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NS forces collaborate to keep longest bridge in shape

January, 2020

Challenge Accepted: NS ‘super’ tie gang overhauls unique Lake Pontchartrain Bridge

Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in New Orleans, Louisiana.
An aerial view of Lake Pontchartrain Bridge site equipment featuring the excavator atop the barge, two tie remover/inserters, and tugboat required to make the extensive repairs.

At 5.8 miles long, Norfolk Southern’s Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in Louisiana is the longest railroad bridge in the country and the longest railroad bridge over water in the world. Packed with 180 million pounds of concrete and 102 miles of steel and concrete pilings, it is a major rail thoroughfare of the South, with freight and passenger trains traversing it daily between Slidell and the port of New Orleans.

Train tonnage is not the only weight this bridge carries. It also bears the extreme Louisiana heat, humidity, wind, salt, water, and sun. The bridge has weathered many storms, including the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when teams of our workers rallied in the aftermath to reconstruct the mangled bridge’s track and ballast in an impressive 16 days.

These extreme climate factors make regular maintenance of the bridge imperative to keep it intact and trains on the track, and ensuring this crucial span’s operability poses a challenge unlike any other bridge on our system.

Our T&S-1 super tie and surfacing gang recently proved themselves up to the task. For just over a week in late December, the gang’s roughly 65 members – some of our finest Engineering Department employees – converged on the bridge to replace over 8,500 railroad ties. The overhaul was the first of this magnitude since the post-Katrina rebuild, and the project required all hands on deck. With skill and grit, the T&S-1 crew worked methodically to overhaul the bridge.

Setting the table

Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Material handling trucks and tie handling cranes in action assisting with the replacement of the many ties the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge requires

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was this extensive tie replacement project. Orchestrating the logistics required significant preparation, not only for scheduling the workforce, but also for procuring the necessary materials, equipment, and technology. The planning began more than a year before our T&S crew arrived on the job.

To accommodate train schedules and continue serving our customers in a timely manner, daily track time windows were crafted around both Norfolk Southern and Amtrak train runs. Luckily, there was very little network disruption due to a “natural window” of roughly six to eight hours during daylight, said Ron Haines, manager train operations. “It was the perfect scenario for an engineering project to minimize impact on the regular schedule of trains,” he said.

Paul Anderson, Alabama division engineer and former track supervisor during previous Lake Pontchartrain repairs, said division and program maintenance forces worked closely on the project. Over three weeks preceding the tie replacements, around 15 Louisiana-based crewmembers prepped the bridge. They laid out replacement ties adjacent to the tracks, replaced close-clearance ties on the drawbridge, and performed steel repairs to ensure T&S-1 could hit the ground running when they arrived.

To understand the scope of work and ties to replace, we commissioned a service partner, GREX, to inspect the ties. GREX used new scanning technologies that generate scores to determine the ties’ surface and density condition. From this data, the ties that needed to be replaced were marked with paint for the gang to replace.

Overcoming challenges

Because the New Orleans climate is more humid than most places across our network, ties weather more rapidly. To increase tie life on the bridge, NS uses dual-treated ties designed to increase their longevity by up to 10 years. No matter the primary treatment material – copper naphthenate or creosote – the ties also are treated with life-extending borate. “The borate penetrates the center of the tie while the creosote or copper naphthenate protects the shell,” explains John Fleps, AVP maintenance of way and structures.

T&S-1 is deemed a “super” tie gang because of the increased variety and type of track equipment used. However, in addition to the standard equipment and materials needed to repair and replace ties – such as tie-handling machines, ballast tampers, spike pullers, trucks and cranes – this open-water job required help from watercraft.

Flanking tugboats assisted in the delivery and disposal of scrap materials to a nearby barge, and, as a precaution, NS brought in lifeboats for fall protection that followed the gang as it worked the bridge. While safety is always top of mind on the railroad, the gang’s awareness for their own personal safety and each other’s was heightened because of the limited space beside the track.

Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Norfolk Southern’s T&S-1 Super Gang works to replace thousands of railroad ties on the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“What makes Pontchartrain unique is the fact that there's no adjacent walkway and no handrails. You're out on the bridge with water on either side of you for over 5 miles with no way to get around the equipment and personnel ahead of and behind you,” Fleps says.

Randy Allen, bridge supervisor, emphasized the importance of safety and cooperation, especially on this type of assignment. “We all work together,” he notes. “It’s all about we, not me.”

Echoing Allen’s sentiment, Matt Davidson, maintenance-of-way engineer of track, explains how the large-scale gang works in unison much like an assembly line, wielding specific equipment and machinery for every task: “The front end of the gang pulls the spikes and the ties,” he says. “The middle part of the gang sticks the new ties in and spikes them up. And, then, the rear end of the gang tamps the track ballast and provides good line and surface afterward.”

Even with a seasoned crew working like a well-oiled machine, Mother Nature made her best attempt at delaying our success. Weather conditions played a large role in the timing and availability of track. The entire first day, typically spent setting up a base camp, equipment, and materials, was lost due to a fierce storm that rolled across the lake.

Mother Nature, however, proved no match for our breed of railroaders. T&S-1 completed the scheduled eight-day project in just six.

“I'm proud of what our folks accomplished, despite the weather being a major challenge,” Fleps says. “They’re a very tough bunch. I’m excited to see what they’re going to do in 2020.”