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On The Right Track

When Pittsburgh-based rail market supplier L.B. Foster purchased CXT Inc. in 1999 (making it its wholly owned subsidiary), the reason for doing so was

Steven Prokopy

When Pittsburgh-based rail market supplier L.B. Foster purchased CXT Inc. in 1999 (making it its wholly owned subsidiary), the reason for doing so was clear: to expand the company's product opportunities in the rail business. Having been in said business since 1902, L.B. Foster knew a little something about rail industry, but had relatively little experience in the area of concrete products.

Eight years later, on the heels of capacity expansion nearing $25 million, L.B. Foster has positioned the CXT brand as bedrock for critical freight-rail lines serving the Midwest and Southwest. Leading up to CXT, the company had purchased GeoTech, which manufactured precast earth-retention walls, but beyond that concrete was a new road. For strategic and financial reasons, L.B. Foster exited the mechanically stabilized earth products business in early 2006.

Part of the CXT acquisition included a Spokane, Wash.-based precast building operation, which didn't exactly fit in with Foster's core business. But within two years, CXT Concrete Buildings became profitable and remains an important part of the organization. CXT also operates a concrete tie line in Spokane, which is capable of producing heavy haul ties, lighter-weight transit cross ties and turnout ties.

During the ownership transition, CXT Inc. (CXT is an acronym for Concrete Cross Ties) was still in the process of erecting a concrete rail tie plant in Grand Island, Neb., a long-line process that was meant to be a mobile facility set on 19.2 acres. According to Jim McCaslin, general manager-plant operations of CXT's Grand Island and newly built Tucson, Ariz. plants, the company decided in mid-2005 it was time to make the Nebraska facility permanent (it had never been moved). It's in the same building it was first built in, he explains. During the recent overhaul, we actually had to construct a building within the original enclosure to handle an overhead crane.

The overhaul came as a result of the anticipated demand increase from a contract CXT Inc. signed in early 2005 with Union Pacific to upgrade and expand two separate rail lines, including a six-year project on UP's Chicago to Cheyenne, Wyo., route. We were already working for them on another job and had just gotten an extension on that when UP issued a RFQ [request for quote for pricing]. One of the requirements was that the company that got the job had to have a long-line system, which we did, but we realized our existing system needed upgrading.

The second project that made up the UP contract was an eight-year capacity-expansion job on tracks between El Paso, Texas, and Los Angeles. The producer quickly earmarked $15 million for a state-of-the-art, greenfield plant Û effectively a duplicate of the revamped Grand Island operation Û on 14 acres at Union Pacific's Tucson yard. Test production began in August 2006, allowing time to tweak fabrication and handling, meet newly modified Union Pacific product specifications, and prepare for audits and inspections leading to Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute Plant Certification this summer. Grand Island attained its initial PCI Plant certification in 2001.

THE TIES THAT BIND

Originally, the Grand Island facility had two casting beds with 45 forms, allowing six ties per form. Since the plant cast two times a day, this setup resulted in about 1,080 ties per day. The current arrangement has four lines, still with 45 forms per bed but allowing four ties per form. Running two shifts, daily output potential is 1,440 ties. The $10 million overhaul saw a July to mid-September 2005 shutdown.

The design and manufacturing equipment of the revamped Grand Island plant and the Tucson operation Û both of which have about 50 employees and six additional staffers Û were the work of Grimbergen in the Netherlands, says McCaslin. An eight-person team, led by President Stan Hasselbusch, was dedicated to sourcing the best equipment available in the world for this type of production and traveled extensively to study various processes. The Grimbergen technology fulfilled that mission.

After the sawing of a shift's set of ties, which McCaslin says is technically the beginning of each precasting process, the empty bed is cleaned and vacuumed, then oiled. A fastening system is set down the length of the bed, with each tie having a cast-in-place plug for traceability. Twenty strands of wire are run down the 386-ft. length of the bed through anchor plates. A wire tree is set in the line (and cast in the product) to maintain the strand pattern.

CXT was able to keep its original batch plant at Grand Island for production needs, while in Tucson, where concrete requirements are comparable, it runs a new ACT/Wiggert MobilMat Mo 80-4-PCAS with a 2-yd. high-intensity planetary countercurrent mixer. Aggregate is stored in below-grade concrete bunkers with a capacity of 650 tons and transported via a 32-in. _ 52-ft. weigh belt. The aggregate batch is then moved via a skip hoist with an anti-freefall safety device. Two fine aggregate moisture probes allow for precise batch yield, while a high-range water reducer helps maintain targeted water-cement ratio.

