Railroads are ever-pushing the envelope on asset use. It is partially up to you as a railcar lessee, rail shipper and railcar user to fill in the gap to ensure your shipments get transported in a safe and mechanically sound railcar.
By Darell Luther

Rail equipment is mechanical by design. A good mechanic will tell you anything mechanical is a just a repair waiting to happen. The constant wear from being transported around the country in different climatic conditions, different handling modes, and different loading and unloading situations does cause wear on railcars. Running repair items such as wheels, brake shoes, air hoses, couplers, draft system, car cushioning units, etc. all wear out over time and use and even quicker under abusive conditions. Abusive conditions occur more often than you think. When tracking the movement of a railcar across the country from northern minus 20-degree dry winter days to southern 70-degree muggy winter, temperatures are all causes of mechanical impediments. Inundations of rain, snow, saltwater, ice and heat will all cause mechanical problems over time.

Rapid discharge open top hopper railcars In mixed freight service. Photos courtesy of Tealinc, Ltd. www.tealinc.com

In the quest to go faster, farther and cheaper, the rail transport industry is trending towards skipping an important component of providing a safe and efficient supply chain. That is the railcar inspection process conducted on the ground. While hopeful electronic gadgetry will do some of the work, e.g. Kips wheel impact load detectors (WILD), truck hunting detectors (THD) and other component wear detectors in testing or in process of being developed, there is not a substitute for boots on the ground inspections.

“Boots on the Ground”
We have seen two significant cases where one party thought the other was doing the inspections and neither was doing them. In this case, the company that actually leased the railcars did not have any idea of what was or was not being done because their lease was a full-service lease. The pending result was the potential bad order of an entire unit train, which was narrowly avoided. In this case, saving significant product cost delays were built into the company sales contract. In another case we caught the indiscretion because we proactively managed the fleet. It could have resulted in a significant number of railcars being bad ordered while in route causing a costly supply chain disruption for the shipper.

Figure 1 shows some “boots on the ground” guidance from the folks at the Association of American Railroads and others in the industry that have a regular inspection routine.
While it is not necessary to be as thorough as we have outlined, every time a railcar rolls in to be loaded, it would pay dividends to get this involved at least once a quarter. Modified inspections should at least cover safety items such as brake shoes, hand holds, cross over platforms and hand brake wheel operations.



Graph 1: Originating Rail Carloads in 2020 Through Week 44. Courtesy: AAR.org – Weekly Railroad Traffic.


Gondola railcars for shipping scrap and waste products.
Open top hopper railcar owned by Tealinc, Ltd. in service with lease customer.

Waste and Scrap Transportation
As a member of the waste industry you should be seeing some recovery of rail shipments. According to the Associations of American Railroads, the waste and nonferrous scrap business has been trending up over the past 30 weeks topping out in November 2020 at around 4,200 originated rail carloads per week (see Graph 1). That means more railcars and trains hauling waste and nonferrous scrap. This uptick in business may catch some shippers unawares of the mechanical requirements of their rail fleets. Do not be lulled into complacency—inspect those railcars.

Fill in the Gaps
Railroads are ever pushing the envelope on asset use. It is partially up to you as a railcar lessee, rail shipper and railcar user to fill in the gap to ensure your shipments get transported in a safe and mechanically sound railcar. | WA

Darell Luther is CEO and founder of Tealinc, Ltd. (Forsyth, MT), specializing in rail transportation solutions and solving rail transportation challenges. Darell has also been President of DTE Rail and DTE Transportation Services Inc., President and co-founder of Fieldston Transportation Services LLC, President and founder of Focus Transportation Services, Managing Director of Coal and Unit Trains for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and has had Directors positions in marketing, fleet management and integrated network management at the Burlington Northern Railroad. Darell has nearly 32 years of rail, truck, barge and vessel transportation experience mostly concentrated in bulk commodity and containerized shipments. Darell’s vast comprehension of the logistics chain, phenomenal leadership skills, industry knowledge and ability to think creatively has propelled Tealinc’s dynamic success. He can be reached at (406) 347-5237 or via e-mail at darell@tealinc.com.

For more information about leasing or buying railcars or any other rail transportation related issue, call (720) 733-9922 or e-mail webmail@tealinc.com.