Keeping freight moving matters and PCL Construction, as a leader in railroad bridge construction, understands this well. With specialized railroad teams across North America, PCL is equipped to tackle the challenges and unique needs of railroad clients and has a proven track record of keeping trains running.

Keeping railway lines operational drives the stability of the U.S. and Canadian economies. These countries rely on trains more than any other mode of transportation to move long-distance freight.

“Our clients are in the business of moving freight such as mined minerals, food products, and building materials that communities depend on. Our number one success metric is safely minimizing disruption to the train schedules, and we gear all of our operations toward that goal,” said Jim Holtje, civil area manager for PCL Construction who oversees projects throughout the southeastern United States. 

Holtje has extensive experience overseeing the construction and rehabilitation of civil infrastructure, including rail bridges, across the U.S. He has worked on complex bridge projects, such as rehabilitating aging infrastructure, upgrading and automating movable bridges throughout the U.S., and replacing functionally obsolete bridge structures, during his 20-year career.

PCL’s rail teams employ accelerated bridge construction techniques (ABC) to keep rail lines moving during construction or repairs. In this approach, the team reduces the onsite construction time of a project by leveraging a series of innovative techniques in the planning, design and construction phases. For example, a construction team using an ABC approach may lean heavily on the prefabrication of components. Materials such as replacement spans (the horizontal structure between two supports) or precast deck panels are manufactured offsite and assembled on the project site during prefabrication. This streamlines the construction process, improves the quality of materials, and enhances safety while shortening the schedule.

Prefabrication was used on the Pearl River Bridge Replacement, a project whose success came down to a narrow 16-hour window. The 209-foot-long railroad truss span bridge crosses the Pearl River, located northeast of New Orleans. The bridge needed to be replaced, and PCL’s client, Norfolk Southern, needed the line operational during construction as it services a critical heavy freight and passenger line. The team prefabricated two through-plate-girder replacement spans, that were then installed within feet of the existing bridge. Prefabricating the spans and building the new bridge adjacent to the existing bridge minimized impacts on rail traffic. Existing spans were removed and replacement spans were slid into place in just 16 hours using a lateral slide system.

The Warman Mile 60.8 Bridge and Borden Mile 90.3 Bridge Rehabilitation projects required more frequent closures. Both bridges span the Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan, Canada, and remained active for Canadian National Railway (CN) throughout construction except during scheduled shutdowns. Span replacements called for round-the-clock closures, lasting between six to 72 hours, depending on the scope of the closure work. To make shutdowns as efficient as possible, civil construction manager Greg Schmidt emphasized the importance of planning and collaboration, “We do as much planning, prep work, and risk mitigation as possible ahead of time. Then, it comes down to communication, which includes weekly meetings, daily discussions, and closure plan reviews months in advance with key project stakeholders.

Relationship building and constant communication are key to minimizing downtime and unnecessary disruption to rail schedules.”

This thorough approach to planning and close communication with clients is key in many of PCL’s projects building and maintaining movable bridges.

For example, the Isabel Holmes bridge is an important feature of North Carolina’s transportation network and provides the necessary link between the City of Wilmington, Leland and the surrounding communities. PCL’s Special Projects division was awarded a bridge preservation contract, which included structural, mechanical, electrical, architectural and utility improvements while ensuring minimal disruptions to the traveling public. As an expert contractor in movable bridges, PCL’s team worked closely with the Department of Transportation and the designer to optimize traffic control plans allowing for daily, full-traffic access to the bridge while construction continued.

PCL also used a solution provider mentality to solve the challenges that arose such as the installation of submarine cable. While the cable was only permitted to be installed in two months, outside of an in-water Atlantic sturgeon work moratorium, the team revised the layout of the cable to minimize the material lead time as well as the time allotted to complete the work within this critical schedule.

With over 30,000 work hours performed, PCL’s team allowed for the safe and reliable movement of people and goods throughout the entire construction process, providing the communities of North Carolina with a sturdy, dependable bridge for years to come. 

Even the most meticulous plans must be prepared for unexpected challenges: Damage from third-party collisions, impacts from barges, and failures caused by aging infrastructure may necessitate emergency repairs to railroad bridges. To get clients’ lines up and running as soon as possible, PCL has emergency response teams strategically positioned throughout the U.S. that can deploy when needed.

Holtje describes PCL’s ability to quickly mobilize when needed, “We have a great team of people across our organization that are highly specialized and technically knowledgeable in how these systems work. They can be where we need them when the phone call comes in. It takes a pretty special individual to have that kind of flexibility in their life and to have that kind of passion. We’re lucky to have quite a few of those individuals, and we bring that value to our clients.”

Emergency repairs, by nature, always seem to occur at an inconvenient time; but even when calls come in when the office is closed for a holiday break, PCL is ready to immediately take action and deploy a team. This was the case in 2023 when a bridge in a remote area in Alabama experienced a structural failure, impacting freight traffic on a joint line utilized by two PCL clients.

Despite the issue occurring over a holiday weekend, the first PCL employees were onsite and assessing the situation within just a few hours of receiving the call. The next morning, PCL forces began working around the clock until the bridge was returned to full operation less than 120 hours later.

In this short time, the team:

  • Prepared detailed emergency repair plans.
  • Developed temporary work plans for jacking and hoisting.
  • Mobilized two barges, a tugboat, a 100-ton crane, four manlifts, a mobile fabrication shop, and three shifts of skilled iron workers.
  • Sourced and procured the necessary milled steel and structural fasteners.
  • Fabricated and erected over 2,800 pounds of structural steel.

Within 120 hours, the bridge was fully operational for freight traffic. 

The remote location and limited access to many railroad bridges pose logistical and scheduling challenges. In addition to in-house railroad bridge experts, PCL leverages a network of experienced, dedicated subcontractors they partner with on rail projects across the U.S. and Canada to solve even the most complex logistical problems.

“There are a few key subcontractors that we work with often. Some of them have followed us across the country for 30 years as we respond to meet the needs of our clients,” says Holtje.

Clients benefit from PCL’s long-term relationships, which can be crucial to the success of a project. Together with subcontractor partners, PCL is able to implement lessons learned from previous work as well as day-to-day learning on a project. This adaptive and innovative approach to projects results in high-quality work delivered on the required schedule – which keeps the steel wheels rolling across the country.