More Than Just Grease

Lubrication and friction management can help railroads reduce fuel consumption by 5% to 15% or more depending on route characteristics, according to Transportation Technology Center, Inc., (TTCI) evaluations. And compared with dry conditions, both have been observed to reduce rail wear rates by 80% or more in extreme curving conditions.

“With the potential benefits of rail friction control documented over a period exceeding 100 years, recent research and development has focused on how best to implement rail lubrication strategies,” TTCI Senior AVP Research and Development Gary Fry tells Railway Age. “There have been two main areas of focus for this implementation research. First, there is a need to maintain rail friction at targeted levels (i.e., not too high and not too low) to ensure benefit from the lubrication, while also ensuring desirable dynamic performance of locomotives, railcars and overall trains. 

“Second, there is a need to apply the lubricant material as effectively and efficiently as possible, ensuring a proper volume of product is maintained at appropriate locations on the rail, while avoiding waste. The results of these efforts have been successful on all fronts. Recent years have seen improved lubrication materials and strategies in terms of maintaining desirable and effective target friction levels covering a wide range of climate conditions, as well as improved lubrication material application systems.”

To find out where the market is headed, and what new freight rail and transit products are in the pipeline, Railway Age spoke with L.B. Foster; Loram Technologies, Inc.; and RBL, Inc./Robolube.

L.B. Foster

L.B. Foster’s Traction Gel Applicator (TGA) applies ALLEVIATE®
traction enhancing material directly to the top of running rails at
locations where there is potential for low adhesion.

Because friction management is a more mature market in North America, L.B. Foster’s aims include helping customers to enhance or further maximize the benefits of their existing programs and to reduce the life-cycle cost associated with running and maintaining programs, according to John Cotter, General Manager for Friction Management, North America.

Last year, the company rolled out its Remote Performance Monitoring (RPM) 2.0 platform, which “allows us to take the telemetry from our existing trackside lubricators, and send it to a web-based platform, where all the data from all the units can be compiled,” Cotter says. Customers can find out if their tanks are dry or if their units are functioning. “We have built in algorithms that we can calculate, for example, what you percent uptime is,” Cotter reports. This is key, he adds, since the higher the uptime, the more benefits can be generated. The platform also provides customers with a cleaner, more user-friendly interface.  

L.B. Foster’s PROTECTOR® X large-cavity units are designed specifically to reduce track access requirements for installation, maintenance
and refilling.

L.B. Foster’s digital control boxes are “the brains” of the lubricator, Cotter notes. GPS-enabled, they provide customers with lubricator location details. If a lubricator is moved, that information is automatically updated and ties into the RPM 2.0 platform. 

The company is also enhancing its lubricator tank design for freight railroad use, based on the “first in, first out” principle, Cotter says. “If you’re switching between seasonal greases, whatever goes into tank first gets consumed first,” he explains. “It’s important because, especially when you’re switching seasonal greases, if it’s not done correctly or there’s residual grease from a winter grease or a summer grease in the tank, it can cause the lubricator to malfunction.” L.B. Foster’s objective is to eliminate failure potential. If the lubrication system is not working, “it’s not protecting our customer’s rail,” Cotter says. 

On the transit side, L.B. Foster is working to commercialize a new top-of-rail product. Currently under field trials, it will not only provide noise and rail corrugation mitigation benefits, but also will serve as an all-season product. The company also plans to market its traction enhancers in North America—products that are well-established in the U.K., Cotter says. Network Rail, for example, rolls out its units in autumn, before the leaves start to fall, to keep their trains running on schedule. 

What’s next? L.B. Foster is developing a vehicle-mounted friction modifier application system. For freight rail or transit use, it will eliminate the need for crews to be near the track, filling wayside tanks.

Loram Technologies, Inc. 

Loram’s newly designed 25-gallon, 200-pound capacity tank incorporates many short line/regional and transit client-requested features. The internal components are more accessible and ergonomically friendly, and the consumable compartment is now removable for easier seasonal changeouts.

Over the past year, Loram’s friction management business has been growing globally, Director of Product Management Bruce Wise tells Railway Age. “Our customers continue to push us for new technology and innovative solutions to their wheel/rail friction management needs,” he says. “This includes making the equipment as user friendly and robust as possible. Many clients are asking for various remote-monitoring [capabilities] for existing and new units. Keeping and confirming that units are working properly is critical to railway operations.” He adds that Loram’s equipment is designed to be easy to use and maintain in challenging environments.

The company recently introduced a newly designed 25-gallon, 200-pound capacity tank for use primarily in the short line and regional railroad and transit markets. “It incorporates many new features that were requested by our existing client base, including making the internal tank components more accessible and ergonomically friendly,” Wise explains. “The consumable compartment is also now removable for easier seasonal changeouts.”

RBL, Inc./Robolube 

While the pandemic slowed RBL, Inc./Robolube efforts to get its new R2K Wayside Lubricator units onto customer networks, “we are slowly gaining traction with our first units being installed,” President Robert G. Pieper tells Railway Age. (One year ago, the company’s units were in the production stage.) “We are optimistic at our initial feedback on how well the R2K Wayside Lubricators are performing,” he reports. “We expect greater acceptance and an increase in orders for our new technology in 2022.”

In addition to the Robolube R2K “Cold Weather/Heated” LP-powered units initially developed for hi-rail gauge face lubrication with complete system heating provisions, the company is now designing variations of the R2K for dual rail application (per customer request), all electric versions (when heating is not required), and solar-powered units (without heating), for example, according to Pieper. 

The company is also adding a Wireless Control System to its Robolube Hyrail Track Lubricators to eliminate cab overcrowding and simplify installation. And it is offering the Model R-1000 (1,000-pound capacity) Combination Hyrail Lubricator with Wayside Fill Provisions; Model 200-40 2-Tank Combination Gauge and Top Of Rail Hyrail Lubricator; and Robolube Model TRF-100 Transfer System for filling wayside lubricator reservoirs, either powered hydraulically from the truck tool circuit or independent gas motor. 

Rail lubrication and friction management is not just another cost for railroads to take on, sums up L.B. Foster’s Cotter. In light of rising fuel and rail steel prices, he recommends reviewing the business case. “At the end of the day, it does drive benefits,” he notes.

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