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These machines don't chant and sing
May 18, 2014 12:08 AM   Subscribe

Railroad track today is laid by such monsters as the Plasser & Theurer SVM1000 Infranord, and specialized work trains renew old track (out with the old, in with the new in one pass)

Other rail maintenance operations now more automated than ever before include:

Ballast Cleaning
Track Inspection
Tamping Ballast
Grinding the railheads (to maintain the contour of the tops of the rails) (trains make a unique sound when the rails are freshly ground)
Welding the rail ends

Back in the old days (previously on Mefi) all this work was done manually, with hand tools and, in the case of track inspection, physically walking the track.

Gandy Dancers 1973 is a 16mm film by Jack Schrader and Tom Burton that focuses on what was (even then) a rapidly-disappearing cultural touchstone.
posted by pjern (28 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's fucking rails on rails!
posted by planetesimal at 12:17 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


That first video is both compelling sophorific and impressive in showcasing the technology.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:03 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


That first video is both compelling sophorific and impressive in showcasing the technology.

It felt a lot like a remake of The Man Who Fell to Earth, if Bowie's part were played by a track-laying machine.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:54 AM on May 18 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure I understand what the ballast cleaner was doing!? There's clearly heaps going on, but as we watch it pass at around the 1:30 mark, I can't decern what is going on.
posted by adamt at 3:09 AM on May 18


The big thing at the front picks up the ballast, it's then run through a vibrating sieve and the good parts are put back again.
posted by effbot at 3:36 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


I didn't know they ground the rails. Seeing this, it makes me wonder whether it was rail grinding that started a fire near our farm when I was a kid. We knew it was sparks from a train, but had some vague story about braking that we probably made up...

I'd guess they'd be pretty careful to do this when the fire hazard is low, though.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:17 AM on May 18


Impressive! Makes me wonder at what rate of speed they would be able to lay down rails across the prairie today, if the technology was the limiting factor. I.e. no local councils, NIMBYs etc.
posted by Harald74 at 5:02 AM on May 18


Came in to see some thermite in action, was not disappointed. From the "Tamping" link:

Kibri make a HO scale kit of this track machine, I'll now be able to detail mine correctly based on the 09-3X seen in this movie. Or maybe I'll take the plunge and buy the working model recently released in HO scale by Viessmann :-) .

They just need to make the rest of those in working HO scale and we'll have model railroads that build themselves!

In a couple of the videos workers are getting under the giant machines as they crawl along the traks; I know they are slow, but it still stikes me as a gruesome safety video waiting to be made. CSX has a lot of active railways in and around my town, but I rarely see maintenance equipment in action. This is a great collection of stuff that must be all around us that we never see.

I noticed a lot of concrete ties in those; around here (southeastern US) wooden ties are used pretty much exclusively. According to Wikipedia wood is weaker, less durable, and more expensive than concrete. Does anyone know why concrete isn't used more in this country?
posted by TedW at 5:12 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


now John Henry told his captain
a man ain't nothin' but a man
but before I let your Plasser & Theurer beat me
I'll die with my hammer in my hand
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:39 AM on May 18 [9 favorites]


Does anyone know why concrete isn't used more in this country?

I'd assume for the same reason you don't see concrete light poles and fence posts here -- wood is plentiful and cheap, unlike in some other parts of the world. But that's a guess; engineering standards vary as well, for example, and could help drive that.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:03 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


Tamp 'em Up Solid

For the rail workers of old...
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:16 AM on May 18


Sing!
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:27 AM on May 18


Concrete ties are really fucking heavy and you can't grab them with tie tongs so you need a machine to replace them if damage occurs, derailments usually destroy concrete ties that wood ties would have survived, and it's harder to spot a defect like rail seat abrasion than the simple plate cutting that happens to wooden ties.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 8:07 AM on May 18 [6 favorites]


I'm going to assume that "Infranord" denotes a Nord with a longer wavelength than the more familiar visible-spectrum Nords. That must be why they wear those brightly colored jumpsuits: for safety.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:17 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


Wow, I was on tenterhooks watching the part of the first video where they were adding the new rails. I couldn't help thinking "Look out, the wheels are coming!" even though I KNEW they had it all under control. :)

Then the cameraman pulls back his focus and I couldn't quite see how they pulled them in. Phooey.

