Maintaining Railway Resiliency: A Strategic Asset Management Approach to Lifecycle Optimization

By Meg Vermillion

Increasing variability and extremes in weather create increased operational risk for critical defense installations. These extreme weather events test the infrastructure resilience, degrade infrastructure, and lead to delays as well as concerns about continuing operations.

According to the US Department of Homeland Security, Infrastructure resilience is the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events. The effectiveness of a resilient infrastructure or enterprise depends upon its ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event.

The impacts of Hurricane Florence on Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU) helped identify vulnerabilities in its infrastructure and more specifically in its railway network. In a resource limited environment, the emphasis on repairing the railway infrastructure is summed up in one word – capacity. One railcar can hold the equivalent of roughly four truck loads. Additionally, one train can haul the equivalent of over 400 trucks. In order to move 400 trucks on the road, it would require 400 drivers compared to the two engineers that could run one train.

MOTSU’s ability to continue mission, although compromised, demonstrated the resiliency of its multi-modal infrastructure. Additionally, only a relatively short period of time, two months, was necessary to conduct critical repairs and bring the installation back to full operational capability (FOC). This further demonstrated resiliency and highlights the role a strategic asset management program has in improving infrastructure resiliency.


Washed out section of railway – structural fill and ballast absent leaving rail and ties suspended. Photo: Meg Vermillion

Mid-September 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall on the coast of North Carolina causing widespread flooding. In Hurricane Florence’s impact zone rests Southport, NC. Neighboring this coastal town is one of the Nation’s most critical military ports, MOTSU. The port is the U.S. Department of Defense’s primary east coast deep-water port which serves as a multi-modal facility for rail, trucks, and ships. The success of the port’s mission depends upon the installation’s transportation infrastructure which allows for the seamless transfer of munitions and equipment from shore to ship. Hurricane Florence devastated MOTSU’s infrastructure causing over $25 million in damage to railroads, wharfs, and interior roadways.

MOTSU’s rail network exceeds 100 miles of track which consists of 300 individual tracks, switches, bridges, and highway crossings. Of the 100 miles of track, the external rail is approximately 18.25 miles long. The remainder of the rail is a series of internal rails (dip yards, class yards, holding yards) which support the movement, storage and sorting of train cars. The railways were constructed in the 1950s and have been added to and renovated many times since originally built.

MOTSU’s railways are the installation’s primary means to move, organize, and store large amounts of inventory for global distribution. The railways were inundated by floodwaters during the hurricane. Under the pressure of rapidly rising flood waters, Sanford Dam gave way. Waters coursed over MOTSU’s network of railways, washed out tons of ballast, destabilized hundreds of feet of culvert, undermined the integrity of miles of track, and left multiple areas of track rails exposed with railroad ties dangling.

MOTSU’s railway network supports a mixture of military and commercial traffic. After the storm, external military and commercial railway operations completely halted due to the washouts. Internally, however, railway operations still continued due to redundancies built into the rail network.

Scope of Work Development:

Track is replaced over 60-inch culvert. Photo: Meg Vermillion

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was assigned the mission to assess all damage caused by Hurricane Florence to MOTSU and contract the repairs. USACE brought the entire enterprise of expertise and assets to bear on this national security problem in order to return MOTSU to FOC by November 26, 2018. With more than 100 miles of railways to assess in addition to other infrastructure damage, the Savannah District USACE leveraged the expertise of its railway subject matter experts (SME) from USACE’s Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) and a Rail Assessment Team (RAT) provided by the 757th Expeditionary Rail Center (ERC). They supplemented MOTSU’s Department of Public Works (DPW) Railway Maintenance Department’s inspection capability of rail infrastructure and rail equipment. Together, the USACE teams rapidly evaluated and prioritized repairs.

With the exception of extensive wash outs, the overall condition of the MOTSU rail system rated as good. The entire MOTSU rail system had undergone a complete upgrade within the past 10 years.  As a result of these upgrades, a majority of MOTSU tracks could absorb Hurricane Florence’s impact.

The assessment team provided a framework upon which to evaluate, prioritize, and estimate repairs. The team formed recommendations to align with codes and standards. A risk matrix identified areas of deficiencies and recommendations for mitigation which they used to prioritize repairs and provided the template to develop a cost estimate. Repairs fell into two categories: (1) minimal spot repairs that MOTSU’s DPW Railway Maintenance Department could correct and (2) extensive repairs requiring USACE contracts.

