One of the great pleasures of subscribing to Trains magazine is access to the webcam they maintain at the Railroad Park at Rochelle, Illinois, which overlooks the diamonds where the United Pacific (formerly tracks belonging to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad) and BNSF (formerly Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy) railroads cross. The site is HERE, but you need to subscribe to view the cam.
There are about a hundred trains a day that cross these four diamonds (dual tracks crossing make four diamonds), so for railfans it is a nice substitute when you can’t get off your duff and go out to your local freight yard or mainline and watch trains. I often log on with my 13” MacBook Pro, parked off to the right, so it doesn’t obscure work on my 27” iMac desktop machine.
This past Memorial Day (June 5th) marked a signal event at Rochelle: the diamonds were replaced! Actually, this happens maybe once or twice a decade; this time, it was not quite seven years (the last replacement was in November, 2010). I was not surprised, as UP maintenance-of-way (MoW) crews had been out making repairs to the diamonds practically every day that I looked in for the past couple of years. Back in February, 2015 Trains had done a cover story on the difficulties of maintaining diamonds on heavily-traveled routes, “Diamonds Are Not a Railroad’s Best Friend” (subscriber-only, issue available HERE), with Peter A. Hansen writing,
The running rails . . . have gaps; that’s how the [wheel] flanges get through the rails of the intersecting track. The wheel treads bounce over the gaps, landing with a thud on the far side, and subjecting the car and the crossing to high static and dynamic loads. . . up to three times higher than on conventional open track. . .
The impact on locomotives and cars weighing hundreds of tons is dramatic and two-way:
Brake shoes, wheel treads, flanges, and axles wear much faster from diamond-crossing impacts than they do from open track. The track work suffers, too. Repeated vertical pumping from wheels passing over the diamond can cause ballast to disintegrate and ties to degrade, which in turn promotes sagging of the entire track structure. And, since the components of the diamond—running rails, guard rails, frogs, and flangeways‚are bolted together, fatigue and loose nuts are a never-ending battle.
At Rochelle, commenters on the long-running Trains Forum topic, “Semi-official Rochelle webcam discussion thread,” often noted how the high double-stacked containers on eastbound UP intermodal freights seemed to be “rockin’ and rollin’” as they crossed the diamonds at speed. It was surprisingly noticeable, even with the low resolution of the webcam, and a favorite topic, rivaling the resident spider that frequently draws web strands across the camera.
There were rumors of major work coming. Large piles of ballast were deposited alongside the UP tracks. Two weeks before the event, a Forum member called ‘rdamon’ reported,
The new diamond is already here .. behind the “Del Monte Wall” .. Once we see the orange locate paint and flags show up we know things are getting ready.
Unbeknownst to me, a photographer named Jim Taylor, who posts railroad pictures on Flickr, had taken a photo of the new diamonds back on April 1st; they had been deposited behind the remaining wall of the Del Monte warehouse across from the diamonds that had been mostly demolished a year ago, so the new diamonds were invisible to the webcam. Here is an excellent photo taken by Mr Taylor:
You can see that the diamonds are pre-assembled as a single unit. Since every such rail crossing is unique, each diamond, or diamond set, has to be built to exact specifications ahead of time. In this case, before installation, sections of track on each side of the diamonds (all eight tracks, I think) called ‘panels’ were replaced before the big diamond-installation day. Then early in the afternoon on Memorial Day, presumably chosen when rail traffic would be at its lightest, I looked in to see this:
It took me a moment to figure out what was happening. The two large white cranes have lifted out the old diamond set, with the help of the front-end loaders. Before I took this screen shot, you could see the front-end loaders trying to uproot the diamonds, with their back wheels up in the air as the heavy, ballast-embedded metal structure resisted. Then it was free, and in very-slow motion the team of men and machines began to drag the old diamonds down the UP mainline to the east. The old set of diamonds were left trackside seven years ago, just east of the North 9th Street crossing, and in fact you can see what’s left in the Google Maps satellite view HERE. Will the new one join it? One wonders why they don’t just cut them up, but maybe they serve as a spare-parts reservoir. Here are the diamonds on their painstaking journey to their resting place:
Once the old diamonds were out of the picture (literally and figuratively), the crew dug out the old ballast with the orange power shovel, then a front-end loader with a bucket began bringing new loads of ballast from the pile to the right of the screen shot below, filling the substantial hole. A Bobcat-type machine busily scrambled around smoothing out the new ballast while the front-end loader was getting new scoops full. We speculated that sinking of the ballast foundation, as it was beaten and pulverized by the repeated pounding of heavy freights, was likely responsible for the rockin’ and rollin’ we had been seeing as trains crossed the diamonds, so it made sense to spend time laying a new bed of stone, and whatever else they might have put down in the hole.
