Rail work a labor of love for one local man

The enourmous rail tamper is a crucial piece of engineering hardware which allows for the straightening and repair of train tracks. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Maddox)
Tabitha Fleming
Staff Writer

Patrick Maddox has a job most people don't even know really exists, but all across the country he has spent countless hours ensuring safety for neighborhoods, highway travellers, and wildlife one mile at a time. He works for KNR, and he operates heavy machinery on the railroad.
The train tracks, that have seen little redesign since the beginning of rail travel need a few things to ensure they are safe. They must be smooth, free from debris, and the grade mustn't be too steep at any point. Whereas cars have a difficult time on some 6% grade hills, trains usually have a grade of only .5-1%. When his job is done well, trains that follow Maddox's work travel more quickly, saving fuel, and reach their destinations much safer.
The tamper, also known as a tamper-liner or tamping and lining machine, corrects the alignment of the rails to make them parallel and level. This is done by finding places where the ties have sunk from the weight of the passing trains or weather, causing the track to sag. The tamper lifts each tie and the rails up, and packs ballast or rocks underneath. When the tie is laid down again, the sagged rails now sit at the proper level.
Maddox has seen tracks all over the United States, and has travelled throughout Texas both on highway and rail. The worst rails he's ever seen he said were in Maine.
“The problem there was the tracks just sat on the dirt,” explained Maddox, “so anytime there was any rain, and then a train would come through, they would start to shift and sag.” The job seems highly technical to an outsider, and Maddox says to a degree it is. He's been doing this work for almost 20 years, and in that time there have been a lot of machine upgrades and automation that is both a blessing and a curse.
“It used to be if I needed to I could modify some settings and work with a machine that wasn't operating at 100%, but with the computer systems now, you simply can't do that. I've had to sit and wait for a part for 3 weeks just because the computer couldn't understand the manual workaround I had.”
For Maddox though, the satisfaction comes from knowing that the trains on his tracks will run a little smoother, their loads will shift a little less, and overall the transportation on the rail system in America is better for him having visited it.