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Track upgrades usher in new era for rail town

Working on the railroad
By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Correspondent
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The beginning of a new era in Colfax was marked on Jan. 3, 2012. On that day, work began locally to upgrade the line that was first laid down nearly a century-and-a-half before. Eventually, gone will be the wood ties, metal plates, anchors and spikes that have been the basic structure of the historic transcontinental road. In their place, a new base of rock, concrete ties and modern “tie binders” will support the continuous welded rail roadway. Jay Farrar, Union Pacific’s track project manager, likened it to “driving your car on a new freeway compared to an old gravel road.” Farrar, from Boise, Idaho, is a part of UP’s Track Renewal Group that travels the nation with the specialized equipment to complete railroad upgrades. Overseeing the $30,000-per-day operation, Farrar has worked with UP for 22 years, from the time of manual maintenance into this era of mechanical wonder. He says he “enjoys the gratification of seeing the upgrade work happening before your eyes.” The whole process completely replaces the old track at approximately two miles an hour (see Colfax Record, Dec. 15, 2011). However, mechanization does no exactly translate to easier. Danger abounds for the workers in the form of trains passing (on the second, open track so commerce will not stop), working in precarious situations on cliffs and bridges, and in the tight spaces of long tunnels built over a century ago. Strict safety vigilance is a construct for workers and observers. Deland Humperys has worked for UP for 37 years. As foreman of the crew running the TRT 909, the primary machine of the operation, he says, “I’m proud of the safety record this unit maintains. It comes from the ability to focus on the task at hand and, at the same time, being aware of surroundings and having the other guy’s back.” Even with all the mechanization, the process does require an individual touch. In the bygone days of the 1800s, the “gandy dancer” (a laborer on a railroad gang) swung the sledgehammer for every spike along the road. Today, the sledge is not completely lost because two “quality control” workers follow behind the mechanical unit to make sure the automated equipment has made perfect placement of the clips. If not, they tap the units into place with their double-jack to ensure the next robotic unit sets the fasteners correctly. These units are the key to the modern design of the system; they hold the rail firmly at four points every two feet as opposed to the single spike arrangement of yesteryear. Imbedded with public safety in mind, the overall procedure sees to details. For example, every concrete tie is tagged with a serial number that logs its details (manufacturer, date, location). If there is a problem of any sort, this database is strategic in resulting investigations. Replacing both tracks from Colfax to Rocklin involves crossing closures similar to the one at Grass Valley Street experienced in Colfax last week. That traffic detour did not involve schools because of the holiday break, but similar closures will occur and parents are being notified of altered bus schedules by school districts. The railroad closure in Colfax did have an affect on locals. According to Lauren Miller at Café Luna, their business was up 50 percent. Overall, other historic downtown business owners agreed that the situation provided increased visibility and not much change to their business flow. Colfax Greek Bistro owner Elan Vitkoff said the detour brought attention to Main Street and its services “such as places to eat and shops that are there which travelers and drivers would not have noticed. I wish that they always had to go through Main Street. It would add a better balance to the business of Colfax.” Patrons said the situation was easily manageable. Chris Hausell, of Auburn, said, “I found the detour not to be an inconvenience since my friends had warned me. I just followed the detour signs.” Grass Valley Street will close again when the crew returns to begin work on track number two in mid-February, according to Liisa Lawson-Stark, UP’s Director of Public Affairs. “The closure should not take as long since much of the base work was completed last week,” she said. Lawson-Stark also said the track renewal group is scheduled to return in 2013 to begin work on the railroad east of Colfax.