For more than a half century, Plasser American has manufactured test and maintenance equipment that ensures the integrity and safety of the North American railroad infrastructure. David Soyka tracks down how this Virginia-based business helps its customers allow for more traffic, higher tonnage, and heavier axle loads on their railways.
A railroad is only as good as the tracks it runs on. Since 1957, Plasser American Corporation has made machines that improve track performance to help keep railroads running safely and efficiently.
Of course, things have changed a lot over the last 50 or so years. Back then, a home entertainment center meant a black and white television with rabbit ears that could tune in to three or four channels. Cars not only didn’t have seat belts, they had these enormous engines that sucked up gasoline like nobody’s business, but, who cared when gas was 24 cents a gallon.
By the same token, while a half-century represents only about a third of the railroad industry’s history, that last third has seen tremendous advancements in technological improvement in rail maintenance in which Plasser American has been a driving engine.
As noted in the August 2007 Railway Age, “In the mid-20th century, America’s railroads were dealing with a crisis of monumental proportions.” One key element contributing to this crisis was bloated payrolls – the industry employed maintenance crews that totaled 185,000 workers, or two workers for every mile of track – and the railroads sought to eliminate manual labor and inefficiencies by mechanizing track maintenance.
Consequently, a small, nine-person Austrian company, Plasser & Theurer, saw an opportunity to market their track machinery to the North American market, set up a sales office in New Jersey, and delivered its first hydraulic machine, capable of tamping track at a rate of 1,100 feet an hour, to the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad. (In contrast, today’s Plasser American 09-3X Dynamic Tamping Express can tamp three ties at a time at an average rate of 5,800 feet per hour and settle the track structure in the same operation.)
As business grew, the sales office became a full-fledged subsidiary, and in 1961 Plasser Railway Maintenance Corporation and its five employees opened for business in Rockford, Ill. The location was ideal not only to support machines delivered to the western U.S., but also to export overseas. At the same time, the introduction of a more compact design caused demand to skyrocket (115 machines sold during the company’s first 10 years of existence versus 790 sold over the next 10 years from 1968 to 1978).
Renamed Plasser American Corporation, in 1967 the company moved to its current home in Chesapeake, Va., where the milder climate is more feasible to test machines year-round. Today, Plasser American and its 200-plus employees operate from an ISO: 9001 certified 170,000-plus-square-foot manufacturing and operations center. Average employee tenure is 14 years, and the company reports low turnover levels. Plasser American is actively engaged in all sectors of research, design, production, marketing and customer service for both national roll-out, as well as export.
Plasser American machines are used not only on freight railroads, but high speed inter-city and commuter railroads, as well as city transit and light rail operations. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the railroads are alive and well, and are, in fact, a highly efficiently means to transport bulk goods. Indeed, railroads are actually in a better position in a declining economy than other transportation sectors. According to Steven E. Livingston, writing in the August 10, 2008 “Market Buzz” column of The Washington Post, “Typically, transportation stocks deflate along with the economy, but in this era, the railroads have forked off from the airlines and truckers because of the run-up in oil prices and efficiencies put in place over many years. Technology, improved management and the elimination of lots of track requiring high-cost maintenance all have helped contribute to what has been called a railroad renaissance. The railroads also have diversified what they haul and have streamlined the handling of cargo.” Even with a prolonged drop in oil prices and a recessionary economy in which freight volumes will decline, it remains the case that the railroads have the infrastructure in place to efficiently haul goods across the nation.
KEEPING RAILROADS MOVING
To keep that infrastructure in top shape, Plasser American offers a variety of machines to help the railroad industry stay on-track, on-time with a more durable, safer track structure that must endure higher traffic levels, higher tonnage and heavier axle loads. All machines are custom-built to order; the minimum lead time is one year.
Of course, Plasser American made its reputation with tamping machines. What these machines essentially do is insert tines into the ballast on either side of a railroad tie and perform a closing movement that’s called “squeezing.” In continuous action tamping, the entire tamping machine, which is painted in Plasser American’s signature yellow color, moves forward without stopping, while the subframe tamps each tie, or multiple ties at a time, independently. Machines designed for heavy duty use, such as the GRM 2000, can achieve production rates of 20 ties a minute.
Its flagship product is the Plasser Continuous Action Tamper 09-3X Dynamic Tamping Express, a heavy duty, high speed, continuous action production track tamping and stabilizing machine. It requires only a single operator, who sits in a climate controlled cabin, and can be fitted with tamping units for concrete or wood tie tamping. Railway Age describes the machine as an example of technology that has “revolutionized maintenance-of-way…It’s a sight to behold – a bright yellow monster, weighing over 172 tons and measuring over 133 feet in length, with a combined tamping unit/dynamic track stabilizer engine output of 1029 hp…With its computer-guided tamping head rapidly sliding back and forth in its satellite subframe, tamping tines (tools) vibrating vigorously as they plunge between the ties, indexing, tamping and stabilizing massive amounts of ballast, it creates a precision lined and leveled roadbed ready for heavy axle loads and high speed trains.”
Other product lines include the 09 DYNA-C.A.T., which offers switch/production tamping with dynamic track stabilization. The SES Switch and Panel Exchange System installs and removes track switches and panels. Catenary maintenance and installation can be performed with the Plasser MTW 100 vehicle and the RT 10 Wire Reel Trailer. Complete sections of catenary can be renewed within a few hours and the track can be re-opened to traffic at full line speed.
High capacity ballast cleaning machines provide properly drained ballast section to achieve longer track life and extended maintenance cycles. The APT 600 S Super Stretch Welder, equipped with an integrated pulling device for flash-butt welding, is ideal for most North American track conditions.
In addition, Plasser American provides spare parts service as well as complete technical support that includes customer training. The company’s widely acclaimed technological innovation and long standing reputation is the value-add that has made Plasser American successful not only in this country, but in partnership with its Austrian affiliate, in 104 countries.
That’s a track record Plasser American not only continues to maintain, but improve upon.