Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Serving Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties

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Rail Replacement: Keeping Rail Service Safe

Just as with our shoes, rail tracks wear out and repairing or replacing them is in order. But performing difficult rail maintenance requires more than a cobbler to mend the worn and damaged tracks that guide subway-elevated and trolley cars, a team is needed.

Approximately 400 operating miles of track, 160 miles of non-operating track miles and approximately 1,008 mechanical switches which direct cars to their proper tracks, must be regularly maintained. This is by no means a small task and requires a dedicated 'gang' of specialized workers to quickly repair or sometimes replace large sections of rail before the beginning of the next day's service.

Dave Stump and Dale Arnold, Assistant Directors of Track Maintenance, lead teams of rail repair crews as miles of track are inspected and repaired.

Over time, shiny rails reveal normal wear but they can also indicate significant deterioration. Rails can become cracked, broken, or develop 'pits' from the weight of the massive vehicles that travel on them. To prevent derailments, other areas are maintained to insure that the distance between rails has not been compromised.

Because rail service operates nearly 20 hours a day, for obvious safety reasons, the work has to be well choreographed.

"We regularly inspect the rails," said Stump. "From our findings we are able to determine what rails are in need of maintenance; we can then schedule them for renewal. We only have about 4 hours between 12:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. to work so we don't impact service."

Under the cloak of darkness, 'rail gangs' begin the task of restoring sections of rail before the start of the next days service, frequently replacing 39 foot segments of rail totalling 4,000 lbs., but more often replacing 'strings' of continuously connected rail. These strings can vary in length, ranging from 200 feet to 1,500 feet.

Dale Arnold, known for his determination, drive, and focus, is aware he has to stay 'on track' if the projects are to be completed successfully.  "I'm responsible for getting the material and crews together so that we can get the job done. The job can be a puzzle because you have to put the right pieces together all the way around. I have 60 workers on my team and have several jobs going every night. The work can be very intense but I work with great people which make it easier. Our customers expect safe and reliable service and we are responsible for its maintenance. It's a team effort".

In the last ten years crews have replaced complete rails on the Broad Street Line, performed significant repairs on City and Suburban trolley lines, and on the Norristown High-Speed Line. Recently a rail renewal project replaced nearly two thousand feet of rail on the Market-Frankford line between 2nd Street and Spring Garden Stations.

Track Equipment Operator, Patricia Bohannon, sits barely visible in the cab of her high-rail vehicle helping to guide thousands of pounds of rail into place. Bohannon has become an essential member of the 'gang' as they work to complete their difficult task. She, nonetheless, often finds it hard explaining what she does to her family.

"Although I've been doing this for the past 16 years, I have trouble explaining what I do to them; I do so much, they just wouldn't understand," said Bohannon. "I couldn't do this work if I didn't like it. Our job is not only about production but also safety. We look out for everyone. It's a challenge to get the job done on time. When you look at the finished product you think 'wow I had a hand in that'."

"Although we use several pieces of equipment to deliver the necessary equipment to the work site, because of limited space in the tunnels, much of the labor is still performed manually just as it was in the 1840's. We regularly move and cut rail by hand and drive spikes among other things," said Stump. "You really have to be physically prepared for this work."

In addition to power saws and sledgehammers, the teams share a mutual respect and trust; without it, the job could not be completed or worse - lives could be put in jeopardy.

"We all have our reasons for enjoying this job," said Stump. "But we all find it challenging. It makes me feel good to know that I work with so many people that will do whatever it takes to keep this system safe and running."

Rail gangs have only a few hours to perform their work overnight so that service isn't affected

Arnold knows that determination, drive, and focus are necessary in order to complete the job successfully

Much of the work is still performed by hand

Track Equipment Operator Patricia Bohannon operates a special vehicle to help lift and set the heavy rail in place

A vehicle outfitted with a crane helps to maneuver segments or strings of continuously connected rail weighing thousands of pounds