Ronald Hubatschek, railway engineer and Senior Consultant Cleaning Technologies at Arva, on angular and round gravel, incredibly complex track remediation and the secret wishes of former railway board members.
Mr. Hubatschek, you have been virtually at home on the tracks for decades. What brought you to Arva?
Well, I did my degree as a civil engineer and went directly after my studies to the German railway. Twenty-five years later, as the manager of various maintenance departments, I was responsible for the route network in the Stuttgart metropolitan area. After that, I transferred to a mid-sized, family owned company, where I was responsible for the construction of track infrastructure. One of the most exciting projects was my time as route engineer in charge of the restoration of the historic Vinschger train in South Tyrol which, after its discontinuation at the beginning of the 90s, was completely modernized and put back on track in 2005.
Since 2013 I have been working as a self-employed railway operations manager and railway engineer consultant. A geologist friend who is very involved in soil and track remediation drew my attention to Arva AG. My experience in diversely contaminated infrastructures enables me to advise and support Arva’s clients effectively and reliably in ways they need.
What are the challenges in the maintenance of railway routes?
Tracks live. They are exposed to very dynamic stresses and strains. From the railway system itself but also from environmental influences such as sediment and weather. As soon as the first train rolls over it, the track is virtually in a state of permanent maintenance. The railway ballast forms the stable fundament of the track grid—that is, the rails and railroad ties. It is of course very important that the track ballast carries the tracks securely.
Due to permanent stress, the gravel slowly becomes rounded. Dust or fine particles accumulate between the stones. It is then possible that the ballast layer no longer allows rainwater to drain well. The track superstructure—or rails, their joints, anticreeper, supports and ballast layer—are no longer stable enough to carry the trains. But do not fear: before that happens, the railway operators remediate the ballast layer, refill the ballast or completely replace it, if it is too worn out or fouled. Enormous maintenance vehicles are used for this, sometimes over one hundred meters long, which at the front thoroughly remove the track superstructure, and out the back comes an entirely new track superstructure with rails, railroad ties and ballast layer.
That sounds very costly and complex.
Exactly. The Deutsche Bahn alone replaces almost four million tons of ballast every year. What I just described mostly concerns the operational safety of the railway system. Just as important is the fouling of the track bed, as part and parcel of normal operation, which includes massive contamination due to friction as well as axle grease and diesel oil from the trains themselves, especially from the diesel locomotives still predominantly used in commercial transport. In addition, there is the automatic lubrication of the switches and above all herbicides and pesticides to prevent weeds and other plants in the track area. Here we are no longer dealing with round or angular ballast but with environmental protection and clean drinking water.
In other words, the ballast has to be removed from the track bed one way or another?
No, not necessarily. If we could in some way remediate it on site. The track ballast is controlled regularly and samples removed before civil works. This means that the gravel samples are sent to the laboratory, and one analyzes the condition and fouling of it. Depending on how worn out, fouled and thus environmentally dangerous the gravel is, appropriate variations of reconstruction are executed.
Often the track bed is still completely stable in its condition but highly fouled. That means removal and replacement: out with the old track ballast, in with the new, which requires tremendous logistics, is of course incredibly expensive and interferes with the remaining railway system. Tracks are temporarily closed, fresh gravel brought in, the fouled taken away. By the way, only a sixth of the four million tons mentioned is recycled gravel. The largest portion of what is removed lands on waste rock piles for confinement or, in a very complex and costly process, is quasi decontaminated in enormous ovens, broken down and re-used for such things as road construction.
How could one avoid this?
This is where we—Arva and the NHS+ procedure—come into play. We can apply NHS+ directly to the track. For example, we can use a spraying wagon to apply the chemical components to the gravel. And this in a concentration corresponding exactly to the analyzed fouling. In this way, we affect almost all of the hydrocarbons, that is, the precisely ascertained fouling. Our trials and analyses have shown that we can dissolve these contaminates almost entirely. Directly on the track, without environmentally harmful residues. I recently spoke with a former railway board member and introduced NHS+ to him. He said, “If it really does works like that, then it is the miracle cure we have been waiting decades for.”
And: Wouldn’t you like to immediately grant this long-fostered wish?
That is exactly my greatest wish at this time [laughs]. We are currently working around the clock on the necessary permits and licenses for our procedure and are in close contact with the appropriate agencies, environmental authorities and of course the national and regional railway companies as well as industry partners who have, until now, remediated and landfilled in a conventional way. As soon as we have decontaminated the first trial route and proven that it is not a miracle cure but a patented, green procedure, there is nothing standing in the way of granting wishes. We are optimistic that we can take on the first contracts for test remediation before the year ends.