Jon Rudolph has a long relationship with the railroad, from his father serving as a personnel safety manager in the 1970s to his latest project: a loop for the White Pass Railroad in Skagway, Alaska, which is designed to allow more people to experience the remote beauty of the north.
Rudolph currently serves as the vice president of operations for Cobalt Construction, the company chosen to work with the new owners of the historic railroad that’s expanding and enhancing service for the cruise ship industry.
Deemed one of the most popular land-bound destinations for passengers of cruise ships tying up at the port in Skagway, the railroad was originally built to transport those seeking their fortune during the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s.
Today, the railroad continues to take close to 7,000 passengers up 3,000 ft. in elevation over just 20 miles each day. The breathtaking route is filled with glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels and trestles.
White Pass Railroad changed hands during the summer of 2018. The new owners have a unique understanding of the future requirements of the cruise industry, as well as a deep commitment to the historical significance of the railroad and Skagway itself.
With the change came the opportunity to expand. The owners turned to Yukon Territory-based Cobalt Construction, a large-scale earthworks company that specializes in road construction, bridges, mine development, contract mining and mine site remediation throughout the north.
“Our expertise has always been around anything that involves moving rock and dirt,” Rudolph says. “Building roads, dams, airports, contract mining, mine reclamation work – all of this served as groundwork for spinoff work with White Pass.”
White Pass invested in a new turnaround loop to increase ridership capacity from 7,000 to 10,000 people each day, putting more trains in operation and providing a speedier return to Skagway. The existing system requires trains to decouple and creates a bottleneck. The new loop would fit as many as three trains and allow them to turn around and head down the mountain.
For Cobalt Construction, the project scope included clearing the site for the installation of railroad track to create the turnaround, as well as crushing and screening rock for railroad ballast needed for track stability.
Cobalt Construction used the J40V2 to crush granite to 2.5-in. pieces for ballast.
Photo courtesy of McCloskey International
The project came with unique challenges as its remote location had the potential to hinder the supply of materials and manpower to get the job done before winter. Ironically, while Cobalt has built most of the major highways in northern Canada, this site is inaccessible by road.
“Everything that has to go into that jobsite – literally everything – goes in by train: the fuel, the explosives for blasting rock, the groceries,” Rudolph says. “White Pass is supporting us 100 percent because we can’t do it without them.”
This required supplies and equipment to be transported in and out either by locomotive work train or small “casey” car with a couple of trailers behind them. Explosives needed to be brought in each day because the contractor couldn’t store much on site due to the proximity to the active railroad.
Cobalt management required a crusher and screener to crush and size the thousands of tons of ballast needed, and the transportation constraints required the contractor to consider not only production requirements but also the load sizes of the equipment to ensure the railroad could transport it.
The project called for clearing a site to install track for a turnaround, as well as crushing and screening rock for railroad ballast that was necessary for track stability.
Photo courtesy of McCloskey International
Management sought advice from Bison Iron, a heavy equipment dealer based on the West Coast.
“We could have used a larger crusher, but we couldn’t have gotten it on the train,” Rudolph says. “When we started to talk with Bison Iron, they understood the unique challenges, but also saw the great opportunity if the right equipment for the job could be brought in.”
Conversations led Bison Iron to recommend two pieces of equipment manufactured by McCloskey. Ultimately, Bison Iron and Rudolph agreed that a J40V2 jaw crusher and an R70 screener would be the best fit for the job. Rudolph was sold on the sales support and the fit of the equipment for the project.
After setting up camp, Cobalt got to work clearing a path for the tracks through the solid rock mountaintop.
The contractor primarily used a drill-and-blast method, moving a total of about 27,000 cu. meters of granite by the time the project was complete. It wasn’t straightforward, though, as the worksite was next to a lake, requiring environmental protection measures to be put in place. Crews even installed floating silt curtains in the lake to catch blast debris.
In addition, Cobalt was responsible for supplying ballast to support the new tracks. This meant putting the new J40V2 crusher and R70 screener to work.
With its trim dimensions and track mobility, the J40V2 was moved onto the new quarry, configured and running in record time. The crusher quickly proved it could perform due to features like steeper angles on the jaw and a wider opening for enhanced production. Cobalt used the equipment to crush granite to 2.5-in. pieces for ballast.
The material was then sent through the R70 screener to remove fines and create the finished product. The R70 was capable of taking on the job and paired well with the crusher, Rudolph says.
“Some of our guys have run crushers before and been around crushers,” he says. “When we were considering purchasing the J40V2, my superintendent said these things are built tough. You see it out here – this is going to last a long time.”
Rudolph also emphasizes how important the after-sale support is, particularly in remote locations. He notes that Bison Iron spent several days on site assisting with setup to ensure optimal production, and it was always available to answer questions over the phone.
Before the project shut down for the winter, the jaw crusher and screener ran 24 hours a day for 10 days to stockpile ballast for startup in spring. Crews finished with about 20,000 cu. yd. of ballast.
The site’s remote location brought additional challenges to the project. Emergency maintenance issues occasionally required a mechanic to be brought in by helicopter.
In addition, because the site sat on a solid rock mountaintop beside a lake, the team could not install a septic system. Cobalt instead used a storage tank on site that was pumped out weekly and taken by train to Carcross’ sewage treatment facility in the Yukon.
“It’s a very unique site and project, and we have a super crew out there,” Rudolph says. “There’s no room to install a standard camp, so accommodations are comfortable but can be tight. We make do and everyone’s happy to be part of the group.”
Challenges presented themselves more as winter moved closer. In mid-November the “casey” car, which brought explosives to the site, couldn’t make the trip due to large drifts of snow. Instead, the team called the work train up from Skagway – 20 miles away – to clear the snow.
Normally, the train would not be running at that time of year, but the commitment to finishing the loop was strong among all project team members.
Partnerships are key to success, and Cobalt works with the American work trains coming out of Skagway, who also team with Canadian maintenance personnel.
Also, because the site sits at the border, cooperation is visually reinforced with two national flags flying just a few feet from each other.
Cobalt Construction finished its portion of the loop project in December. White Pass, meanwhile, wrapped up installation of the ballast and tracks in early 2019, before trains started in late April.
Although Cobalt is done with the loop project, it will return to build more ballast for the railroad. This means continued use of the crusher and screener, allowing them to prove their worth.
The White Pass multi-generation commitment is infusing the railroad with new life. Like Rudolph, Mark Taylor, superintendent of rail operations at White Pass in Skagway, has the rail line in his genes. He’s a third-generation White Pass employee. His grandfather worked with Rudolph’s father in the ‘70s, and his grandfather was director of White Pass in the United States.
Rudolph’s father was personnel safety manager in Canada. Now, Rudolph’s son, Shaun, runs Cobalt and is a contemporary of White Pass’ owners.
As the railroad continues to grow, it seems their legacy will, too.
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Edited by Kevin Yanik, Portable Plants http://portableplants.com/building-cobalt-constructions-legacy-up-north/