After months of insisting that deteriorating concrete ties on the Old Colony Commuter Rail line posed no safety risk or operational problems, the MBTA will begin replacing thousands of the relatively new but defective concrete ties between Middleborough and Bridgewater with traditional wooden ties, and it will shut down the line between the morning and evening rush hours.

Trains2 Beginning September 16 and scheduled to go until the end of October, the MBTA’s commuter rail operator, Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail, will close down the tracks on the lower section of the rail line, which carries 5,500 commuters to and from Boston daily, after the morning rush hours trains leave and before the evening rush hour trains return. Between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, when the work is taking place, passengers will be bused between Middleborough and Bridgewater, with buses leaving 20 minutes earlier than scheduled train times.

Track crews will remove some 7,000 cracked, crumbling, and broken ties and an additional 7,000 concrete ties that are in danger of falling apart as well.

The problem with the defective concrete ties was highlighted in the summer issue of CommonWealth magazine, which detailed the increasing rate of deterioration along the southern commuter lines. At that time, MBTA officials insisted there was no thought to shutting down the line to replace the faulty ties, which a spokesman initially put at 4,000. The spokesman also said speed restrictions, often used when track inspectors find safety concerns, were minimal.

But now the T is taking far more drastic action, shutting down the line during the day for repairs and shifting from concrete to wooden ties, at least until the problems with the concrete ties can be sorted out.
 “The wood ties being installed are technically temporary to keep speed restrictions off while concrete experts continue to search for a way to prevent problems with future potential concrete tie installations,” T spokesman Joe Pesaturo wrote in an email.

Pesaturo continued to say the problem is under control despite the growing number of defective ties. “The number [of ties being replaced] far exceeds the actual number that have been positively identified as deteriorating,” Pesaturo wrote. “But the other ties are close enough to the deteriorating ties to make their replacement the prudent thing to do (because of the additional stress put on them from being near deteriorating ties).”

But this may only be the beginning. The concrete ties — which cost nearly twice what wooden ties cost but were touted to last 50 years, twice the lifespan of timber — began exhibiting defects after less than a decade. The manufacturer, Rocla Concrete Ties of Denver, sold the ties to the MBTA and other rail lines around the country with a 25-year warranty. But the concrete ties bought by the T, Amtrak, and Long Island Railroad, among others in the Northeast, began falling apart and posing potential safety risks for passenger trains traveling 60 to 70 miles per hour.

Research found the ties were all fabricated at Rocla’s Bear, Delaware, plant and were apparently made using a faulty mix that could not stand up to the freeze-thaw conditions of the Northeast climate. The Long Island Railroad replaced about 200,000 concrete ties and Amtrak is about midway through replacing some 176,000 ties.

But both systems used concrete ties as replacements. The T is returning to wooden ties, acknowledging what few others in the industry are willing to say: The lack of specifications for concrete ties, and the historic recurring problems of cracking and crumbling in some parts of the country, is ruling the material out until changes are made in the technology and reliability claims can be verified.

“Given the deterioration of some of the concrete ties, we need to more fully understand the cause to ensure a specification that prevents a similar problem in the future,” Pesaturo wrote.

The Federal Railroad Administration has few standards for inspecting and guaranteeing the safety of concrete ties on most commuter rail tracks, forcing most inspectors to apply the standards for wooden ties to the cement ones, despite the differences in strength, rigidity, and materials.

The problem was highlighted by an accident in Washington state in 2005, when a commuter train traveling 60 miles per hour derailed on a 40-foot section of track that had 19 defective concrete ties. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board found that track inspectors had identified problems in the concrete ties in four separate inspections following reports of “rough riding,” including one report just two days before the accident. But these problems were never reported for repair because there was no violation of existing regulations and no reporting category to cover whether the condition is reported and fixed in a timely manner.

The new regulations are expected to be in place by next June.

“In the absence of a solid concrete tie specification, the wood ties will remain as permanent,” said Pesaturo in his email. “No final decision regarding ‘concrete versus wood’ for the future has been reached.”

Money is also a driving factor in using the wooden ones to replace the faulty concrete ties.
The T purchased about 150,000 ties from Rocla for the Old Colony line, and they were installed on both the Middleborough and Kingston tracks. Several miles of stretches along the Kingston-to-Boston line, especially around Lake Street in Kingston and in Halifax and Hanson, have hundreds of breaking ties, but there are no plans to replace those sections yet. Wooden ties have been inserted between the broken ones to strengthen the tracks.

“Work on the Middleboro Line is first because it has experienced a greater concentration of concrete tie issues,” Pesaturo wrote.

Officials have confirmed that Rocla, where calls for comment were not returned, is balking at backing its warranty and has threatened bankruptcy should the T move forward to collect. If the debt-ridden MBTA replaced the ties on its own, the cost could reach $100 million.

MBCR officials did not return a call for comment, but the company’s contract with the T calls for annual replacement of 40,000 broken ties even though they are not responsible for the Rocla ties.

Pesaturo said the T will continue to pursue Rocla even if concrete ties are not being used.

“The T fully expects the tie manufacturer of the original ties to honor its obligations under the warranty,” he said.

Photo by Meghan Moore.