Working on the railroad

1 April 2010

Lifting on the railroad demands highly specialised cranes. Stuart Anderson examines the history of cranes in this sector, and the state of the market today.

For the first time in a very long time, investment in railways is making the news globally. While the efficient high-speed rail networks of Japan and West Europe have long been the envy of the rest of the world, the need to reduce carbon emissions has finally propelled rail back to the political centre-stage in its original birthplace of the UK and US. At the same time, China plans to invest $300bn in rail infrastructure over the next three years to add 20,000km of track to its network. There are advanced plans to link all the GCC countries with over 2,000km of rail at an initial cost of $25bn.

The nature of demand for rail cranes has changed dramatically over the years. With very few exceptions, demand for rail-mounted slewing yard cranes to undertake industrial materials handling tasks has been surrendered to mobile cranes or more sophisticated handling systems. Rail-mounted wrecker/recovery cranes have mainly given way to all terrain, truck-mounted or crawler cranes. Maintenance of way (MOW) work remains the key area of crane work for railroads around the world but varies considerably in terms of sophistication and equipment used around the world.

One man who has spent his whole life in the US rail crane industry is Barry Isringhausen. Barry’s late father, Loren, started building rail service cranes in Illinois back in 1978 and until the mid- 1980s built a broad range of telescopic and lattice boom railroad service and re-railer truck and self-propelled cranes with ‘hi-rail’ gear of up to 130USt (118t) capacity. When the family sold the business in 1985 they crossed the country to Richmond, Virginia to invest in a small existing rail service contractor.

The business that grew out of that deal, Cranemasters, is headquartered in Richmond with branches in Baltimore, Maryland and Hammond, Illinois from which it operates three of its own Isringhausen Brute re-railer truck cranes augmented by a 150USt (136t) Mantis 30011 re-railer telescopic truck crane. However, at the heart of the Cranemasters fleet are six Tadano- Mantis tele boom crawler cranes; three short-boom 70t models and three highly specialised 100USt (90t) 200RSs, the design of which was a cooperative effort between Cranemasters and Mantis. “Several US re-railing contractors use the Caterpillar or Deere side-boom pipelayers but, though tough, the lifting scope of ‘grunt machines’ is very limited,” says Isringhausen. “With full 100USt (90t) pick-and-carry performance, extraordinary grade ability, 26in ground clearance, massive 25USt tow winch, and steel and rubber track pads, the 200RS handles everything derailments can throw at it. With its jacking system it self-demounts from the low-boy trailer but still, contemplating a normal crawler moving towards a train wreck would be like watching paint dry. So the minimum travel speed needed was 4mph (6kph), demanding a 600hp (441kW) Cummins diesel and quad-track drive to propel the 200RS.

“Right now we’ve got two of the 200RSs in the mid-west and one in the east. They’re used mainly on derailments of rail cars and locomotives but just last week we had the two handling cast steel molds in a Pennsylvania steel mill and this week we’ve got one in another steel mill handling ladle cars.”

The Mantis 30011 re-railer truck crane is in service with almost all of North America’s leading Class A railroads, offering very fast highway speeds in the 70–80mph (110–130kph) range and GVWs as low as 80,000lb (36t); and less counterweight, allowing for 50-state permit-free highway travel. These are key factors in an emergency deployment vehicle. In addition, with its hi-rail gear lowered, the 30011 can run along the rails if highway access to the accident isn’t feasible. They’ve also proven popular in Latin America and most recently the first 30011 re-railer truck crane has been installed with Saudi Railways in Dammam.

Another US manufacturer benefiting from the improving rail market environment is Winona, Minnesota-based Badger. The rail service version of Badger’s new CD 4430 series of cabdown rough terrain cranes addresses a once vibrant segment of the crane market served by the likes of Pettibone, Galion, Grove, Lorain and others, but slim pickings over the past decade meant that these railroad versions are long since discontinued.

Via its sister companies, Little Giant and the iconic Burro, Badger is well connected to the railroad industry and well placed to benefit from the latest up-tick in demand. Since its launch last fall, Badger’s largest model, the 30USt capacity CD 4430R, has found favour with half a dozen US railroad companies including Amtrak. Working with the railroads generally doesn’t suit the larger series producing crane makers since just about every railroad demands highly customised, individual specifications. Badger’s line also includes rail service versions of 1085R Cruz-air wheeled excavator and hydroscopic telescopic boom excavators.