Focus on Repairs:

Up against the clock, the USACE teams and MOTSU DPW collaborated to more finely delineate the project’s scope of work and priorities. The institutional knowledge of the USACE railway SMEs and MOTSU’s own railway maintenance team, formed through their training and years of service proved invaluable.

Together, the teams delineated the critical components of the railway necessary to safely support a fully loaded train. The railway consists of rails which are supported by ties and held in place with plates, spikes and anchors. The entire railway rests upon ballast which supports, stabilizes and distributes the load of the train. In addition, this ballast serves to shed water away from the timber crossties to prevent premature deterioration. Furthermore, rails must be level and aligned to ensure trains travel with as little harmonic rocking as possible to prevent the train from derailing. All these systems must be in place to ensure the safety of a train and its operators.

The finalized scope of work consisted of replacing damaged crossties, adding ballast to return the railroad to grade, cleaning out drainage ditches of debris, repairing culverts, re-surface and aligning tracks, and testing any electrical grade crossing signals.

The USACE awarded a contract to Eagle Eye Electric, LLC with Civil Works Contracting (CWC) as their subcontractor. Construction started on October 2, 2018, and by November 26, 2018, the installation was back to FOC. The contractors worked seven days a week in order to reach FOC within this period. This massive effort used specialized equipment and operators brought in from all regions of the country. A total of 7,891,760 lbs. (390 tons) of crossties were disposed of at a local energy plant and recycled for energy. In addition, workers replaced more than 4,190 cross ties using approximately 36,000 rail spikes amounting to nine tons of spikes. Furthermore, 150 linear feet (LF) of 36-inch to 60-inch concrete culvert pipe was replaced from under and alongside of the tracks. The repairs of the washouts required 2,245 cubic yards of structural fill, 521 tons of aggregate base, and 1,753 tons of ballast. To finish off, a total of 60,000 LF or 11.36 miles of track was re-surfaced and aligned to level the track over the repairs.

Focus on the Future:

An asset management plan for railways includes the maintenance of the rails, ties, plates, spikes, anchors, ballast, drainage structures, maintenance equipment, and personnel. The road to railway resiliency starts with a strategic asset management plan that seeks to optimize each asset’s life cycle. The first step of this process is to establish asset condition indexes, identify the manufacturer’s recommended lifecycle for each asset, and develop a comprehensive maintenance plan.

The framework used the railway condition index to prioritize, plan and budget repairs and capital improvements. This labor intensive process enabled USACE to expedite work following Hurricane Florence by utilizing UAVs and an influx of SMEs. During normal operation, however, MOTSU has two track inspectors who average 30 days to complete the task of walking all tracks in order to deem them in or out of service. MOTSU’s tracks are required to have a monthly “walking inspection.”

The maintenance team must develop a comprehensive maintenance plan which clearly communicates maintenance priorities in terms of risk, levels of severity and likelihood of impacting operations. A comprehensive maintenance plan projects reoccurring repairs into the future, at least five and ten years out, in order to visualize efforts and distribute costs. Together, a multiyear maintenance plan and a well-defined prioritization matrix communicates urgency during the funding process.

Another consideration when developing the budget and maintenance plan is whether to routinely maintain an asset or run it to failure. This helps to identify funding needs as expense or capital improvement. In addition, a substantial financial and time investment is equipment, training, and establishing redundancy in the system. When it’s not feasible to conduct repairs due to time or budgetary constraints, it may be more feasible to out-source the work.

To illustrate the magnitude of specialized equipment necessary for railway maintenance, MOTSU’s inventory of equipment consists of rail motor cars (to haul personnel and materials), spike extractors/inserters, tie extractors/inserters, a tie crane (to clean up loose ties and lift switch ties), an aerial lifter (to insert plates), high rail dump trucks (ballast), tampers (to surface and align rail, and tamp ballast), regulators (to dress up the ballast on railroad shoulders and sweep excess ballast from the tracks), brush cutters (vegetative maintenance), loaders and fork lifts.

MOTSU faces a challenge to balance the budget and schedule in order to maintain equipment, cross-train personnel, and conduct repairs. Putting the components of strategic asset management in perspective, MOTSU’s railway maintenance supervisor shared his vision for the future of MOTSU’s railway maintenance plan. His strategy focuses on six primary components: inspections, crossties, switches, ballast, ditches and culverts, and OTM – other track materials.

