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4 min read

Rail Transportation: An Equipment Overview

By Dave Biering on October 29, 2020

Blog_2020-rail-3

In this article, we take a look at some key types of locomotive, rail car, and maintenance of way equipment.

Rail Locomotives

The locomotive (or “engine”) is the rail vehicle that provides power for each train. Some modern passenger train designs do employ “self-propelled” cars which can be powered without an engine, but this arrangement is relatively rare.

At a high-level, locomotives are typically classified based on how they generate power. For example:

  • Steam locomotives were the first type of mechanized locomotive (early experimental trains were horse-drawn or pulled by stationary cable systems). While they remained the most common type of engine until well into the post-war period, they are less efficient than modern alternatives and have been phased out except on history-minded “heritage railways.”
  • Diesel-electric locomotives use a diesel engine, but this engine does not drive a mechanical mechanism directly. Instead, it powers an electric generator which is subsequently used to power the motor. 
  • Electric locomotives are powered by electricity alone, which means they need some sort of external power supply. This supply can take the form of an overhead line suspended from poles above the track or an electrified “third rail” running along the track itself.

We traditionally imagine locomotives pulling from the front of a train, but today’s locomotives are often used in a “push-pull” manner, where the engine can be at the front, back, or both of the train. Heavy freight trains may even utilize a “distributed power” arrangement where a supplementary locomotive is placed in the middle of the train and remote-controlled by the leading locomotive.

Rail Cars

This list highlights the breadth of specialized cargoes that rail cars are tasked with handling. Even a simple boxcar comes with a large degree of mechanical complexity, including coupling systems, braking systems, undercarriage trucks, and more. All of these systems must be engineered to stand up to high levels of vibration, varied weather conditions, and more. Meanwhile, rail OEM’s and operators are experimenting with more and more advanced technologies, this article provides a great exploration: 

Types of Freight Cars: Key Examples

  • Boxcars are the most common type of freight car and can carry a huge variety of pallet-borne cargo inside.
  • Refrigerated boxcars are essential for transporting perishable foods.
  • Automobile rack cars for transporting automotive vehicles. These racks can be single- or multi-level. Some even include adjustable-height racks for accommodating larger vehicles without changing rail cars.
  • Flatcars offer more room than boxcars and can be flexibly loaded. They are suitable so long as the carried cargo can be exposed to weather. Common goods shipped include intermodal containers, steel beams, heavy machinery, and pipe. 
  • Centerbeam cars (a specialized flatcar) allow for bundled goods that can be packed up along both sides of a central beam, providing a strong center of gravity. Lumber or wallboard are examples of the types of goods shipped on these cars. 
  • Hopper cars come in covered and uncovered varieties. Used to transport dry bulk commodities like grain, they can be loaded from the top and unloaded from the bottom.
  • Tank cars for shipping liquid products like oil or chemicals. These cars often need extra safety features to, for instance, prevent sparks and limit fire risk.

Passenger Cars

Passenger rail systems range from larger long-distance Amtrak trains to small local trolleys and commuter/light rail systems. In general, these cars employ more complex safety systems than freight. For example, mechanical brakes are replaced with electro-mechanical braking systems. 

While the basic function of these cars is the same, higher-speed trains require more robust safety systems, while smaller trains need lighter-weight cars. Some trains include cars with specialized interiors, like sleeping cars, dining cars, and observation cars, which come with their own equipment needs. 

This article provides some interesting depth on the history of passenger cars and how their design evolved over time.

Maintenance of Way Equipment

Rail locomotives and cars are only one small part of the arsenal of equipment needed to maintain rail infrastructure. Tracks cover many miles of varied terrain and need to be kept level, solidly founded on well-packed ballast (the crushed stone used as a bed under the track itself), and free from debris.

Successfully performing these maintenance tasks requires specialized equipment like:

  • Ballast cleaners, a machine for removing dirt and other contaminants from the ballast. Cleaning ballast helps prevent the need to constantly replace it with new crushed stone.
  • Under cutters, a special heavy-duty machine for actually removing the ballast under tracks to facilitate more in-depth maintenance and cleaning.
  • Rail Grinders are a vehicle that grinds down rails to preserve level rails, remove deformations, and smooth out corrosion. Regular grinding allowing for longer intervals between rail-replacement.
  • Tampers are used to pack ballast as tightly as possible, which helps to keep ballast level, tightly packed to absorb impact, and effective at preventing foliage from growing under the tracks.

Learning More

TriStar is proud to work with rail equipment manufacturers across all the categories discussed above. We bring an engineering-driven approach to the table, helping clients solve key design pain points for their rail designs. You’ll find our self-lubricating materials everywhere from maintenance of way equipment to on the station platforms of the largest subway system in the country.

In the in-depth article linked below, we take a look at why bearings and similar components are so important for rail equipment.

