Railroad steel used to shore up highway breaks

By Kyle Lovern

October 16, 2013

PIKEVILLE, Ky. – The steel used for train tracks is the same steel used to fix embankment failures along Kentucky’s highways.

Modern railroad tracks are made of hot rolled steel with a profile of an asymmetrical rounded I-beam. They are manufactured using high quality steel. Using them to fix pavement and shoulder breaks is relatively new in the world of highway maintenance, replacing wood pilings as the material of choice.
Nowadays embankment reinforcement with steel is the first step to repair most shoulder breaks, which are then cribbed with used guardrail. Cribbing is the process used to fashion a wall outside the steel. The void between the wall and the shoulder is lined with a geotextile fabric. Then the area is backfilled with rock and dirt, which is tamped to compact the material before the surface is paved.
Fixing even the smallest break takes hours and is extremely inconvenient for motorists. “The drilling equipment takes up more than one lane,” explained Sara George, Information Office at Highway District 12 of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. “Traffic has to wait, sometimes 45 minutes or more.”
Each hole must be anchored in solid rock, and sometimes that means drilling quite a distance below the roadway surface. Setting the steel one tie at a time is tedious, dangerous work. “We definitely do not enjoy blocking traffic like this,” George said, “but it would be unsafe to have vehicles moving through the work area.”
George pointed out that the flaggers, heavy equipment operators, welders, and other maintenance specialists contend with extremely loud noise from the equipment, dust clouds that form from the drilling itself, weather fluctuations, insects, the occasional snake, and other hazards associated with this type work. The work sites are watered to keep down dust, and in addition to the usual safety clothing and hard hats, crew members wear goggles and sometimes ear plugs.
“Any time there is a break along the shoulder that compromises the width of the road, the situation is potentially dangerous,” George said. “Keeping our roadways safe is the most important work our maintenance crews do. The inconvenience for the traveling public is considerable, but it’s a necessary trade-off in our efforts to keep our highways as safe as we can.”
George said that the men who do this work truly appreciate the patience and understanding of motorists in the district’s seven counties. “There are times when traffic is backed up for nearly an hour,” she explained. “It takes as much time to set up the drilling rig as it does to install the steel. The rig is almost as wide as a two-lane road. When the crane attached to the rig picks up and moves heavy sections of steel, it definitely would be unsafe to let traffic move alongside the equipment.”