THE port's RAILWAY MAINTENANCE TEAM
The railway maintenance team is one of the most important at the Port of Montreal. That’s because the speed of cargo handling depends, in part, on seamless access to trains in the loading and unloading areas. Preventive and painstaking maintenance of the railway is a prerequisite for smoothly running convoys and effective scheduling of train arrivals and departures.
Ginette Angrignon stands in front of the truck, her eye on the axles and rails. She is guiding the person at the wheel, Sam Bocchicchio. Suddenly, she raises her hand: OK! Sam then activates the control, and axles that are attached to the truck are set down on the tracks with surgical precision. That does it: the truck is now rolling on the rail track like a railcar. Ginette gets into the vehicle and the two railway maintenance specialists make their way at the slow speed – 10 mph – to the switch they came to inspect.
There are about 20 people on the Port of Montreal’s railway maintenance team. Their role is to keep the 100 km of rail track that belong to the port in good working order. These tracks serve the terminals where 60 to 80 trains per week deliver and pick up the bulk goods and containers that arrive or depart by ship.
“Before, we did everything on foot!” recalls Sam Bocchicchio, who has 30 years of experience at the port. Everyone on the railway maintenance team learned their trade at the port, from more experienced colleagues who passed on their know-how. “Today, we’re better equipped than ever!” His colleague Ginette Angrignon, the only woman on the maintenance team, with 27 years’ experience and counting, approves and adds, “A lot of attention is paid to maintenance. Prevention is always cheaper than a cure.”
Their truck is a mechanics garage on wheels! It is chock full of equipment in the back, the front and behind the side doors: hoses to operate the hydraulic tools, compressors, measuring tools, equipment for welding, cutting and bolting, in short everything necessary to maintain a railway. “Before, we did everything by hand!" says Sam. Physical strength was the most important thing back then. Rails that were 39 feet long had to be carried and all the spikes (huge nails) had to be pounded in by hand, with all the risks of injury that entailed. “It was real forced labour! Now it’s a lot more rewarding work,” says supervisor Marc Dufesne.
This is one of the most important tools; it measures the distance between two rails. “When it comes to maintenance, it all starts here,” says supervisor Marc Dufresne. The gap between the rails should measure 56.5 inches to ensure the right contact between the rail and the axles and keep the train running smoothly. That makes 56.5 inches the magic measurement known by everyone who maintains the Port of Montreal’s rail tracks. If it’s out by an inch, it’s already out by too much. That’s why the railway maintenance team regularly inspects the 100 km of railway that the Port of Montreal runs, and along the way corrects variations caused by wear, the temperature and weather conditions.If the gap is widening, they temporarily close the gap by means of drive hooks until they can change the railroad ties, which are the wooden beams that support the metal rails.
In the railway kingdom, all tools are heavy and sturdy. The structure of a track is designed to withstand the repeated passages of heavily loaded trains. For example, the nails that attach the metal track to the railway tie have nothing in common with a finishing nail! Here is the hydraulic wrench that is used to tighten the bolts.
And here is the arm that makes it possible to lift and move overly heavy tools and equipment. In addition to two trucks equipped as described, the Port regularly leases a vehicle that travels on the rails and detects anomalies, large and small: the gaps in spacing between the rails weakness in the iron, loose bolts, etc.
Although the railway is robust, it is also extremely delicate. The switches that enable a train to change track are precise mechanisms that must be carefully maintained. There are 163 of them over the port’s 100 km of track! They must be kept well oiled at all times. The switch points and frogs (red arrow) must be welded to keep them sharply tapered, or else the train will have trouble changing track.
The temperature and weather conditions are the main deterioration factors in the state of a railway. The port’s railway is equipped to tackle the winter. Snow blowers are used to remove snow from the switches…
… or heated cables (black arrow). A sensor mounted on a pole detects the falling snow and automatically starts the heating cycle. This equipment is frequently inspected, bolt by bolt.
Fabien Laforest and Dany Cattiaux, two port engineers assigned to railway operations.
Sometimes major repairs must be made. For example, when the ground softens under the rail track, the rails must be removed and the foundation must be excavated and rebuilt. Level crossings also have to be redone, to exceptional solidity standards. The level crossing at Boucherville Street, for example, is a major entry point for the trucks that bring or pick up cargo at the port; about 2,500 trucks cross it every day!
The two port engineers assigned to railway operations, Dany Cattiaux and Fabien Laforest, therefore manage the repair works. They get assistance from consultants like Daniel Gagnon, a civil engineering technician at the Génipur firm, which is almost part of the “rail family” at the port. “I am the eyes of the engineers,” Daniel proudly states.
Track strength is also being reinforced, now that trains are increasingly numerous and heavy. A three-foot long rail used to weight 85 pounds. To be able to bear these heavier loads, they were gradually replaced by rails weighing 100 pounds, and then 115 pounds.
Part of the railway maintenance team. From left to right: Marc Dufresne, supervisor, Marc-Olivier Lavoie, Alexandre Fournier, Jean-François Leclerc, Maxime Meunier, James McGowan, Ginette Angrignon, Marcel Gordon, Steven Bélanger, supervisor, and Jean-Philippe Huet.
Every morning at 07:00 AM, Steven Bélanger and Marc Dufresne, the two supervisors, hold a meeting where they make a list of tasks to be achieved that day. Then they distribute the to-do list with Stéphane Allard, the team leader, to crews of two.
Working outdoors has its advantages, like witnessing the fabulous sight of the winter sun rising over the river. But this joy comes at a cost. According to Ginette, “The hardest thing is to withstand the humidity, the yo-yoing temperature and the extreme heat and cold.”
The railway maintenance people also operate heavy machinery, such as shiploaders, railway cranes and salt spreaders. They are the ones who clear snow off the tracks in the winter and who maintain the port road. The maintenance team provides full-time service around the clock, 365 days a year.
For those responsible for railway maintenance, everything depends on teamwork. It’s their trademark, the strength that gives the Port of Montreal a real competitive edge: the seamless flow of freight traffic from ships to trains.