The mixer drops into a 2-yd., automatic, dual-rail flying bucket, which goes into the plant area and delivers a batch to the distributor's bucket with two hoppers, an interim bucket and final bucket directly over the forms. An interlock ensures that the transfer is performed without any spillage. Both the mixer and flying bucket are cleaned by an automatic high-pressure device. This process is repeated 17 times per line.

The placing unit dispenses two yards of 7-in. slump concrete in 2-3 minutes. McCaslin says the initial set time is three hours at 1,500 psi. This is important because this is when the demolding is done, he explains. Total cure time is eight hours toward concrete strength of 4,500 psi. Vapor-lock plastic is used to cover the line and helps to keep in heat and moisture.

The demolding process is unique in the U.S., says McCaslin. We can strip an entire line in eight seconds. Guide pins are placed throughout the structure. Static pins protrude though the form and don't drop when the forms drop. The product is essentially suspended.

OPTIMAL LOADING, UNLOADING

Like other prestressed cross-tie operations, CXT leases property from its client, Union Pacific. As stipulated in the contract, both CXT facilities are adjacent to wood-tie rehab operations. When UP replaces wood ties with concrete, they also replace the rails, says McCaslin. The wood ties come back to us on the rail cars because in both locations we are essentially attached to [processor] Nevada Railroad Materials, and are responsible for certain functions that are tied to them. The plant locations were decided on by UP.

In addition to issues regarding the quality and engineering of our product, an interesting part of our contract has to do with unloading and loading rail cars. Sixty-car unit trains with spent wood ties arrive in the yard on a semi-regular schedule. A 50-ton gravity crane unloads the wood to NRM and reloads with concrete ties. This must be done in a 24-hour window, and our part of the process takes 14 hours. The crane can lift 105 ties at a time, or half a rail car, so 210 ties per car. Each outbound train load carries 12,600 ties, with each piece weighing 750 lb. UP crews can install 6,000 ties in a day, and it's not unheard of that we might have three trains come in a single day, depending on the season.

UP's TRT909 tie installation machine moves back and forth between the Southwest and Nebraska, giving each plant an opportunity to restock. By the time it comes back to a facility, which happens in three-month cycles, we should have more than 100,000 ties in our yard cued up for loading, says McCaslin.

Both CXT locations have the space to grow their production lines, he adds, and that full capacity would be seven beds. The Tucson plant, which, like its sister facility, runs 24/7 with two shifts, is still technically in ramp-up mode, but it should be at full capacity sometime this spring. According to L.B. Foster Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John Kasel, Between the two facilities, CXT produces approximately 700,000 rail ties annually, with the highest possible quality and industry-low reject rate.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

A major reason for L.B. Foster's decision to expand its product opportunities is quite simple: the use of concrete ties is growing in North America. Its use is not the same in North America as it is in other parts of the world, explains Kasel. The region has a huge share of wood-tie usage. In other parts of the world, there are more concrete ties. But as passenger rail rehab needs became an issue, the advantages of concrete ties helped carve out the domestic market.

With Class 1 rail tie needs being covered by our Grand Island and Tucson plants, and transit line and other specialty needs coming from Spokane, he continues, we feel ready for what comes next.

Kasel points to ethanol production as a key market for new concrete ties. New rail lines to bring in corn and ship ethanol are needed, he says.

Also, ports, other industrial applications, coal-fired electricity plants, and liquefied natural gas delivery infrastructure will require our products. It really made us rethink our marketing strategy beyond the double- and triple-tracking work for Union Pacific, says Kasel, who points out that in 2006 overall capital spending by Class 1 transportation users was $8.5 billion in 2006, with an estimated $9.5 billion to come in 2007. There are major forces dramatically driving the growth of overall cross tie demand Û more specifically concrete ties Û over the last few years.

Some of these forces include the challenges facing the trucking industry. Trucks have to contend with issues like drivers' hours-of-service limits, highway load restricions, and unstable diesel-fuel costs, explains Kasel.

Speaking of oil related concerns, since wood ties are treated with petrochemical-based products, the price of crude directly impacts their cost competitiveness versus concrete ties. Concrete ties have several advantages, including lower installation costs and lower lifetime costs, which are tied to less maintenance, durability, resistance to track buckling, says Kasel. We definitely view this business as a strategic part of L.B. Foster's growth.