Good Thinking

Advanced Rail Cleaner blasts snow and ice off railway tracks

Advanced Rail Cleaner blasts s...
One of the Advanced Rail Cleaner's track-clearing nozzles points at the rail (Photo: GE Transportation)
One of the Advanced Rail Cleaner's track-clearing nozzles points at the rail (Photo: GE Transportation)
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One of the Advanced Rail Cleaner's track-clearing nozzles points at the rail (Photo: GE Transportation)
One of the Advanced Rail Cleaner's track-clearing nozzles points at the rail (Photo: GE Transportation)

Imagine if you were trying to pull a heavy sled up an icy hill, while wearing slick-soled boots. Well, that's kind of what it's like for locomotives working on snowy mountain railways. If there's too much ice or snow on the rails, their steel wheels will just spin out when traveling up inclines. Because of this problem, trains going along such routes are generally kept short and light – which isn't cost-effective. Now, however, GE Transportation has developed a supersonic air blower to keep those tracks dry.

Known as the Advanced Rail Cleaner (ARC), the device is mounted so that its nozzles point onto the rails, in front of the locomotive's lead axle.

When an onboard computer detects that the locomotive's wheels are starting to slip, the ARC directs high-pressure jets of air onto the tracks at supersonic speed. This serves to blast away not only snow, ice and water, but also contaminants such as gravel, grease and rust. As a result, the wheels quickly get up to 30 percent more traction.

In a recent demonstration of the technology, GE engineers installed ARC on trains traveling through through the often-snowy Ardennes mountain range between Antwerp, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wheel-slippage is enough of a problem on this route that rail operators generally opt to run heavier trains around it instead of through it – doing so involves going farther, and is thus more expensive.

The system reportedly worked flawlessly, allowing rail company Heavy Haul Power International to increase the length of its trains traveling through the mountains from 23 cars to 30.

ARC has been in development for the past five years, and is already being used on over 300 locomotives. You can see (and hear!) it in use, in the following video.

Source: GE Reports

Another way to solve the problem of wheels slipping, would be to fit a rack and pinion system next to the existing rail line on slopes that often get icy. Gear wheels could be attached to the driving wheels of the train, and a toothed track laid next to the existing rail. This would give 100% traction. The tooth track could be left in position, and the gear wheels need only be attached as required when the weather turns bad. It is surprising that the pressure of the wheels on the rails does not melt the ice and then get squeezed out as water. After all trains presumably still have good traction in wet weather.
Mike Lowry
another option might be 'snow wheels' with v-shaped welded beading every 3" or so throughout the 'tread' of the wheel. The 'gage' flange normally doesn't allow much debris to accumulate on the 'tread' before a derail situation arises.
@windykites1, A rack and pinion system for a heavy locomotive would be a massively heavy thing to have to connect and disconnect- plus the train would probably have to be stationary to engage into the pinion. This solution is much lighter and doesn't need to be removed when not needed. I'd like to know how this system fares with a major problem on the British network- leaves on the line. might sound trivial, but when train wheels, which concentrate a lot of weight onto a very small area (hence greatly reducing friction compared with road wheels), they 'mash' the leaves into an incredibly viscous gloop- causing loss of grip and electrical conductivity to the rails, causing signalling issues amongst other things. Every year, come the autumn, special trains are dispatched to lay 'sandite' to deal with the problem. Maybe this system could solve that?
Next up, puzzling waves of deaf animals wander the countryside wondering why they can't hear their mates/parents calling them.
I was the lead inventor of this new subsystem while working at GE. My team created this in about 1999 (see patents for Mesalic). I guess it was finally time to release a little information about it. What a fun project! Regarding some of the thoughts expressed by railfans here... Think about how a glacier is formed. That's all I have to say about that. Cogs would suffer the same problem when covered in snow and ice. Regarding noise, it is only loud up close. Keep on hauling! A. Mesalic