Righting the rails across the globe

Harsco Track Technologies of West Columbia is pushing an envelope of an entirely different kind — extending its reach in rapidly growing economies around the world.

Over the past 12 months, the company, which makes maintenance equipment to extend rail life and reduce fuel use, has received:

 A $350 million from the Chinese Ministry of Railways

 A combined $12 million in contracts from Japan and Singapore

 A multiyear agreement for an undisclosed amount from Israel Railways

The deals with China are the largest for railway track maintenance equipment in the company’s history.

By the time their work is completed in late 2011, the 50 workers at Harsco’s West Columbia plant will build and deliver 40 rail-grinding machines for the Chinese.

It’s not just economic growth that’s sparked all this international activity, but the high global cost of fuel as well, said Scott Jacoby, the company’s vice president and general manager.

While the 42-year-old company sells a full line of equipment for new track construction, its bread and butter is contract services for rail grinding and renewal, and railroad tie change-out systems.

“When energy prices rise, rail becomes an increasingly economical method of moving cargo,” he explained, “but the more you move over your tracks, the more wear and tear they experience.

“For instance, even here in the U.S., where we’ve been in an economic downturn for over a year, tracks are being used extremely hard — especially to move coal. Down in Brazil, the same track wear is becoming an issue, but there, they are moving vast tons of iron ore.

“Heavy railroad cars exact a toll on tracks, wherever they are, changing the profile of the rail over time. You don’t just go in and start grinding, but rather you look at the tonnage a rail carries, how often it carries it.”

“Weather is another major factor to consider,” he added. “Right now we’re seeing a lot of issues in the Midwest, where the railroads have experienced a lot of rain and snow.”