Rail Cars and Rail Transportation

Or, just use the button below to reach out directly to our team and discuss how we can help your rail equipment perform more efficiently and more safely.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR OUR EXPERTS?

Topics: Railroad
5 min read

Rail Transport: Important Trends

By Dave Biering on October 27, 2020

Rail Transport: Important Trends

Rail transportation systems are a great example of a longstanding industry that is always looking for new ways to become more efficient, safer, and more effective at moving passengers and goods across rails.

From the New York City subway to transcontinental rail on every continent but Antarctica, rail lines are essential arteries of the global economy.

In this article, we take a look at some important recent trends.

Rail Trend One: Intermodal Freight Rail Continues to Expand

“In 2019, U.S. rail intermodal volume was 13.7 million units and intermodal accounted for approximately 25% of revenue for major U.S. railroads, more than any other single commodity group and well ahead of coal, which in the past was usually the largest single source of rail revenue.” - Association of American Railroads

Intermodal transportation refers to shipping using containers or truck trailers which are designed to be readily transferable between maritime, rail, and automotive shipping methods.

The container is increasingly dominating intermodal transport, and railroads are no exception. Since its inception in the 1950s, the rise of the “container,” which is standardized for maritime shipping and land-based transportation, is one of the most dominant trends in logistics. They continue to count for an ever-increasing share of overall freight. According to the Association of American Railroads, containers accounted for:

  • 47% of intermodal volume in 1990.
  • 69% in 2000.
  • 92% in 2019.

Containers can be double-stacked on ships and trains, allowing for much greater efficiency compared to traditional truck trailers. Modern port infrastructure also allows for the rapid transfer of containers between ships and trucks/trains using specialized cranes.

These containers are a great example of improved transportation integration offering more efficient options for shipping customers. Efficient intermodal containers allow customers to benefit from the geographic flexibility of trucks without sacrificing the superior per-mile costs of rail. The intermodal approach first became prominent in import/export shipping but has become increasingly common in domestic shipping.

Rail Trend Two: A Focus on Digitalization and Cyber-Security

Digital innovation is everywhere in today’s economy, and rail transportation is no exception. With sprawling physical infrastructure, rail networks provide a prime opportunity for improved integration of sensors with physical infrastructure (the much-hyped “internet of things”).

Cisco estimates that $30 billion will be spent on IoT projects for rail over the next 12 years. Myriad potential applications include more detailed passenger tracking and feedback, preventative maintenance sensors to reduce long term TCO, and real-time incident alarms. Meanwhile, automated trains are slowly expanding in scope.

Finally, cybersecurity is an increasing concern that comes alongside greater reliance on digital tools. As crucial infrastructure, rail networks represent a potentially attractive target for cyber attacks. This article in Railway Review provides an excellent interview of the rail cybersecurity landscape.

Rail Trend Three: Chemicals as Prime Freight

“The American Chemistry Council estimates that an additional 300,000 annual rail shipments will be required to meet increased production by 2023. From our analysis, that translates to about 40% of their projected volume growth moving via rail.” - AAR

Coal was traditionally the number one commodity shipped by rail. While the decline of coal continues to reduce rail traffic for this commodity, chemical shipping is emerging as a promising alternative growth market.

Rail offers a safe, cost-effective method for shipping chemicals, which now command the second-largest share of revenue of any freight (more than coal and behind only intermodal freight). The chemicals category includes everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals, consumer goods to toxic compounds.

Continued investment in safe rail car operation conditions has helped mitigate the risks associated with shipping hazardous or highly flammable materials. TriStar has some ground-level experience with this trend: we have been using our flame retardant composites to help rail OEM’s achieve better fire safety alongside improved performance (learn more here).

Rail Trend Four: The Resurgence of Passenger Rail?

“Rail is among the most energy-efficient modes of transport for freight and passengers - while the rail sector carries 8% of the world’s passengers and 7% of global freight transport, it represents only 2% of total transport energy demand.” - IEA

Passenger rail experienced a long decline as new transportation methods like air and the interstate highway system proliferated. Amtrak long exhibited widely criticized financial performance, but things may be beginning to turn around.

Growing congestion at airports and on highways, coupled with an increasingly carbon-conscious consumer population, are driving renewed demand for train travel.

For now, passenger lines are focused on major inter-urban corridors, like San Diego-Los Angeles and Milwaukee-Chicago. The Northeast Corridor from NYC to Boston remains Amtrak’s best growth driver. Long-distance routes, however, continue to operate at a loss.

New technologies are opening up new options for passenger travel. In Europe, for instance, high-speed trains are offering increasingly competitive travel times between highly trafficked routes like Paris-London. High-speed trains, however, require substantial infrastructure investments that were public-led in Europe but remain elusive for a US passenger system which has seen substantially less government investment.

