Wednesday, October 16, 2013

NJT AquaTrack train keeps Jersey's rails free of fall foliage

Following article is from The Star-ledger for Monday, October 14, 2013. 

AquaTrack keeps Jersey's rails free of fall foliage 

By Mike Frassinelli/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger 

(picture of train goes here) 
Aqua Track clears leaves from NJ Transit rails
Every fall in northern New Jersey, the autumn leaves wreak havoc on the NJ Transit lines. To keep trains running on schedule, the AquaTrack rides the rails pumping 17 gallons of water per minute directly onto the head of the rails at 20000 pound of pressure per square inch. Covering about 80 miles per day the crew maintains the Morris & Essex and Montclair-Boonton lines during the week and the Pascack Valley and Main/Bergen County lines on weekends.  Video by John Munson/The Star-Ledger 

They have a front-row seat to the changing panorama of New Jersey autumns.

From their perch, operators of NJ Transit’s "AquaTrack" leaf train, which clears tracks of potentially slippery foliage and oily residue that could lead to poor traction and train delays, get a view straight out of a Crayola factory:

Leaves of apple red and goldfinch yellow and every hue in between, mixed with sights like an errant soccer ball along the banks of the tracks, a graffiti-covered rail bridge and an either fearless or crazy deer crossing in front of the train.

Except this New Jersey fall foliage tour is all business.

Many tourists plan their weekends around the best times and spots to view the falling, changing leaves. But for operators of trains in mid-Atlantic states, where deciduous trees are in heavy supply, leaves are an annoyance.

"This is by far the worst rail condition you can have — operating the train for the fall with the leaf season," said Darren Donald, senior road foreman of engines in NJ Transit’s Hoboken Division, as he hosted The Star-Ledger for a ride-along on the AquaTrack train. "Even more than ice and snow. Ice and snow is easy, believe me. The fall, the leaves — they’re our worst enemy out here."

That’s where AquaTrack, a high-pressure water spraying system, comes in.

Pushed or pulled by a locomotive, the system takes water from two tanker train cars and delivers 17 gallons per minute, sending H2O and leaves flying down the tracks.

Operators refer to it as the "aqua train."

"With the aqua train operating, it allows us to maintain on-time performance," Donald said during a run between the Montclair State University Station and the Little Falls Station.

"With the leaves on the rail, the leaves break down into what looks like a grease. The leaves crush under the wheels — and that literally turns to what has the consistency of grease. Steel wheels on grease don’t work very well, but this aqua train helps keep this under control, keeps our rail system moving. It’s definitely been a great advantage for us."

AquaTrack runs from early October to around Thanksgiving, mostly on the Morris and Essex and Montclair-Boonton lines, which stretch from Hudson County to Warren County, with other appearances on the Pascack Valley and Main/Bergen County lines in Bergen and Passaic counties. The mix of falling leaves and steep grades at Summit Hill and Glen Ridge had led to train delays before AquaTrack made its first appearance a decade ago.

Before then, in the battle between the trains and tree leaves, the tree leaves too often won.

"Basically, it’s like a pressure washer and it washes the leaf residue off the heads of the rail," said Tom Carlo, a foreman. "When the trains go over the leaves, they crush the leaves and make the oil, and it makes the trains slip when they go to stop or when they try to start from a stopped position."

Too much oil from the crushed leaves, and the train wheels could spin in place.

On a crisp autumn day last week, Carlo was on the AquaTrack train traveling 30 mph with fellow aquamen Ken Targonski, an operator, Carmen Cordero, a mechanic, and Cosimo Roselli, a conductor. Manning the locomotive at the other end was engineer William Carrington and assistant conductor Raymond Brunert.

"I’ve been here for 25 years and this is the best thing they ever had," Roselli said. "They used to use sanders and scrubbers."

The spraying is quite the sight, with water flying everywhere.

But the AquaTrack operators stop the spraying when they see people on train platforms.

That doesn’t stop people on the platform from thinking they will get soaked.

"The first thing you see is everyone going like this," Carlo said, making the motion of people covering their face with a coat. 

NJ Transit's "AquaTrack" clears leaves and their slick residue off rails in Little Falls using high-pressure water from this small nozzle just above the rail.  John Munson/The Star-Ledger  

To see a 1 minute video of the AquaTrack train in action, click here: