Why Technology Is Important to Keep Railroads and Roadways Safe and Free of Vegetation

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
By: David Spak, Ph.D., VM Stewardship and Development
Bayer team works with EPA and NCDOT

Many of us are returning from a period of holiday travel where we may have traveled by car or train to spend time with family and friends.  In our eagerness to get to our destination, we probably didn’t think about the efforts of those who keep our roads and railways clear of vegetation (weeds, brush and tree limbs) to allow for our safe passage.  Recently, Bayer’s Vegetation Management team, working with industry partner organizations, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and the DBi Services, invited members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to experience first-hand how this vital work is conducted, as well as how vegetation management workers are trained to keep our roads and railways safe. 

Little known fact:  There are 140,000 miles of rail in the U.S. that are used to transport people, food, cargo, equipment and livestock every day.  In addition, there are thousands of acres of rail yards and off track areas that need to be maintained and kept clear of any vegetation – which means zero weeds, brush, grass or trees.  Why is this so important? Even small weeds growing on a track could cause a fire in the dry summer, ignited by sparks from the train wheels.  This zero-tolerance policy helps ensure public and worker safety, but it also allows for proper drainage and prevents potential hazards, such as the buildup of mud, which could lead to wheel slippage and possible derailment.

bayer team with epa

The people responsible for keeping those 140,000 miles of track free of unwanted vegetation are highly trained to protect themselves, the traveling public and the environment.  Their trucks are fitted with versatile equipment to allow the use of different types of spray nozzles and booms to reach signage adjacent to the tracks and control vegetation as far as six feet away from the main track line.  Safety is of the upmost importance when applying these herbicides, and drift control measures are taken to ensure the products are placed only where they are supposed to go – and stay there (see pictures).

In addition to the railways, state departments of transportation (DOT’s) are responsible for roadside vegetation management for the more than 164,000 miles of highway we drive on each year.  While most states preserve the beauty of our roadsides by maintaining borders lined with grass and trees, the NC DOT has taken this one step further, by using an innovative approach to create beautiful flowering spaces alongside many highways, which are not only pleasing to travelers, but also provide important habitats for bees and other pollinators.  Efforts to establish and maintain these gorgeous landscapes are made possible through public/private partnerships with funding from companies like Bayer and with additional tax payer support generated through the purchase of special North Carolina license plates. (see pictures)

truck engine

Managing vegetation on roadsides and at railroad crossings is not only beneficial for aesthetic reasons, but it is critically important for improving visibility and enhancing safety, particularly during the winter, when snow and icy weather hit.  Keeping encroaching trees a safe distance from the roads has the added benefit of allowing sunlight to help naturally de-ice the road, which can help reduce labor and the amount of chemicals needed to treat the roads.  It also keeps provides drivers with room to address roadside emergencies that may arise safely and to facilitate the speedy passage of any support equipment required (e.g. tow truck, ambulance, etc.). 

During the training and demonstration event, an important part of the dialogue with the EPA was about stewardship and worker training.  There have been great strides within the industry to reduce the amount of herbicides, energy, fuel and water used in order to minimize the environmental footprint associated with vegetation management.  Such efforts include:

  1. A reduction in the amount from chemicals used – to only a few ounces per acre.  Newer formulations and advances in precision application have significantly reduced the volume of products used in our environment.
  2. The use of lighter trucks, outfitted with aluminum racks and other new materials to reduce their weight and increase fuel efficiency.
  3. Updated water management processes to make water use more efficient, which is especially important in areas where water availability is at a premium.

Workers handling vegetation management herbicides and equipment undergo more than 80 hours of classroom training each year.  Continuous education programs, supported by chemical partners like Bayer, offer certification and recertification required by the National Railroad Contractors Association (NRCA) and National Roadside Vegetation Management Association (NRVMA). 

Even as the industry continues to innovate in this area, we still face challenges.  Herbicide resistance and a lack of new modes of action provide fewer options for applicators to achieve the zero-tolerance approach so critical to roadside safety and vegetation management.  State, federal and local regulations on when, how and what chemistries can be used, as well as encroachment of agricultural lands, can make it difficult to implement this important work. 

The day’s activities facilitated good, open dialogue and learnings by all participants, and we expect that there will be more events like this in the future.   Thanks to our partners, DBi Services and NCDOT for co-presenting to EPA and Amtrak and for taking the time to participate in this event. While most of the public didn’t notice it, it takes the work of all vegetation management stakeholders to help make sure that travelers, whether it be during a busy holiday season or just running the week’s errands, arrive safely to their destination.


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