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New Life for Old Railcars
Rick Franklin Corporation recycles old railcars into cost-effective bridges

By Bob Bruce

The flatcar bridge business has been steadily growing says John Stolsig, Flatcar Sales Manager, for the Rick Franklin Corporation. The company handles derailments for all the major railroads in the northwest.

One of the more innovative and cost-effective alternatives to site-built bridges for logging applications — as well as a number of other uses — is the re-purposing of retired railroad flatcars being done by Rick Franklin Corporation in Lebanon, Ore. In short, these bridges are built like tanks. The railcars’ steel superstructures will last indefinitely, but they are transportable, can be resurfaced, and are modular, so they can be set up side-byside or end-to-end for almost unlimited variations of length and width, as the job demands, and they come in at about half the cost of a site-built bridge. And it all started pretty much by chance. New Life for Old Railcars Rick Franklin Corporation recycles old railcars into cost-effective bridges

Derailments Lead to Opportunity
Back in the mid-70s, Rick Franklin was working on some Starker Forests land west of Corvallis clearing brush with his D8 Cat. A railroad track ran parallel to the piece of land he was clearing. One day, while he was out on the job, the railroad company had a minor derailment and they asked him if he might bring his dozer over and help set the railcars back on the tracks.                                   

He obliged, the railcar was soon back on track, and he went back to his job. Not long after, however, he got another call to help clear up a small derailment. And then another. About that time, he decided it might be a good idea to investigate this derailment cleanup business a little more closely.                                   

The more deeply he got involved in derailment response, the more opportunities he discovered. It’s not unusual for a derailment to require more than setting the cars back on the tracks. It can also entail replacing tracks and ties, regrading the rights-of-way, and sometimes disposing of damaged rolling stock. Before you could say “Casey Jones,” the Rick Franklin Corporation was acquiring all kinds of specialized rerailing, track maintenance, heavy hauling, and support vehicles and equipment.                                   

They also soon found themselves with quantities of scrap materials that needed to be disposed of — busted ties, bent tracks, and even mangled railcars. Once they brought in the specialized equipment to dismantle railcars and chop them up into little pieces, they were able to expand into buying retired railcars from the railroads and recycling those as well. At some point along the line — there’s no definite date involved since in those early days it was all very informal and occasional — Rick got the idea to take some of the flatcar superstructures and turn them into bridges.

Flatcar Bridge Business
By 1990, there was enough demand for flatcar bridges that the company convinced John Stolsig to come out of retirement and head up the flatcar sales effort. That part of the business has been growing steadily ever since.                                   

“We handle train derailments for all the major railroads in the northwest,” says Stolsig. “We also have a scrap division that buys retired railroad boxcars and gondolas, and we cut those up and shear them up for scrap and send them to the salvage yards. Prior to my getting here, we didn’t push the bridge part of the business; it wasn’t a big deal, it just happened. But now, we buy flatcars that are retired from the railroad, and it’s a focal point with us.” According to Stolsig, the cost for a 60-foot bridge with a 13-foot wide deck — minus the cost of delivery — is about $20,000, as opposed to $50,000 or so, for a site-built bridge. They also sell pre-fab concrete abutments so that basically all the customer has to do is level out a couple of flat spots the right distance apart. Then you set down the abutments, drop the bridge on top, and drive across.

Building Northwest Bridges
Railcars are universally 10’6” wide and come in four basic lengths: 40 feet, 50 feet, 60 feet, and 90 feet long. Stolsig’s crew tops the superstructure with treated wood joists and planking to a standard width of 13 feet.                                   

“The reason we go with 13’ is because it seems to satisfy all the fire districts in the northwest. We’ve made them as wide as 16 feet (it depends on the customer), but you can’t go down the road with a 16-foot wide load, so we build the deck in panels. On a 60- footer we’ll build six 10’ x 16’ panels. We load the panels on a separate truck, and when the truck gets to the site, they put the panels on.”                                   

If the customer needs a bridge wider than 16 feet or longer than 90 feet, it’s a fairly simple matter to connect multiple roadway sections either side-by-side or end-to-end.                 

“I recently got a call from an outfit in Idaho that was thinking of going five wide,” Stolsig says, “and a tree farmer around Corvallis put three 50-footers end-to-end across the Luckiamute River to make a 150-foot span.”                                   

Bridges are typically delivered to the job site on log trucks with an extended reach, and then installed using either a crane or a couple of excavators, one on each end. “We like to take it on a log truck as opposed to a flatbed trailer because the tracking radius is so much better on a log truck than a flatbed, so we can get into these tight mountain areas.” Flatcars come from the railroad companies with load ratings stenciled on the superstructure, with normal load ratings ranging between 140,000 to 180,000 pounds. With a legally loaded log truck tipping the scales at 80,000 pounds, this means plenty of capacity for most applications. “If needed though, we’ve got some flatcars that will qualify at 200,000 pounds gross,” he adds.

The flatcar bridges have plenty of capacity. Normally they having load ratings of 140,000 to 180,000 lbs. A typical logging truck weighs around 80,000 lbs.

The superstructures can be supplied either as they came out of service, or they can be sandblasted to bare metal, primed, and painted with three coats of industrial paint. The roadbeds are constructed of full-dimension 8x8 joists and 4x12 planks, which have been pressure treated with marine-certified preservative.

Little Competition
According to Stolsig, while there are a few companies around the country that provide a similar product, only Rick Franklin Corporation delivers a bridge with the same level of finish. “We’re the only full service one that I know of. There are a couple of other firms, but they don’t offer the complete package. For example, if you bought a flat car, and it still had all the air tanks and brake valves and brake tubing and all the internal parts, you would first need to have it torched to cut all that off. And then what are you going to do with all those parts when you’re done? When we prep a car, there’s nothing on it other than the superstructure. That appeals to people.”

The flatcars can be supplied as they came out of service or finished. The finished flatcars are sandblasted, primed, and painted with three coats of industrial paint.