Why rail equipment inspections are not just for railroads

By and |  March 18, 2021
Photo: Tealinc

Inspections should at least cover safety items such as brake shoes, handholds, crossover platforms and handbrake wheel operations. Photo: Tealinc

Rail equipment is mechanical by design.

A good mechanic will tell you anything mechanical is a just a repair waiting to happen. This sentiment certainly applies to rail equipment, with constant wear from being transported around the country in different climates, different handling modes, and different loading and unloading situations. All of this causes wear on railcars.

Items such as wheels, brake shoes, air hoses, couplers, draft systems and car cushioning units all wear out over time and use – and even quicker under abusive conditions.

Abuse happens more often than you think, too. Moving a railcar across the country, from northern minus 20-degree dry winter days to southern 70-degree muggy winter temperatures, can cause mechanical impediments. Inundations of rain, snow, salt water, ice and heat will all cause mechanical problems over time, as well.

In the quest to go faster, farther and cheaper, the rail transport industry is trending toward skipping an important component of providing a safe and efficient supply chain. That is, the railcar inspection process conducted on the ground.

While hopeful that electronic gadgetry will do some of the work, there isn’t a substitute for boots-on-the-ground inspections. We’ve seen two significant cases where one party thought the other was doing the inspections, but it turns out neither was doing them. In one instance, the company that actually leased the railcars didn’t have any idea what was or was not being done, because their lease was a full-service lease.

The pending result was the potential bad order of an entire unit train, which was narrowly avoided. And, in this case, saving significant product cost delays built into the company sales contract.

In another case, we caught the indiscretion ahead of time because we proactively manage the fleet. It could have resulted in a significant number of railcars being bad ordered while in route, causing a costly supply chain disruption for the shipper.

Photo: Tealinc

It’s partly up to aggregate producers to ensure shipments get transported in a safe and mechanically sound railcar. Photo: Tealinc

What to look for

For those in need of boots-on-the-ground guidance, here are some tips from the Association of American Railroads and others in the industry who have a regular inspection routine:

• Car body. Inspect the car body for broken, damaged or missing handholds, sill steps, crossover platforms, roof damage and corrosion, roof platforms, and holes in the body that would leak product. Close and secure doors on boxcars; close and secure hatch covers; close gates; and inspect door pans for damage. Inspect top chords, side stakes and side sills for damage, and inspect flat cars for appropriate camber.

• Wheels and bearings. Inspect wheels for obvious slid marks, spalling or shelling, high flange or thin flange. Inspect bearings to ensure they don’t spin on the axle and aren’t leaking grease. Once per quarter, run EHMS (Equipment Health Management System) to ensure compliance with KIPS results.

• Brake mechanism. Inspect the brake shoes for wear. If excessively worn and if roughly 1/2-in. tread remains, replace with 2-in.-high friction shoes. Inspect handbrake and brake levers for general operation. Also, inspect brake hoses for wear and compliance with hose dates. Once per quarter, run the EHMS for the cars to ensure compliance with air brake test date requirements.

• Trucks. Check the truck spring group for broken or missing springs. Railcars that have snubbers need to be inspected for leakage. Observe truck shoe height to gauge compliance. Inspect truck side bearings – roller and constant contact – for excessive wear.

• Couplers, yoke and draft. A quick inspection of the coupler for bypass situations, broken, bent, missing or general wear will suffice. Also, look for evidence of excessive force in coupling by inspecting the striking plate for evidence of damage. Be sure the draft key is in place and the yoke doesn’t show evidence of cracking.


While it’s not necessary to be as thorough as we’ve outlined every time a railcar rolls in to be loaded, it would pay dividends to get this involved once per quarter. Modified inspections should at least cover safety items such as brake shoes, handholds, crossover platforms and handbrake wheel operations.

Railroads are ever-pushing the envelope on asset utilization. It’s partially up to you as a railcar lessee, rail shipper and railcar user to fill in the gap to ensure your shipments get transported in a safe and mechanically sound railcar.

Darell Luther is CEO and Shannon Rodgers is manager of value creation at Tealinc.

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