Skip to main content

Safe, green, efficient

Summer 2015

  • Laborers Terrence Saunders, left, and Glenn Lilly identify reusable roadway track materials while working the conveyor belt at Roanoke Material Yard.
  • Conveyor belt at Roanoke Material Yard
  • The Roanoke Material Yard stores and distributes virtually every component needed to maintain and repair track and switch turnouts, including “frogs,” pictured here. Frogs, so named because they resemble a frog with outstretched legs, are part of a switch turnout where train wheels move from one track to another.
  • These 51A bow handle switch stands are among the track components stored and distributed by the material yard to track supervisors across the system.
  • Jake Willis, panel supervisor, stands next to a pile of tie plates reclaimed for reuse across the system.
  • Laborer Ben David rakes reusable spring anchors on to a conveyor belt to be packaged in recycled burlap coffee bean bags.


Mike Wolfe, left, yard manager, reviews track
material paperwork with Marty Huff, shipping
and receiving supervisor.

If a Norfolk Southern track gang needs a No. 20 frog in a hurry, they’re not going to find that $20,000 appliance at the local Home Depot or Wal-Mart. Their go-to source for fast delivery is a facility that’s been serving wayside maintenance gangs since the 1930s – the Roanoke Material Yard.

Based on a steel-tough commitment, the material yard’s crew will have the frog – the part of a switch turnout where train wheels move from one track to another – safely loaded on a rail car and shipped within 24 hours.

That’s the way they roll.

Created by NS predecessor railroad Norfolk and Western Railway, the Roanoke facility is a one-of-a-kind operation in today’s rail industry. Unknown to many employees outside of track maintenance, the material yard provides key support to the NS Engineering Department to keep trains running and customers satisfied.

Five days a week, the yard’s 50 or so craft workers construct switch turnouts and 42-foot track panels, eliminating days of field work for track and rail gangs and enabling quick repairs to damaged track. They sort through tons of used track material to identify reusable components, reducing the need to buy new and saving the company millions of dollars annually. The yard also stockpiles and distributes virtually every component needed to maintain and repair track and switch turnouts, from spikes, tie plates, and rail anchors to rail, switch points, and frogs – so named because they resemble a frog with outstretched legs.

“We’re a supply chain to our maintenance-of-way gangs,” said Mike Wolfe, yard manager, a 33-year NS veteran who worked 20 years in program maintenance before joining the yard 13 years ago. “We’re almost like an industry for in-house servicing.”

Safe, efficient, quality product

Located in an industrial area on a dead-end road minutes from downtown Roanoke, the 58-acre facility harkens to an era before the country’s large railroads began outsourcing many of their supply chain needs.

When N&W opened the material yard, for example, the railroad still built its own locomotives. Old photographs in the hallway outside Wolfe’s office reveal the breadth of work in the yard’s early days. N&W employees there once welded rail with acetylene produced on-site, manufactured steel frogs and switch points, which were hand-ground on grinding wheels, and constructed the company’s office furniture, Wolfe said.

“The concept of this facility was that everything was made in-house so that they could control their own destiny and pricing,” Wolfe said.

Across operations, Norfolk Southern has maintained that concept of self-reliance where it makes strategic and economic sense to do so, such as the locomotive rebuild program at Juniata and Roanoke locomotive shops. The functions performed today by the material yard – while no longer involving the manufacture of furniture, welded rail, or frogs – generate cost and competitive advantages. 

“The material yard plays an important role in the safety, efficiency, and success of our supervisors and production gangs in maintaining the railroad’s infrastructure,” said Phil Merilli, assistant vice president maintenance of way and structures. “With the yard operation, we are able to control costs and our own destiny by controlling inventory. The employees who work there are a class act, and I’m proud to be associated with them.”

The material yard is a success for three reasons, Wolfe said. The yard’s laborers and machine operators produce quality work, they do it efficiently, and, most important, they do it safely.

“All of our employees here are owners of the business, if you will, and they understand that safety is part of that business,” Wolfe said. “We’re the last of the Class I railroads with a yard like this. It’s not viable unless you have a safe environment.”

Wolfe counts two reportable injuries over the past decade, neither directly related to work in the yard.

