The final aspects of the $27.9 million investment by BNSF Railway for construction of the Logistics Center at Sweetwater in west Texas were completed — $21.9 million for the logistic center and $6 million for improvements to supporting track in the area, a project that began in September 2013.
“We have some finishing details such as light poles and signage to wrap-up,” said Mike Ray, BNSF’s manager of economic development. “Other than that, the project is complete and moving freight,” said Ray. “One of the key drivers for the project was that we have had a need for a facility with transloading capabilities for occasional opportunities that would come up in west Texas beginning with Wind Energy developments several years ago. The rise of the drilling industry has really helped drive investment here in the last couple of years.
“This was a strategic investment by the company, which are reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” he added. “This was the first of its type in several years here and it is helping to provide a high velocity rail freight solution for customers in a quickly developing market place where a lot of industries are looking to set up rail distribution facilities. In Sweetwater we had a former rail yard property that could be re-developed and begin handling freight by rail in a relatively short timeframe.”
The project had 8 mi. (12.9 km) of new track installed. While no new buildings were constructed by BNSF, some of its freight customer tenants invested in capital structures such as silos, office space, and permanent fixtures for loading and unloading rail cars.
Materials that flow through and are stored at the Logistics Center include grain that is moved through a conveyer system to and from storage barns. The Sand Company invested in silo storage and unloading capacity with conveyers to handle the unloading of inbound sand from rail. Trucks are then loaded with sand from the silos for shipping out to the drilling sites.
“We also have some open space where mobile unloading equipment,” said Ray, “such cranes, forklifts, and front-end loaders can be used on other types of material that is shipped into or from the Sweetwater area. The facility functions similar to a railroad-owned industrial park where the railroad can lease out parcels of land to different types of industries that have their own unique shipping and unloading characteristics. This is where the name Logistics Center comes from.
“We also worked closely with Cape and Son Feed Merchandisers, a grain company with an adjacent facility that handles grains and other agricultural goods,” he added. “Cape and Son has expanded their operation combined with a lease of BNSF land and track for the purpose of offering a trans-loading service to the transportation and logistics market place. This service allows industries that don’t have access to rail to take advantage of rail efficiencies by transloading material from rail to truck for delivery. Cape and Son can provide the equipment for a fee and handle the unloading and distribution of the material by truck. They can also work on a self-load / unload program with freight customers that have their own equipment.”
BNSF designed the project and hired Polivka International as the general contractor. Polivka International oversaw development of the grades, drainage and driveway. BNSF forces constructed the track once the grades were in place.
“The driveway was one of the very first things we had to focus on to provide primary access in and out of the facility for contractors,” said Ray, who notes that BNSF has experienced track construction gangs that are mobile and can be scheduled to perform work across the country. “The railroad is expanding and we were competing for that same internal resource on the Sweetwater project. When our turn came up, they came in and laid down 40,000 feet of track, which was done in approximately one month. Afterwards, we had some unit trains of ballast delivered and tracks were then tamped and adjusted to meet the designed specifications. This took a few months.”
As expected, BNSF moves most of its construction equipment by rail to its various sites. For Sweetwater, it brought in a TLM (track laying machine) that could lay up to 5,000 ft. (1,524 m) of track per-day. The switches for the new track were laid out in advance. This included 2 - 141# Spring Frog switches, 5 – 141# RBM switches, and 16 115# RBM Switches.
“We laid approx. 16,500 concrete ties, 65,000 LF of 115# rail, and approx. 60,000 tons of ballast,” said Ray. “The new road required approximately 13,500 cubic yards of concrete. We had approx. 28,000 cubic yards of subballast (road base) and approximately 9,100 LF of culvert pipe. “The BNSF had three different construction gangs working on this project. We had CG-02, CG-04, and DS-02 (CG-Construction Gang, DS-Destressing Gang), of these we had approx. 20 to 25 men per gang. In terms of other equipment used, BNSF brought in two Thermite welding trucks, a Holland Flash Butt welding truck, a Harsco 6700 tamper, a Kershaw KBR 925 ballast regulator, three Cat 966 loaders, two Cat 329 trackhoes, one Cat 429 backhoe, and one Racine S-Clipper machine.
“The laying of the railroad owned track is typically done internally by BNSF forces,” said Ray, who noted that the facility was fully operational during the upgrade. “A great effort went into planning the construction activities to support the ongoing business, especially for the grain customer. The work was devised in series of phases. Freight operations for the grain customer were shifted to the new tracks as they were completed. When this occurred, the old tracks were removed and new construction began on that portion of the property.”
The construction gang also included a mechanic, who had access to facilities at the logistics center and if additional parts were needed, they could be secured locally or shipped by rail to Sweetwater.
The initial planning for the project began in February 2012. By the end of 2012, the vision was formed. In mid-2013, the project capital was approved by BNSF management and an RFP was put forward.
“Minor challenges for the work were encountered due to the weather — occasional heavy rains were a problem, but overall, the weather conditions in west Texas,” said Ray, “is a pretty friendly environment. You don’t have the temperature swings like you have in northern climates in the Dakotas.”
As mentioned, Polivka International was one of the contractors brought in by BNSF.