Little Giant Crane & Shovel is remarkable in part for its very survival, considering it is a maker of mechanical lattice boom cranes of no larger than 30USt capacity. The company’s founder Louis Grundon invented and patented the world’s first ball bearing slew ring back in 1945 and Little Giant production was transferred to Badger’s Winona plant in 1999. Little Giant’s line comprises six models of lattice boom cranes from 20–30USt capacity all offering full duty-cycle lifting and excavating performance with clamshells, magnets, draglines, etc. These widely proven cranes feature simple operation and minimal maintenance, and have remained popular with US railroads. The cranes are available in 6x4 or 6x6 wheel drive truck, road/rail ‘Trakrane’ and crawler-mounted versions as well as two self-propelled rail-mounted (SPR) models. These feature hydraulic drive, power shift transmissions and rail speeds to 28mph (45kph) forward and reverse. The largest model SPR 64 offers boom lengths from 30–70ft (9.15–21.3m), 25USt at 15ft radius (25t at 4.5m) capacity on outriggers, and 35,200lb (16,000kg) capacity through 360° free-on-rails.

Meanwhile larger sized general purpose lattice boom rail cranes are available from Bucyrus, Ohio-based American & Ohio Locomotive Crane Co, a division of West Seneca, New York based ERS Industries since 2002. The combined American & Ohio Locomotive lines include diesel-hydraulic and diesel electric propelled lattice and fixed boom rail cranes of 30–220USt (27–200t capacity). These cranes are self propelled to speeds of up to 14mph (22kph) and are particularly suitable for operation with clamshells, electromagnets thanks to their high line pulls and heavy duty-cycle specifications.

While the versatility of road-rail versions of mobile hydraulic cranes has long been favoured in North America, the idea has also been tested in Europe with less success. A dozen years ago, Demag briefly produced a rail version of its 50t AC 50 all terrain marketed through its (then) Gottwald division. More recently, in 2006, Tadano developed a road-rail version of its compact 18t GR-180 City Crane, and this year has announced the new 12t capacity GR-120DRW. Unlike most other cranes of this style, the Tadano does not employ friction-type hi-rail wheels driven by the crane’s rubber tyres but has independently driven rail wheels.

While many rail cranes in this category are based on mobile cranes, lifting machines based on wheel-loader configurations have also long been popular for rail-threading applications in North America. Pioneered by Pettibone with its Speed Swing line, today Swing Loader Corporation of Franklin Park, Illinois is the primary supplier of these 4x4 wheel drive machines that feature 180° or 360° slewing articulated booms and capacities of between 5USt and 10USt.

For individual or dual rail tie (sleeper) handling, specialist low-capacity articulated boom tie cranes such as the model 12-12 from Kershaw Manufacturing of Montgomery, Alabama have won popularity. Equipped with a tie grapple, the self-propelled Kershaw 12-12 lifts 1,200lb (544kg) at 24ft 6in (7.3m) radius; has 20mph (32kph) maximum travel speed and can work with grapples or mowers for maintenance work.

In Europe another key supplier is France’s Geismar SA, headquartered in Neuilly sur Seine, which offers a line of sophisticated rail products including its PEM & LEM series of track panel handling/transporting units for switch and crossing renewals.

Palfinger offers a special Railway series of cranes named the PKR Series that extends from the 6.35t capacity, 15.1tm load moment PKR 160 up to the 22t capacity PKR 750 with up to 15.8m radius. These compact cranes serve in track construction and maintenance, construction and maintenance of overhead contact systems and track work in tunnels.

Cargotec’s Hiab has also enjoyed significant successes in the rail market, supplying some 23 of its model 288 to China Railway Construction in 2007.

In North America the railroad sector has been a significant market for knucklebooms, especially for Iowa Mold Tooling (IMT) and National Crane, though the latter recently discontinued this product line. However, by no means do the domestic producers have this market to themselves with Fassi, Hiab and Palfinger all key players. In Europe, Fassi has developed close relationships with a number of railway equipment manufacturers and rail maintenance contractors such as Seville, Spain-based Inabensa and the UK’s Balfour Beatty Rail.