In this screen shot you can also see the white cranes moving the new diamonds in from the west:
Preparation of the ballast bed took a long time. Night fell on this pleasant spring evening in the Heartland, but the work continued, under powerful lights. This wasn’t a job that the MoW folks were going to leave for a busy Tuesday morning. Doubtless some trains were diverted to other routes while the two main lines were closed, but one has to assume there was a backlog building up. UP, for one, has a fairly large intermodal yard, called Global 3, just west of the Rochelle Railroad Park, so any eastbound trains originating there were doubtless waiting for highballs from the dispatchers.
The nighttime screen shot doesn’t have great resolution, but you can see the shiny new diamonds wending their way down to the unsettling gap in the main lines of two railroads:
The nighttime ballet in slow motion continued, while I debated how long I was going to stay up (it was now almost 11 PM Eastern). Here you can see the new diamonds being carefully lowered into place:
Once the new set was down a hi-rail vehicle backed up and some of the crew began welding where the near BNSF track joined the diamonds. The resolution is even worse here, but you can see the flame from the welding torch right in the center of the picture:
And at this point I gave in and went to sleep. How much time it took over the rest of the night I can’t say, but Forum commenter ‘xjqcf’ reported the first train on the UP, westbound, at 8:20 AM Central Time. There were still some track restrictions, as both UP and BNSF had ballast-tamping machines out in force for some time during the next couple of days, but by Friday things seemed back to normal. The new diamonds were noticeably quieter, better for trains, but less clatter for webcam watchers to enjoy—especially as the local crossings had become ‘no whistle’ zones, for the benefit of residents no doubt, but we on the Internet were no longer alerted to coming diesels by their loud (and often interesting) horns. And there was less rockin’ and rollin’, too. Here’s a family on June 2nd at the Railroad Park:
And here’s a fast UP intermodal heading east over the diamonds:
Replacing the diamonds was clearly no trivial operation. It had to be done quickly, in order to minimize disruption to two busy rail lines. At the same time, it required careful coordination of men and machinery, to remove the old diamonds, rebuild the roadbed where they had been, and install the new set at precisely the right position and attitude. From the screen shots I would guess that maybe 25 MoW personnel were involved.
Occasionally you see comments like, “Seems like a lot of guys standing around,” but managing operations on this scale can require a lot of folks with special skills and expertise, all of them communicating, some directing, some of whom may be waiting their turns, and all making sure that dealing with tons of steel and ballast, and a whole zoo of heavy machines, is done safely. I wasn’t there, but I’m sure that’s the reason why, despite the urgency to get traffic back accross the diamonds, the whole operation looks like it is mired in molasses. The deliberate pace, however, is in the eye of the remote beholder. You can bet there is plenty of tension, and even anxiety, on the site, as there must be when you’re maneuvering massive components to within fractions of an inch.
The same is true of many large ‘infrastructure’ jobs, of course. You have to wonder where they find workers who can manage the complex modern dance of men and machines without getting in each other’s way, or worse. I find it hard to imagine that the average kid who is sent off to college for four years of partying and ersatz ‘this studies’ and ‘that studies’ programs (all aimed at denying the amazing inheritance of Western Civilization) could come out ready and able to help manuver tons of interlocked steel into position where it can withstand years of daily pounding by heavy freights. Yet we are told everyone should ‘get an education’, and the bureaucrats who tell us this do not usually mean in science and engineering.
A hundred years ago, most of the railroad work was done by hand. All our diesel-powered hydraulic-actuated machines certainly make the jobs easier, and quicker, but it still takes manpower. Automation is undoubtedly reducing the need for workers in factories, but when stuff needs fixin’, it takes people.
Maybe it’s time to re-emphasize the importance of the ‘blue collar’ trades that we depend on to keep our country moving forward. We don’t need more people sitting at government desks. We need more crane operators and railroad dispatchers, and all the rest of the folks who keep the trains (and everything else) running.