Inspections, per the Unified Facilities Code (UFC) 4-860-03: Rail Road Track Maintenance and Safety Standards 2008, are required on a regular basis depending on the level of traffic the railway carries. For example, monthly inspections are required for two or more movements per week. During which inspectors evaluate crossties, look for bolts out at joint bars, cracks in joint bars, and missing or damaged spikes. In addition inspectors consider track elevation, warps and cross leveling; wearing, breaks, switch points gauge, frog gauge, guard check gauge/face gauge, and ballast conditions. These inspections produce the condition indexes used to prioritize repairs and maintenance. New technologies can monitor the health of rails which may be advantageous to supplement MOTSU inspectors.

According to the National Tie Association, MOTSU’s crossties have an 18 year life cycle based on the region’s relative moisture, rainfall and the material composition of the crossties. MOTSU has 100 miles of track which equates to 300,000 ties of which 16,700 ties should be replaced per year. In this respect, efficient management of the budget, personnel and equipment is crucial to stay on schedule. Proper crosstie maintenance prevents track closures. As such, MOTSU’s tie crew sets and adjusts weekly goals. Recruiting, training, and retaining personnel is also a challenge. Out-sourcing this portion of the maintenance plan every five years may help maintain the replacement rate.

Railroad switches are critical points of failure on any railway. MOTSU has 302 switches. Switch maintenance consists of the maintenance of the switches, turnout components, and switch ties. Around switches there is an average of 70 ties per switch which are 16 ft. long as opposed to the 8.5 ft. long crossties along the remainder of the track. At MOTSU, there are approximately 6 miles of switches which also have an 18 year life cycle. Maintenance personnel use a tie extractor/inserter to replace crossties everywhere except around rail frogs. The rail frog is a piece of the track in a turnout designed to divert trains from one track to another. Since the tie-crew cannot use equipment, the work is manual which slows progress.

In addition, classification yards are composed of numerous switches to move trains from one track to another. Classification yards at MOTSU consist of 7-11 sets of rails per yard. These rails are in close proximity to each other which compounds the maintenance timeline. Replacing the classification yard switch ties requires additional equipment and problem solving skills. In addition, switches require monthly or quarterly inspections and lubrication based on the operational demand. MOTSU has out-sourced the replacement of switch ties in classification yards in order to keep up with maintenance demands.

Ballast is another important asset of a railroad. According to UFC 4-860-03, there must be adequate ballast to restrain the track laterally, longitudinally, and vertically under dynamic loads; and to distribute the load of the track and trains to prevent overstressing the subgrade. The railroad consists of tons of ballast. Ballast must be properly maintained at adequate levels and replaced when fouled. Fouled ballast is full of dirt which prevents proper drainage. MOTSU maintains rail-roadbeds using its inventory of specialized equipment.

A well-drained rail-roadbed is essential to good track maintenance. Another factor to maintaining proper drainage is the design and maintenance of ditches and drainage structures along the railway. Ditches and other drainage structures (culverts, drains, and drop inlets) must be of sufficient size and construction to handle the expected flow of water; and maintained at least annually to ensure the free passage of water. Following Hurricane Florence, most of the culverts along the railway required replacement. MOTSU must now keep them free of debris.

OTM – other track materials – forms the final component of MOTSU’s railway asset management plan. Other track materials include tie plates, anchors, and rail fastenings such as bolts, joints, spikes, and gauge rods. The maintenance of OTM is scheduled based on manufactures’ recommended lifecycle, condition indexes and deficiencies identified during monthly, quarterly, semi-annual or annual inspections.

Moving Forward:

In the months since the railway assessment, USACE contracts for railway repairs are complete, and MOTSU’s DPW railway maintenance department is moving forward, adapting its maintenance plan with a focus on strategic asset management to tackle the prioritized risks. The assessment team provided a report which clearly identified deficiencies, exact locations, and rated the severity of each deficiency.  As a result, MOTSU now has a comprehensive view of current railway conditions for planning and budgeting – making the railway more resilient, compliant, efficient, and capable of supporting MOTSU’s overall mission even in the event of a natural disaster.

Meg Vermillion, CPT, EN, is a project engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District.