miles -- a far cry from the expected lifespan of 200,000 miles. In addition, the cars beat up the rails and suffered flange climb derailments on switches which required lowering speed limits at crossovers to 10 mph from the as-designed 25 mph.

Metro changed the wheel profiles of its cars and added flange lubrication sticks, which increased the life to 25,000 miles. Better, but still far from the goal. Only by changing the wheel profile again to a custom design called the RESCO wheel, and by grinding rail on the entire system to custom profiles which matched the new wheels, did the agency improve the wheel life to the current 600,000 miles per wheelset and fix the derailment and rail wear problems. Taking a holistic approach beat the wheel life target by a factor of three. Just fixing the wheels or the rails alone wouldn’t have solved the problems.

Conference founder Gordon Bachinsky extolled his vision, now realized at the conference, of breaking down the silos dividing the Vehicle People, the Track People, and the Operations People of the greater industry. Bringing these people into one room to learn from each other and have a civilized conversation was more ambitious than one might think, given the tendency for finger-pointing whenever something derails. Track says the vehicle was faulty, Vehicle says the operator was speeding, and Operations says the track was in poor shape. Around and around it goes. At WRI, track and vehicle science is covered during the same seminars, and many presenters have job titles which place them in charge of wheel-rail interaction, not on either side of the fence.

With this fresh mindset, today’s projects are just as ambitious as on the LA Metro. San Francisco’s BART just finished reprofiling every wheel on the system from an unusual cylindrical wheel to a more common conical-tapered wheel, and they are now grinding the entire system’s rail to a new profile to match. Time and a lot of data collection will tell if their story is as successful as in LA.

Other research is more focused on understanding the science of wheel-rail interaction, as opposed to solving an urgent problem. Kicking off the Rail Transit day of seminars was a report about the multi-year collaboration which turned New York City Transit’s Flushing Line into a rolling laboratory. Bob Tuzik covered this story masterfully in the October 2017 issue of Trains, but in summary, the project attached instruments to trains and tracks to autonomously measure and record data on the line’s wheelsets, energy usage, and wheel-rail forces across the system.

Smaller agencies are also getting into the game. Seattle’s Sound Transit presented results from their study of independently rolling wheels in the center section of their partially-low floor Light Rail Vehicles. These wheels aren’t connected by axles so they lack the self-steering function of traditional rail wheels which are pressed onto the same axle and rotate together. The agency’s Link light rail line is only 20 miles today, but expansions are planned which will triple the network and triple the benefits of improving their understanding of how their vehicles interact with the track.

All of this experimentation is an investment, but one which often pays for itself quickly in reduced costs. Not every transit agency is on board. I spoke with an engineer from a major American transit agency who said that the presentations were great, if only he had the money to do anything on his system. The next step for engineers at agencies with this attitude is convincing their political shareholders to trust data, trust the scientific method, get over the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, and spend capital money to reduce operating expenses. Any of these steps can be a stumbling block for even the most progressive transit agency. But here at WRI, engineers gain the knowledge, professional contacts, and data to make that argument.

Incidentally, educating and sharing information about the latest, greatest -- and most importantly, scientifically proven -- technology and operating and maintenance practices, is one of my goals in covering WRI for Trains.

Over the next two days, we turn to what North American railroads do best: Heavy Haul freight trains. Look for another blog post after that to wrap up the conference, and for upcoming wheel-rail stories in the magazine.

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