“When you see all the exposures of railroad work here,” Wolfe said, “all of the heavy, moving machinery and the hydraulic, pneumatic, and electrical equipment, the employees are exemplary on safety.”

Laborer Zach Divers operates a hydraulic
magnetic lifter to maneuver 112-pound bags of
reclaimed rail anchors off a conveyor belt. The
anchors, removed during track replacement
projects across the system, are shipped to the
material yard to be reused or sold for scrap.
Anchors reclaimed are packed in recycled coffee
bean bags from Brazil and sent to the field for

Sustainable operation

The yard plays a key role in advancing green business at NS. When maintenance gangs replace track, the recovered metal materials – tie plates, spikes, and anchors, known as other track material, or OTM – are loaded on gondolas and sent to the material yard. 

There, an employee operating an excavator unloads the OTM onto a large metal table and rakes it onto a long conveyor belt. Employees stationed on a boardwalk beside the belt identify reusable items and place them into bins for each type of OTM. The yard can sort one to two gons a day, or 70 to 140 tons of material.

About 60 percent of the OTM is reused. Some is used at the yard to construct track panels, while the rest is shipped to the field for track maintenance projects on lower-tonnage secondary or branch lines. None of the OTM goes to a landfill. The 40 percent or so identified as scrap is sold to vendors who recycle it for other uses. 

“We make money either way,” said Jake Willis, panel supervisor, who oversees the yard’s OTM reclamation and track panel construction.

In nearly three years as panel supervisor, Willis has focused on expanding recycling and improving work efficiencies. In 2014, his OTM crew reclaimed 1.2 million tie plates, 11,000 kegs of spikes, and 850,000 rail anchors, saving the company an estimated $15 million.

“Norfolk Southern is one of the few Class I railroads that actively reclaims track material the way we do,” Willis said. “My goal is to help the company save money and be more efficient in using our resources.”

Reusing track materials, Wolfe said, enables NS to time purchases of new material based on best available market price. “When steel prices are high, we can ride them out by reusing what we already have,” he said.

In January, the yard’s green operations expanded with the arrival of the second- generation NS 999. The yard has served as proving ground for the battery-powered switcher, helping NS develop its expertise of battery technology for train service while using the 999 to help build a daily outbound train that delivers supplies to the field.

Keeping the gangs supplied

Much of the yard’s activity occurs in a flat open area that extends down the middle of the facility and is dominated by a large overhead gantry crane. Bridge cranes on either end hoist rail and material used to build track panels and turnouts. 

Turnout and track panel crews work on opposite ends of the gantry crane. On a typical day, employees can build as many as three switch turnouts – with a switch on one end and a frog on the other – and 15 of the 42-foot track panels. To quickly assemble ties and rail, the crews have devised custom jigs, or templates, for efficiency. The turnout crew, for example, has marked a pad with different colors of paint to pinpoint where to place crossties for each of the six sizes of turnouts built there.

“These employees have done it so much they know the measurements in their heads,” said Adam Dunford, turnout supervisor. The yard, he added, has fewer operating challenges than the field. “We’re in a controlled environment where everything is flat.”

Switch turnouts are constructed with new track material. The track panels are built with both new and used components, including used rail, called relay rail. After a track panel is installed in the field, rail gangs follow to replace the rail with continuously welded rail. The relay rail is then shipped back to the material yard for building more panels.

Systemwide, the yard replenishes 23 satellite emergency centers with track panels and other material that can be dispensed quickly to replace track damaged by derailments or natural disasters. The yard daily ships new and used track components to several of the 153 track supervisor locations. 

“On a good day, we ship material to nine or 10 states,” said Marty Huff, shipping and receiving supervisor. “We try to send something to each division and spread it around so that no territory is left without material in case something happens.”

Recently, the yard shipped 64,000 relay tie plates for one track project, and it has 160,000 more ready to ship for another upcoming project. Outside of emergency situations, the yard gives priority to the company’s dual rail gang, track maintenance gangs, and track projects that serve customer locations.

The dual rail gang, the only one of its kind in the rail industry, installs both rails of a track simultaneously.

“We’ve got to keep those guys rolling,” Dunford said. “They’re the biggest NS gang, with the most people and equipment, and if they’re delayed for any reason it’s a big expense. I don’t want them to be delayed because of me.”