I absolutely love watching big equipment like this. Marvels of modern technology indeed.
posted by Archer25 at 8:21 AM on May 18


Does anyone know why concrete isn't used more in this country?

I believe there are simply many little reasons that contribute to this rather than one big overarching reason. For example, a project to rebuild a portion of railway near me apparently went with wooden ties because concrete ties would have required a greater height of ballast+ties+rail, which was not compatible with reusing the existing level crossings at roadways. Seems strange, but when you think about the cost of rebuilding all the crossings on 20 miles of rail (within a suburban area), you can see how it might add up. That's not to say that the rail height is the dominant concern in all cases, but just to show how very mundane issues can dictate design choices.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:36 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


Infranord is a large Scandinavian railway contractor, spun off from the Swedish Railroad Administration a few years ago. You can trace their history back to 1856 or so. Plasser & Theurer is an Austrian company that builds a big chunk of these specialized machines.

(which makes me wonder what railway labourers are called in US English? In Swedish, it's "rallare" which Wikipedia translates to "navvy" for "navigator" which seems UK-centric and not directly applicable...)

I absolutely love watching big equipment like this. Marvels of modern technology indeed.

There's a big community of machine spotters out there who keep producing videos like this, so if you watch a few, YouTube's recommendation system will pick it up and keep suggesting videos of big machines for years to come, as long as you watch one now and then...
posted by effbot at 9:02 AM on May 18


I will come back and add a lot more to this conversation, but for now I will leave you with this tidbit:

Replacing bridge spans by rail (short version).
A longer version can be found here (second post is a self-link, album of bridge videos is here).
posted by Vindaloo at 9:07 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


I absolutely love watching big equipment like this.

I, on the other hand, want to go hide and whimper when I see this machine. It says to me: terrible things are about to happen, and no one can stop them.
posted by thelonius at 9:08 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


In the distant past I had a summer job working on the White Pass and Yukon Railway as part of a section gang, maintaining the track. We replaced many ties the old fashioned way, which involved much swinging of the spike maul.
No Plasser & Theurer SVM1000 Infranords for us.
posted by islander at 10:47 AM on May 18


I wonder how much that costs per linear foot/meter?
posted by double block and bleed at 1:13 PM on May 18


I didn't know they ground the rails. Seeing this, it makes me wonder whether it was rail grinding that started a fire near our farm when I was a kid. We knew it was sparks from a train, but had some vague story about braking that we probably made up...
My knowledge of rail technology comes from the 1800s, but a worn bearing or dragging brake could become red-hot due to friction before anyone noticed. These days they have infrared heat sensors along the tracks to make sure nothing is incandescent that shouldn't be.
posted by hattifattener at 1:17 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]


It's like watching How It's Made but without feeling like I'm in Elementary School. Somewhere the ghost of a 19th century railroad laborer is watching this and going "really? goddamn."

(which makes me wonder what railway labourers are called in US English? In Swedish, it's "rallare" which Wikipedia translates to "navvy" for "navigator" which seems UK-centric and not directly applicable...)

I'm not 100% certain, since I don't know anyone who works on the railroads, but if I had to describe one in a word it'd be 'railman' (the second syllable somewhere between rhyming with 'won' and 'tin', with a short, almost imperceptable 'a' sound unlike the long, flat 'a' in 'man').
posted by maus at 2:52 PM on May 18


Steel driving man versus machine – Disney's The Legend of John Henry (2000) SLYT HQ.
posted by cenoxo at 3:15 PM on May 18


It reminds me of this post, but, sadly, the main link is dead.
posted by MtDewd at 5:30 PM on May 18


Wikipedia has a decent article on the ballast cleaner - it's actually got a cutter bar underneath the rails in addition to the side scoops.

Amazing stuff, thanks for posting it. Every time I've gone by rail repair depots I've wondered.

Also recommended - the Kate Ascher book "The Way To Go" for a pictorial version your kids can understand.
posted by phubbard at 7:38 PM on May 18


it's actually got a cutter bar underneath the rails

I don't think that specific one had that, though -- there's no sign of anything going on under the rails, and it moves pretty fast compared to e.g. this one.
posted by effbot at 1:28 AM on May 19


And to confirm my own guess, a quick Googling indicates that it's a Loram HP Shoulder Ballast Cleaner, which has "30-inch wide digging buckets" and "scarifier teeth" but explicitly doesn't do full undercutting.
posted by effbot at 1:32 AM on May 19


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