Alaska railroad updating track

Posted: Tuesday, July 08, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The Alaska Railroad Corp. is replacing the bolted rail that it has previously used with continuously welded rail on the corridor between Anchorage and Wasilla.

''This is big stuff,'' Terry Hinman, manager of welded rail for the railroad, told the Alaska Journal of Commerce. ''It is a huge step forward for this railroad.''

Crews have been working since March welding the rail together. Installation of the new rail began June 2.

The old sections of rail, which average 80 feet in length, are taken out and welded together in 800- to 1,200-foot lengths. The lengths are then braced into place on the track and welded together using a thermal weld.

The goal for the summer is to replace the rail between the Eagle River Bridge and the Mat-Su junction. That equals about 17 miles of track.

Crews are averaging 2,500 feet a day and so far, have completed 45,000 linear feet of rail just over 4 miles.

Between $6 million and $8 million will be spent on the project this year.

Hinman said the rail replacement has not affected train schedules between Anchorage and the Valley.

Once the passenger train passes in the morning on the way to Fairbanks, crews jump into action to get as much rail replaced as possible before the train comes back through in the evening.

Freight trains have been running at night to accommodate the construction, said Pat Flynn, spokesman for the railroad.

The traffic on the corridor between Wasilla and Anchorage includes passenger service to Denali and Fairbanks, freight to the Interior and gravel trains from Palmer to Anchorage.

Replacing the bolted rail with continuously welded rail has several advantages.

For the railroad, the new rail means less maintenance time, less maintenance cost and more efficient fuel consumption of the locomotives. It will also mean a prolonged life for the rail. For passengers, it means a smoother rail therefore a smoother ride. And for neighbors it means a quieter train.

''The romantic sound you associate with the railroad is actually the sound of damage,'' said Hinman, a 28-year veteran for the railroad. Each time a wheel crosses a joint it causes stress to the joint, he said. Thermal stress is caused when the bolts expand and contract due to heating and cooling. Over time, that stress can cause damage to the joint and can result in bolt-hole fractures. In severe cases, the fracture can cause the two rails to misalign and can lead to a derailment.

''Ninety percent of failures on the rail are because of bolt-hole fractures,'' said Hinman.

The vertical force of the weight of the train on the joints also causes pressure. The force, over time, causes the rail to dip at the joint.

That in turn, results in higher fuel consumption as the locomotive has to work harder to pull the wheels over low joints. It also results in wear to the wheel.

''Just in joint maintenance alone, there is a tremendous financial responsibility,'' Hinman said.

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