Getting Sustainability on the Right ‘Track’

Blogger: Ned Bagniewski, Railroad Engineer | Omaha, NE, USA
October 28, 2016

While growing up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I was surrounded by the natural beauty of wooded bluffs and the Mississippi River. My parents’ house is at the foot of the bluffs, so my passion for the environment and the outdoors came naturally. I enjoyed hiking, exploring and taking in all that the outdoors had to offer when I was a kid. I remember lying in bed with the windows open on summer nights and hearing coyotes howling in the open field across the street.

But by the time I was in high school, that open field was sold and new houses were built in its place. This was an early lesson on how our built environment impacts the natural world. 

When I first began my career as an engineer, it was sometimes tough to find a direct connection between my personal passion for sustainability and my daily engineering tasks. Form and function generally seemed to govern design. Sustainability seemed to be treated more as a postscript, but I knew that greater harmony was possible between the natural and built environments.

So when the opportunity came along at the end of 2014 to become HDR’s freight rail sustainability liaison, I did not hesitate to pursue the job. It combines two things that I love: Solving problems and sustainability. And when we designed Colton Crossing Flyover, those two loves converged in a big way.

The freight railroad is already one of the most sustainable forms of transportation. Its fuel- efficient power to take trucks off roadways using a minimized footprint is well-documented. The Colton Crossing flyover increased throughput for trains at a major intersection for two Class 1 railroads. Through function alone, the flyover removed idling trains, kept cars from stacking up at crossings, decreased noise and generated greater throughput for freight.

Win-win, right? But we made possible something even greater.

This was the first project I worked on in which the flyover was built not on soil but on lightweight concrete. That design decision improved seismic characteristics and resiliency, and extended the life of the structure. It saved time, money and energy because it negated the need for trucks to haul soil. It also sped up the schedule because the concrete required fewer steps to form.

All of this of course satisfies the engineer side of me because it reflects innovative, sustainable design. The part of me that’s still that kid from Wisconsin was satisfied by what we did next.

Using concrete rather than soil rendered retaining walls unnecessary so that, today, in their place, are aesthetic walls that reflect the community of Colton, California. They are a symbol of visible harmony between freight rail infrastructure and the community surrounding it.