Faster Welding with Bold New Technology

Rhinehart Railroad Construction, Inc.

As businesses grow and change in today’s fast-paced world, the railroad remains the most cost-effective way to ship goods across supply routes. It is essential that these vital economic arteries are built, maintained, and repaired by highly skilled professionals. For nearly fifty years, Rhinehart Railroad Construction, Inc. has had a reputation of solid service in the Mid-Atlantic United States and beyond.

Family-owned and operated Rhinehart Railroad Construction Inc. was founded by Richard E. Rhinehart in 1970. His son Richard E. Rhinehart Sr. started his career with his father moving to Maryland from Brooklyn NY where he lived with his mother. “My Grandfather started out with just my father and a truck,” Rich Sr.’s son, Chief Operating Officer, Brandon C. Rhinehart, recalls nearly fifty years later. Both Brandon and his brother worked summers through high school and college, earning degrees in business. Vice President Richard E. Rhinehart Jr. and Brandon C. Rhinehart joined the family business as soon as they were able. Both are third-generation railroad men, putting railroad work firmly in their blood.

Today, Rhinehart has approximately eighty employees, over one hundred pieces of equipment, and fifty trucks of various sizes, from small pickups to large tractor-trailers. The company provides comprehensive railway construction, service, and maintenance, plus material handling, and earthwork services. “We move our own dirt,” Brandon explains, with the company providing services from trenching and backfilling to paving and beyond.

Rhinehart prides itself on its ability to provide turnkey solutions for any railway service problem. “Our material handling services move gypsum, limestone, soil, coal, and even trash, in addition to railroad ties.” Its wide range of heavy equipment is available giving customers and subcontractors a choice from a wide range of tools and vehicles.

This versatility extends beyond Rhinehart’s equipment arsenal to its service areas. The company maintains a strong presence around its Fallston, Maryland headquarters, serving the Mid-Atlantic region, especially in traditional rail hubs like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Richmond. But, particularly in recent years, the company has been called upon for projects up and down the Eastern Seaboard, including Maine and the Boston area, as well as out west to Wyoming and Colorado and down south in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

“We like to keep guys close to home,” Brandon says; however, Rhinehart is able to effectively operate far beyond its home state to serve the Continental United States. Currently, the company is working in Fort Wayne, Indiana for the Norfolk Southern Railroad.

Far from advertising or flashy gimmicks, Rhinehart intends to let its service and safety record speak for itself. Brandon relates how, growing up, his father worked with a contractor who had “always some excuse,” for shortcomings on the job and he has also seen many contractors who ‘talk big’ but do not deliver when the time comes. “We can’t deal with that,” he says simply. “Our customers don’t want to hear excuses, so we don’t give excuses.”

As part of this philosophy, the company also provides personal service as much and as often as possible. “It all starts with service,” Rich, Jr. confirms.

Brandon agrees. “We always try to do a little bit more to keep the customer happy,” he adds. “We’re going to do it right, do it one time, and we’ve had a history of doing it that way.” As Rhinehart has expanded over the years, this philosophy has shaped the company’s development.

Now, a radical new tool promises to change Rhinehart’s business model drastically and for the better. Flash-butt welding, or flash welding, offers the capability for Rhinehart to enhance its track-laying skills significantly. Unlike traditional welding, flash-butt welding eliminates the need for filler metals, kits and molds. Instead, flash welding uses intense electrical current to generate the arc necessary to meld two metal pieces together. Electrical resistance produces enough heat to forge weld metal but requires a delicate balance. Heating the metal for too long will begin to melt it away, obviously lowering structural integrity. However, not heating it enough will not sufficiently remove all impurities in the metal, resulting in an inferior finished product.

The new technology welds a single, continuous set of metal tracks, thereby eliminating weaker connective joints. The eradication of this weak link between rails has far-reaching implications for railroads, as it will significantly cut down on maintenance time and greatly elongate the average rail’s lifespan.

The finished product generates a set of rails that are more even than those produced by any leading technology, and the lack of connecting joints presents a smoother ride than ever before. This makes flash-butt welded rails a natural choice for high-speed rail, which requires extremely low friction to operate.

With joints no longer necessary, this dramatically expands Rhinehart’s daily work capacity. “Our old technology used to do five thermite welds a day. That was a good day,” Brandon remarks. “This one does fifty.” As an additional bonus to the railroad industry, flash-butt welding can fuse different metals, unlike conventional welding which requires similar metals. This allows railroad crossings and switches, traditionally made of high manganese steel, to be joined with carbon steel using a stainless-steel insert between the two, keeping the mechanical properties of both the crossings and rails themselves intact.

The versatility of flash-butt welding has barely been investigated, but the potential cannot be overstated. As railroad professionals, Rhinehart’s leadership is naturally highly excited about all the new technology offers, as it breathes new life into an old industry. “That is a somewhat new technology to the railroad industry, as old as it is,” Brandon comments, “so we are now one of the very few contractors that do that.”

Rich, Jr. elaborates that Rhinehart is among the first to use this technology. “We’re one of a few contractors in the country that have the ability to do our own flash-butt welding.”

While the new technology is indeed a leap forward in railroad production, it does require significant investment in cost and training time. In the past, the company had to outsource its welding and was at the mercy of rare and expensive subcontractors. But now, as Rich, Jr. relates, Rhinehart has made a significant investment to not only expand its welding capabilities but ensure all welding can be done in-house. “So now that we have control over that, we’re not relying on a subcontractor who may or may not come to the job when you need him.”

He continues that, in addition to the new technology providing new opportunities for Rhinehart itself, the company now can team up with its competitors on larger welding jobs, further enhancing its profile. “The main [railroad] lines, a lot of the times they do their own work, but they’ll outsource their welding,” Rich explains. “So that opens up more opportunities for us to team with some of our competitors and work for some of the railroads that do their own work, but they don’t have this special machine.”

The company does work through head-hunters and recruitment firms as well as a simple word-of-mouth to find qualified employees, but Brandon prefers a policy of pure (if unvarnished) honesty with recruits. “I tell them, ‘It’s out-of-town work. You’re going to be driving long hours,’” he relates. This may turn away many potential new hires, but leaves those who are willing to provide the commitment Rhinehart needs.

“Most guys who can make it with us for a year wind up staying with us, because we offer people careers, not just jobs,” Rich Jr. explains. “We have a lot of people that want to join our team because we have a reputation where people aren’t just a number here.”

Despite flash-butt welding providing a bold new move forward for Rhinehart, the company’s leadership remains focused on its primary goals. “We just want to continue to service our clients and have slow, controlled growth,” Rich Jr. comments.

However, as flash-butt welding becomes more common and cost-effective in the United States, this may open new possibilities for cheaper high-speed rail networks throughout the country. With this new technology added to Rhinehart’s already extensive arsenal, the company’s future looks bright indeed.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 22, 2019, 7:12 AM EST