Forbes provides a good summary of the current state of play for passenger rail here. For a deeper look at train energy efficiency and how this could lead to a rail resurgence, we recommend this article by the International Energy Agency.

Learning More

TriStar works closely with a number of rail manufacturers to select advanced material components that solve key industry challenges (like the need for flame-retardant components). We bring our engineering-driven approach to bear on every client project, ensuring the right materials are selected.

To read more about why bearings and similar components are so important for rail car technology, please see the article linked below.

Rail Cars and Rail Transportation

If you’d like to reach out to learn more about using TriStar’s self-lubricating composites to solve rail engineering pain points, just click the button below.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR OUR EXPERTS?

Topics: Railroad
4 min read

Rail Transportation: An Industry Overview

By Dave Biering on October 23, 2020

Rail Transportation: An Industry Overview

Railroads are the oldest form of mechanized transport and one of the original “big businesses” of the American economy. At the turn of the century, railroads were the largest industry in the country. While they no longer command such economic heights, rail is still an essential part of transportation infrastructure, from regional passenger networks to long-distance freight.

In this article, we provide a high-level overview of rail transportation today. 

The rail industry varies considerably internationally: in many countries, rail operations are overseen by a government entity. In the United States, however, private companies often manage both operations and own/maintain tracks and other infrastructure (with some notable exceptions like Amtrak and regional transit authorities). For simplicity, this article focuses on US/North American rail.

Before examining the industry in greater detail below, we should note that rail is a highly cyclical industry that reflects the broader state of the economy. A robust economy means more freight, more passengers, and more revenue for rail companies. Meanwhile, rail companies face extensive capital costs to build and maintain infrastructure, a fact that can leave cash flow vulnerable in the face of economic downturns. For example, overall rail traffic appears to have hit a substantial downturn due to COVID.

Rail Industry Key Facts

  1. Total routes cover over 140,000 miles.
  2. The industry generates an excess of $70 billion per year in revenue.
  3. The industry employs 167,000 plus people.

Source: Department of Transportation

Rail Transport Industry Structure

Rail is a highly consolidated industry. A cluster of seven large “Class I” freight railroads dominate the market, working with smaller regional operators to integrate transportation across regions.

There are over 500 smaller freight railroads across the country, but according to the American Association of Railroads, the Class I operators account for 90 percent of employees, 69% of freight miles, and 94% of total revenue.

As you’ll see below, these large railroads maintain market dominance based on region.

Class I Railroads in North America

  1. Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe are the most important players in American West.
  2. Norfolk Southern and CSX maintain rail operations along the East Coast (including Ontario/Easter Canada).
  3. Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway maintain operations across most of Canada.
  4. Kansas City Southern Railway operates a number of lines that connect Kansas City to the South and Gulf Coast. It is substantially smaller than the other Class I freight railways.
  5. Amtrak is a special quasi-public corporation that operates many US passenger rail routes (and virtually all long-distance passenger routes). It maintains stations at over 500 destinations across 46 US states and 3 Canadian provinces.

The Competitive Landscape for Rail

In North America, freight is by far the dominant activity for the small set of large rail operators who dominate the industry. Major firms like Union Pacific no longer operate passenger lines at all. Passenger rail is generally managed by regional short-line railroads that provide local service (including various municipal rail systems like the NYC subway or Chicago’s CTA) and Amtrak.

While still an essential part of transportation infrastructure, rail moves a smaller percentage of freight (27.69%) than trucking (39.6% | source). However, when this metric is constrained to inter-city freight, rail’s share of tonnage increases to 43%.

Compared to trucking, rail offers much lower per-mileage costs to offset its more limited geographic flexibility. Freight rail also offers much lower accident rates than trucks. Finally, rail remains the only cost-viable option for moving heavy commodities like grain and coal over long land distances.

Intermodal transport using containers is allowing trains to be better integrated with maritime and automotive shipping (we look at intermodal shipping in our article on rail trends here). Freight rail also offers superior carbon and energy use per mile, a fact which may help drive growth as firms look for greener supply chains.

Learning More

It’s important to remember that the size of the full array of companies that support the rail industry greatly expands the economic footprint of the industry. Rail equipment OEM’s are tasked with designing everything from specialized freight cars, to braking systems, to advanced electronics. We break down some key types of rail equipment here.

All of this equipment is expected to thrive in an operational environment that’s full of vibration, heavy loads, all-weather conditions, and fire risk from metal-on-metal friction. For a deeper look at challenges for rail transportation equipment (and how the right component materials can help), see our guide here.

TriStar works with a wide variety of rail equipment makers to identify solutions for these engineering pain points. In an industry where efficiency, safety, and performance are all central to the bottom line, material selection matters.

If you’d like to discuss your rail engineering challenges with our team, click the button below to reach out.

DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION FOR OUR EXPERTS?

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Topics: Railroad