As the Federal Railroad Administration pursues regulations regarding inspection of concrete railroad ties, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority last month launched a $91-million project to replace 147,000 concrete ties that began failing in just 10 years.

Thousands of precast concrete ties began to fail in just 10 years.
Photo: Courtesy VHB
Thousands of precast concrete ties began to fail in just 10 years.

In 1997, the MBTA chose concrete over timber ties because Rocla Concrete Tie Inc., a Denver-based precast-concrete manufacturer, claimed they had a 50-year life span compared to 30 years for timber ties. But in 2007, several thousand ties began cracking and crumbling, disrupting train service on the 61-mile Old Colony commuter rail line, which has a ridership of up to 4,000 passengers per day.

Francis DePaola, MBTA assistant general manager, says field investigations and lab work conducted in 2009 by Simpson Gumpertz and Heger, Waltham, Mass., determined faulty manufacturing and insufficient steel-reinforcement design were the causes of failure. “Since any tie could fail, we decided to replace them all in two years rather than deal with degraded service over a longer period,” he says.

With consultant Vanasse, Hangen, Brustlin, Watertown, Mass., MBTA scrambled to prepare the $63-million replacement contract in four months. The project, scheduled for completion in fall 2012, involves replacing the concrete ties with 167,000 timber ties. “We’re just getting mobilized and still procuring materials,” says Kevin Lampron, area manager for J.F. White Contracting Co., Framingham, Mass. “Primary construction will start in the spring.”

With winter approaching, crews have a short construction window, says Rick Carey, VHB senior project manager. “Doing major replacement of ties on such a busy commuter line is a logistical challenge. We are trying to strike a balance of having the line out of service during midday to let contractors do the tie replacement and getting the track back up to operating trains by nighttime.”

The MBTA filed a suit on May 4 alleging that Rocla did not honor the 15-year warranty and asked for $91.5 million in damages. In a court document filed in the U.S. District Court of Boston on June 24, Rocla denied those allegations. Rocla successfully petitioned to move the case to federal court in July.

Rocla previously was sued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City after MTA replaced 200,000 defective ties on its Long Island Railroad line at a cost of about $125 million.

The Federal Railroad Administration has few standards for inspecting concrete ties. Rob Kulat, FRA spokesman, says the FRA has proposed requirements for rail fastening systems that connect to concrete ties and for automated inspections of track. The rule-making closed on Oct. 12, and approval is expected within a few months.

The MBTA will still consider precast ties in the future, to an extent. “Going forward, we will stick with the tried-and-true on single-line segments but may use other materials like precast or composites on double-track segments,” says DePaola.