“It was a significant amount of rail bed and a turnout pads to facilitate a combination rail yard and transload facility,” said David Robison, Polivka’s senior project manager, whose crew began work on the project in October, 2013 and delivered their part in January 2014.“It was pretty much smooth construction. We had to coordinate where BNSF off-loaded various materials on site. BNSF built a new structure to handle grain and other material.”
A significant amount of material was removed from the site, including 90,000 cu. yd. (68,8010 cu m) of excavation, of which 30,000 cu. yd. (22,936.6 cu m) went to embankment.
“We could not re-use all of the excavated materials,” said Robison. “The material was stockpiled on site where it was spread out properly and maintained with SWPPP (Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan) measures. We then seeded and mulched all disturbed areas.”
For its work, Polivka brought in 22,000 cu. yd. (16,820 cu m) of sub-ballast along with 10,000 LF of various pipe sizes installed
This project honed safety precautions and planning and coordination skills.
“Safety is very important because you are working around railroads and it’s very dangerous because the trains are always moving,” said Robison. “A lot of people don’t feel this way, but it’s important to us and we have required safety training sessions before we even go on site. Our company motto is ‘safety first.’
“Our shifts begin at 7 a.m. and finish at 5 p.m.,” he added, “but every day at 6:30 a.m. we have a safety briefing with railroad representative. There are many safety concerns and you have to go to a lot of lengths to be on top of them.”
A month before the bids were put in for the project, Polivka had its crew review the project site to determine if it fit with the company’s parameters. The contract was awarded to the company about three weeks after the bid was submitted. This is where having that initial review paid off.
“We then went over every detail and between that time,” said Robison, “our estimating crew and the PIC project team sized up the project so that we knew where to haul dirt and other debris and find local suppliers for pipes and other materials. We had only one subcontractor, Nobles Road Construction who constructed a 2,000-foot long concrete site access road.
“We completed the project on time and successfully and BNSF was satisfied with the work that was performed,” he added, “and there were no safety incidents at all.”
Polivka has about 10 employees on site (working daily shifts of 10 hours from Monday to Saturday), who were using two excavators, dozers, a grader, a roller and front end loaders. Equipment repairs were handled by equipment suppliers, who leased the vehicles and equipment to the contractor.
“We have national contracts with both Cat and Neff Equipment, our primary suppliers,” said Robison, “who service our equipment no matter where we work in the U.S. or Canada. They supply us with much of our equipment.”
Having GPS dozers is critical for Polivka operations.
“We create models for all of our projects and they are all constructed with GPS,” said Robison, “which helps us save on costs for surveying and location efforts. “
Nor are equipment purchases and leases taken lightly and the contractor meets with equipment suppliers regularly to review its upcoming projects.
“We work out a very good arrangement with them as we have operations ongoing in many states,” said Robison. “A lot of our equipment is monitored electronically for maintenance. Our equipment is thoroughly checked before being shipped to a work site. When in use, inspections by operators include photographs and the filling out of a daily operational and maintenance log — this includes when they refueled and how many gallons they put in, when they replaced grease and oil, etc.
“Having the equipment serviced rapidly is important and with our measures in place,” he added, “we keep everything properly maintained and return everything the way we received them. We expect the equipment leased will be five-year-old or newer — we do not want anything to arrive on site and have it go down because time is money. Having a crew sitting around waiting for a piece of equipment to be repaired is something we do our best to avoid.”
In addition, superintendants and foremen are required to do a weekly check to see is equipment operators are performing their inspection duties and to keep the equipment clean.
Polivka also puts resources and efforts to mentor new employees and improve the skills of all employees in terms of safety and equipment maintenance.
“Many of the older guys are set in their ways and a lot of times they like to watch a newbie do something wrong,” said Robison. “That’s totally unacceptable in our company and we have a policy that is unforgiving. We train and tell people that to watch somebody make a mistake and then laugh at them afterword’s is not permitted. Safety precautions that were in place 20 years ago have changed dramatically and everyone needs to be looking out for each other, be your ‘brother’s keeper.’ It’s important to remind our workers and railway employees that we want them to arrive here safe and leave here safe.
“We also have a safety department that comes up with new topics to address every week and each Friday we have an area-wide safety conference call,” said Robison, who added that Polivka has what it calls a ‘near miss form.’ “There are a lot of times when you are working and you come across something that is irregular. If it has the potential of causing a problem or safety issue, we send that information to our safety department for review and the recommendations are shared system-wide through our company.”
The focus on safety also is appreciated by clients.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy in terms of the use of communications devices, which have greatly impacted safety,” said Robison, “be it operators listening to music on their phones and texting and typing. You leave your phone in the car and if your wife is having a baby, the foreman will get the call and make sure that the employee in the field gets the information.”
Training for equipment operators also is taken seriously and those starting out are able to train in a stockpile area where they get in the necessary hours to learn how to operate the various pieces of equipment.
“Some of our suppliers offer training and we utilize that as well,” said Robison. “We maintain equipment operator cards, which states which pieces of equipment that our employees are able to operate. This way our clients know that we just don’t have somebody there who is moving dirt around. This also provides us with a good database to maximize our workforce. “