One week every month, Don Dougherty can usually be found relaxing or tinkering on projects around his home near Ludington, Michigan. But the other three weeks you’ll usually have to catch up to him on the road, where he racks up anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 miles a year in his pickup.

The reason his job takes him to such far-flung locations? Dougherty is a senior technician for Loram Maintenance of Way, a Hamel, Minnesota-based company that maintains railways throughout North America and abroad—and you’ll find railroad track everywhere in the U.S., with roughly 233,000 miles of it spanning the country. When railway steel degrades over time, that’s when Amtrak and other train operators call in Loram for maintenance and repairs.

Keeping the Tracks on Track

Loram designs, builds and operates a fleet of specialized, multi-million dollar machines that remediate the rail bed as they move along the rails. While a railway’s safety is the main concern, the biggest issue for railroads moving tons of products thousands of miles per day is cost. Worn rails can develop bumps, dips and corrugations that reduce a locomotive’s fuel economy, cause derailments and even damage the products being transported as they’re jiggled and vibrated along the way.

The Loram Rail Grinders travel up to 35 mph to smooth steel rails. Photo: Loram

Railway companies hire Loram to service fatigued metal by using grinding stones on the steel rails as it moves along the track. A Loram rail grinder, which is one of its more complex and sophisticated machines, can move up to 35 mph, pulling cars loaded with equipment. Stretching from 100- to 600-feet long, a rail grinder typically weighs about 182,000 pounds. Transporting one via cargo ship to an overseas client can pose major logistical challenges.

As long as there have been railroads, the rails have needed maintaining and companies like Loram, which has been around since 1954, have been doing the job. Because of the specialized work and sprawling distances involved, railroads typically contract out railway maintenance rather than keep their own equipment.

When a Behemoth Breaks Down

A railroad hiring one of Loram’s massive machines (and its crew) generally gives the company a time frame and location they want serviced. Scheduling is precise and arranged weeks or months in advance. Loram’s machines move across the country on the rails from track to track to get from one job to another. Time is always the enemy for maintenance work, since every minute a railway is being serviced is a minute it can’t be used to transport products and people.

A Loram tech performs maintenance on a rail grinder. Photo: Halley Pacheco de Oliveira.

Invariably, sometimes a Loram machine breaks down, and that’s when Dougherty gets a call. A 26-year veteran in railway maintenance, Dougherty has worked around the globe throughout Asia and Australia, checking wiring and fixing relays in everything from freezing sleet mountainsides to blazing hot deserts. “You often face some extreme conditions and remote locations. We try to solve problems remotely over the phone, but if that doesn’t work, it’s time to be on the way to help.”

A company app on Dougherty’s phone detects where the machine is and he is able to link it to a map program to get turn-by-turn directions. This is crucial, since the machine and its crew are on a critical clock being watched by the railroad.

Tools of the Rail-Grinding Trade

Dougherty’s go-to tool pack includes a variety of wrenches, ratchets and screwdrivers, as well as a trusty amp and volt meter and cable-tracing tools. The machines generally carry an abundance of spare parts, although Dougherty packs some extra wiring and electronic parts in his truck just to make sure there’s no delay when he arrives.

You can never truly predict where you will end up next. It could be 20 or 2,000 miles down the road. — Don Dougherty, Loram technician

While there are on-board technicians and crews that manage and maintain Loram’s massive machines, Dougherty gets called in to handle electrical repairs and track down electronic faults. Using programmable logic controllers on the machines, he can quickly spot bad relays or faulty wiring to isolate a problem.

Most technicians in this field have some background in electronics or electrical education, but primarily they learn their trade on the job. New techs are often hired to do basic maintenance on the machines and, in the process, get to know all the intricacies of the systems.

The Perks of Repairing the Rails

Annual pay for technicians is generally based on experience, ranging from mid-five figures up to $200,000 or more. “But there are some intangible benefits as well, especially for those who love the outdoors,” notes Dougherty. “You can never truly predict where you will end up next. It could be 20 or 2,000 miles down the road. That might mean a long plane flight or an even longer drive.

“Out here you get to see things most people don’t. You are often far removed from the main roads and highways. Many of the guys who work on our machines have taken up photography as a hobby. They send back some awesome pictures of the scenery and wildlife. Working out here has its own unique set of rewards.”