Part of Langley Holdings since 2000, Cowans Sheldon has a rich history but limited current crane production. Nevertheless the company still offers a full line of ‘multi-tasker’ cranes of 65– 200t capacity with a variety of telescopic, lattice and wrecker booms as well as twin jib cranes, and has maintained a strong presence with railways all across Africa and especially with Indian Railways where 14 of its 140t at 10mrated CCS 140-10T are in service. This model is equipped with highly durable lattice booms and rope derricking, as recommended by the manufacturer for wrecker/recovery work.

Leipzig’s Kirow now enjoys a relatively unchallenged position at the zenith of the market for the largest and most sophisticated rail cranes. During its many years in the former DDR, Kirow supplied over 5,000 rail cranes, with more than 60% of these sold to the former Soviet Union. Since the mid- 1990s Kirow has developed its line of ‘multi-tasker’ telescopic boom cranes that extends from the 10–25t (11–27USt) capacity model 100 intended primarily for the erection of masts and sound barriers, through the 25–125t models targeted at track-laying, switch renewal and bridge works, and up to the eight- axle 100–160t model 1600 intended primarily for wrecker/recovery assignments and major bridge works.

These powerful cranes are very specialised and customised to each buyer’s specifications. “Typically we build 5-10 units per year in part because the cranes have long working lives so the replacement cycle is also long,” says Kirow’s Michael Hartmann. “Europe is the most highly developed market but right now China is our best market where our largest model, the 1600, is the most popular. We have 13 1600s working in China and 16 more on order.”

Of the current line of 10 Kirow models, there are 107 units in service worldwide. This is made up of 33 units of the types 100–450 of 10–50t capacity; 61 units of the types 800–1200 of 100– 150t capacity; and 13 of the 1600 type of 160t capacity. In addition to the 16 model 1600s on order for China, Kirow has orders for two each of its smaller and medium class cranes.

Kirow entered the UK market in 2001 and there are now 10 cranes in service with four different contractors. This comprises three type 1200 with a rated 125t capacity at 9.5m radius, two type 810 rated at up to 100t and five 25t type 250s. These are operated by Colas Rail, Balfour Beatty Rail, Swietelsky-Babcock Rail and VolkerRail.

Since its arrival in 2005, Colas Rail’s Kirow 1200 has been the responsibility of strategic plant manager, Mark- Anthony Ray and his team, according to whom the crane has held up well. “It’s a bit quiet right now due to the overall economic environment but it’s worked all over the country from Scotland down to Penzance in the south and over to Holyhead in the west,” says Ray. “Right now it’s in Nottingham on modular switch work and lifting prefabricated track panels directly off the delivery trucks. It can lift track panels up to 34m (100ft) length weighing up to 36t (40USt),” he said. The Colas crane is equipped with a jib extension providing 39m (128ft) max radius through 360°.

The Kirows have full freight vehicle specifications allowing them to transit at speeds of up to 60mph (100kph) in train formation. When at work in yards or sidings, the cranes self-propel at up to 19mph (30kph). The medium and large models feature double- rotating superstructure assemblies with two slew bearings that enable the crane to swing either with or without the counterweight. In the latter case, the counterweight remains in-line with the main frame and the boom can swing up to 30° either side of centre-line.

The facility to work with the boom horizontal is particularly beneficial in low headroom environments and the manufacturer offers a range of lifting beams for track panel handling, etc. Another unique feature is a self-levelling device allowing all models to operate on track cants of 160mm (6.3in) as well as adjusting to cant variations while the crane is moving, even with load. Should the main diesel power unit fail, the cranes can rely upon standard auxiliary engines.

Being nominally rated at 7–10m (23– 33ft) radius and designed to operate with flat booms, the load curves of these machines are especially impressive. The smallest cranes offer maximum working radii of 16m (52ft) while the larger units can work at up to 39m (128ft). Load chart options include free-on-rails at 3° slew; lifting through 20° slew propped on two outriggers at minimal span; and lifting through 360° slew on all four fully extended outriggers.

Badger CD 4430R driving on rails. Badger CD 4430R driving on rails.
Little Giant 64R working on the Metro North railroad. Little Giant 64R working on the Metro North railroad.