To say the railroad freight car market is suffering from a downturn is a kind way to describe the current situation. But in challenges lie opportunities, and those who recondition freight car trucks are striving to find and take advantage of them.

"Whenever we rebuild trucks, we're using new springs, new friction castings," says American Allied Railway Equipment Co., Inc., Director-Operations John Widmer. "We try to use new parts to get the most amount of wear."

AARECO uses a bowl machine developed at its Peoria, Ill., facility. "Basically it's a center sill from a car," Widmer says. "We attach the bolster to it and it goes up vertically. Then we cut the old bowl off and apply the new bowl with the same machine. Side frames and bolsters are very labor intensive, so there's not a whole lot of automation that works."

For many reasons, today's freight car trucks do last longer. "The wear plates used today are ten times better than what we were using a decade ago when we started reconditioning," Widmer says. "We're also using a lot of stainless steel wear plates. The friction pockets, the bowls, the roof liners, etc., are pretty much all stainless, which lasts a long time. We've participated with Pennsy in the new Pennsy wedge system, a good design that will help bolsters last longer."

Widmer is concerned about current Association of American Railroads rules regarding reconditioned side frames and bolsters. "AAR almost looks at them as secondhand parts," he says. "But they're often better than new and they ought to be priced accordingly. The AAR Office Manual does not allow for market conditions. The average price of a reconditioned bolster, 100-ton, in the manual is in the neighborhood of $400. But the going market price right now is $850. Certainly, railroads are not changing out side frames and bolsters unless they absolutely have to. You really could make a car last a lot longer with reasonable pricing set into place by the AAR."

"Reconditioning shops spend a lot of money on certification, gauges, AAR audits, and quality assurance audits," Widmer adds. "Basically, the only thing a RIP (repair in place) track can't do that a certified shop can is replace a bowl. We spend a lot of money on being a certified reconditioner and the only benefit that anybody is getting out of it, because of the AAR rules as they stand, is a bowl replacement. With a bowl replacement on a RIP track, you have to scrap the bolster. I think AAR really needs to take a look at its rules. If they want better equipment out there on the rails, they need to adjust them."

At ASF-Keystone, Inc. (whose primary business is manufacturing new trucks), Director-Engineering and New Product Development Tom Berg and his engineers work with customers to upgrade their trucks to meet the demands of 286,000-pound cars.. They may be involved in tuning a truck suspension or adding constant-contact side bearings or coming up with a new spring design.

"We identify structures suitable for use in 286 cars," Berg says. "Many of the structures out there--bolsters, side frames--were originally designed for 263,000 pounds or less and may not be suited for 286 service. Almost daily, we answer customer questions on this subject."

ASF-Keystone has reorganized and brought its engineering and marketing people together into its Granite City, Ill., facility to support the manufacturing process. The company works closely with customers for truck teardowns, sending out field service people who take measurements on critical components to determine what level of rehabilitation, if any, is necessary. They help with replacement components that will upgrade a truck to 286. They work with tuned suspensions. ASF-Keystone also offers premium replacement components.

"We're here to help customers solve their problems," Berg says. "A recent one involved a customer who was dealing with a spring problem. Our metallurgical lab and test facilities were able to help them identify the failure mode of their particular part and what they could do. Was it a quality issue or a use and application issue? We helped them identify what the issue was and come up with some solutions to avoid that issue in the future."

In the truck reconditioning program, ASF-Keystone works with Amsted Industries sister companies Griffin Wheel and Brenco Manufacturing "to look at the whole system rather than just the truck," says Berg. "We get into how it affects the wheel/rail interface. Our service engineers are trained in AAR M214 reconditioning certification and can provide M214 training to customers. We conduct truck teardown schools for customers and reconditioning shops."

Comet Rail Products, Inc., recently added a Nebraska Welding system, an automated system that re-welds the bolster rim. "The entire bolster rim is done automatically," says Manager-Rail Products Division Randy Haan. "We help customers determine when trucks are ready for rehabilitation, and go On-site and inspect trucks when customers call us wanting some guidance, We are prepared to offer advice on keeping trucks in service longer."

"Most of our customers, especially the Class I's, have their own ideas, so new ideas are usually incorporated into a customer's specification," says Haan. "I have noticed in the past few years that customers are starting to use more polymer products, like brake beam savers. Some customers are starting to spec polymer bowl liners. Snap-on pedestal trough liners have become more prevalent as well."

Comet's Kansas City, Mo., facility is AAR-certified for M1003 and M214 in addition to its own quality-assurance program. The company uses a computer-aided inventory system to manage its large stock of used freight car parts. "We can find the part with a simple key stroke and, in many cases, ship it the same day," Haan says.

Comet's biggest customer is Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, but the company serves about 240 customers ranging from Class I's to small car repair shops.

Progress Rail Services Corp. Vice President-Sales and Marketing Marty Haycraft says that newer castings generated from car-dismantling operations provide increased access to parts from newer type trucks. "Some of these parts are from 286 equipment," he says. "This gives our customers access to newer components as they are worked in our reclamation shops. Generally, we mean side frames and bolsters when we refer to our parts and reconditioning services. However, in addition, we recondition couplers, yokes, brake beams, air reservoirs, and similar items. For couplers and yokes, we employ a robotic welding machine. We're also looking at a prototype machine to weld side frames and bolsters."

Progress Rail uses the "Lean Manufacturing" process, which is based on techniques developed in the automotive industry. "We employ a director of Lean Manufacturing/quality assurance," Haycraft says. "We've been implementing the process in all of our facilities. This concept goes beyond plant operations and impacts accounting, information services, and other established administrative functions. We're organizing inventory management for some customers. Our in-house Information Technology Department developed what we call the Resource Management System. With RMS, customers can track shipments, inventory quantities, and historic consumption. We interface RMS with the customer's existing system. It reduces paper associated with purchase orders, sales orders, invoices, payments, and other documentation. Customers seem very pleased with it."

Progress Rail serves a wide variety of customers, each with unique requirements. "We're very driven by customer needs," Haycraft says. "For example, when trucks come into our shop, we examine them for excessive wear and we inform our customers of our findings. We work to whatever requirements our customers specify, but we want to help them make an informed decision. We generate a large amount of reconditioned side frames and bolsters, and we offer our customers the opportunity to utilize an existing asset to its fullest extent at a competitive price."

COPYRIGHT 2002 Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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