We regularly slow down, or rather are forced to come to a complete stop, and watch road construction crews. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I love seeing big machines rip stuff up, dig holes, or lift heavy steel beams into place. The equipment is familiar: cranes, front end loaders, excavators, bulldozers, and skid-steers with very cool, massive jack-hammers on the front.
Though road construction is somewhat common-place (though it seems now more so than ever with the Putting Americans Back to Work Act) we don’t often get the chance to see railroad maintenance work. Because of this we aren’t so acquainted with the process or even equipment, though they are just as cool in their own right.
When a machine appeared near the tracks at the corner of Hwy 96 and 61 in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, I pulled a U-Turn (legally) and got out to snap a few pictures. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t get a chance to see it in action, but I knew I had research ahead of me.
What Is It?
It is hard to perform research when all you can do on the web is search by text. The Internet is 27 years old and we are still searching with only spoken or typed words as descriptors? How long until I can upload a picture as a search query and have Google say, “that is a ‘Moss covered, three handled family credenza’?”
I was able to deduce, based upon the placement of the “fingers” across the front, I was looking at some sort of machine that worked with railroad ties. That, plus the labels “Pandrol Jackson” and “Model 900” on the machine gave me something to go on.
I ended up flipping through Brian Solomon’s Railway Maintenance on Google Books looking for pictures of similar equipment and though I didn’t find the exact model, I was able to come to the conclusion that this was a ballast tamper. Now armed with a name for this machine, I was able to confirm it when I found the exact same Model 900 Utility Tamper on the Harsco web site. I will be adding Railway Maintenance to my book wish list.
What Does It Do?
A ballast tamper is used to push ballast under railroad ties to make the track more level. As track is used, the ballast gets pushed around and new ballast needs to be put in. If the track sags in areas and is not level, the track can be lifted and ballast pushed under the ties to raise the track up (like lifting the end of a wobbly table and putting coasters under a leg).
The “fingers” in front (this one had 16) vibrate down through the ballast, reaches a certain depth, and then pushes ballast under the tie.
Large ballast tampers have lifts which can raise the rails and work on several ties at once. This model, however, can only do one tie at a time and does not lift the rail on its own. Since I didn’t get to see it in action I can only assume they use some sort of jack, forklift or back hoe or loader with chains, to lift the track and then use the tamper to work the ballast.
This particular model is ideal for “crossings, industrial tracks and any other tamping project that doesn’t require a high production tamper” (Harsco).
Also according to Harsco Rail’s company web site, Pandrol Jackson and Fairmont Tamper merged in October 1999 to become what is now Harsco Rail. It is interesting to note that Fairmont Railway Motors was founded in Fairmont, Minnesota in 1909.
For a greater technical description of ballast tamping with explanatory graphics, visit “How A Tamper Works” at On-Track Plant. By-The-Way, the rest of the world seems to refer to railroad ties as “sleepers.”