The big yellow machines started arriving along the Union Pacific railroad tracks in Atlanta last week.
There were 15 to 18, not counting pick-ups and wagons.
Gallery: Replacing railway ties, hard and necessary work
Their mission was to replace thousands of ties and maintain the line between Jefferson, Texas, and Hope, Arkansas.
Unionized teams were ready to operate complex machines with a high level of competence and efficiency.
They had to be. Working around the tracks is not child’s play. UP’s last train length is expected to be over 200 cars pulled by five locomotives and requiring 8-10 minutes to pass.
These behemoths at the top of the transport food chain are scheduled and continue to materialize.
Yellow sleepers, big as they are, just have a certain amount of time to replace those sleepers, cultivate the ballast, align the rails perfectly, and pull away.
The work teams had their morning prayer and instruction meeting.
Pray? Yes, this is a little known fact to many railway unions and other work groups.
In such a dangerous and critical environment, employees need to trust, trust and trust each other. And so they pray individually and together.
Ralph Holmes of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, chief signalman for this crosstie team, said this about his prayers each working morning.
“Every morning before I leave the hotel I say thank you for the safe trip here and then once here when we are on site for our job description meeting we say a group prayer for the day work, home, family and travel. We thank the Lord for waking us up safe and sound. “
To the viewer of the city – the passing motorist, perhaps – this railroad work seems mysterious. The UP workers seem calm. And the many traffic safety officers standing outside the track and relaxed but ready to block all traffic. All important railway signals are off. For a while, no train passed and the track repair work was underway. The sleepers are replaced quickly, smoothly and professionally.
But to understand what is going on, you have to know the machines that do the job. Here is a description machine by machine, step by step.
The first thing to know is that before the arrival of the yellow machines, the preparations were made.
New ties arrive by train and are unloaded and placed next to the tracks. The security teams come out and paint each cross member to be replaced. A first machine goes through to make sure the correct number of sleepers have been placed, then uses a long arm to lift and align the end of the new sleeper with the end of the old sleeper under the rails.
Beginning of the roadworks
The second machine now removes the spikes from the sleepers. A third machine picks up the tips with a magnet and throws them into a trash can.
A fourth machine lifts the rails and punches the old sleepers, but leaves the spike plates in place. Manual crews pick up and replace spike plates using tools from a flatbed trailer.
A fifth machine with a long arm moves the old sleepers onto the sidelines. A sixth machine places metal bars on the track to prevent sleepers from sliding along the rails. A seventh machine correctly spaces the sleepers.
An eighth machine widens the hole which held the old crosspiece. The ninth machine reaches out and aligns the new crosshead and pushes the new crosshead into place under the rail.
Other types of machines now reach around and under ties and use vibrating “fingers” to push rocks into place. Spiked plates are then screwed into the wooden cross member and metal bars are clamped tightly against the plate to hold the cross member in place. The track rails are being raised while most of this tuning work continues.
The ballast regulating machine begins to move back and forth, placing stones around and under the ties. Brush the sweepers then sweep the clean area. The track rails are smooth and clear.
A small cart is pushed along the track by hand, using beams of laser light to show if the track is perfectly level.
The biggest and latest machine of all is capable of lifting and leveling the track, positioned with the help of the red laser. The ballast machine again traverses the area of the track.
All of the above activities are mainly carried out by hydraulic pressure tools under manual control. This equipment must be kept in order, so that the sleeper crews have a full range of spare parts and that the mechanics are able to repair any faults.
To see a traversing operation in action, you have to look closely, quickly and carefully. The work goes quickly but not in a hurry. The tie replacement operation in downtown Atlanta last week – including a major crossing repair at North East and Allday Streets – was completed in just hours.