How the CP Railway replaced the Turkey River bridge in record time

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Workers who took part in the successful railroad bridge replacement project posed for a commemorative photo in this aerial shot. (Photo submitted)

Submitted by Canadian Pacific Railway 

Late on the night of March 14, 2019, large chunks of ice pressed against each other near the mouth of Iowa's Turkey River near Millville, forming a dam and causing the river to rise by six feet in mere minutes. Five spans of the bridge on CP's Marquette Subdivision main line across the river were lifted as a result and toppled into the icy water, leaving a 400-foot gap. 

On March 27, with all safety inspections completed, CP train 691, an empty potash train bound for Saskatchewan, eased across nine newly-installed spans over the Turkey River. What happened in between, during those mere 12 and a half days, was an astonishing engineering achievement. It is a testament to CP's strength and diversity and worthy of pride and celebration.

Making a plan

"Building such a substantial structure would ordinarily involve a year of planning and a full construction season of work," said Karl Rittmeyer, CP's Bensenville, Illinois-based Assistant Chief Engineer - Structures. The operations team sprang into action and quickly routed freight traffic over a more circuitous route through Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the engineering team formulated the replacement plan that would restore the line to operation in less than two weeks' time.

Vice-President of Engineering Justin Meyer could not contain his pride for the entire engineering team. "This was a unique situation that required our whole team to work collaboratively in a constantly changing environment," Meyer said. "In a situation as dynamic as this was, our team met and overcame every challenge in order to pull off an extraordinary project."

The first challenge required the team to identify bridge spans that could be ready for installation quickly. Decades ago, the route CP owns across Northern Illinois had operated as a double track route, but it has since been reduced to single track. This left vacant bridges in place where the second track used to run. Six of the nine replacement spans came from there, while contractors fabricated the other three from secondhand material. Once the spans were identified, workers executed a plan to lift the spans from their trackside locations in Illinois and route them to the worksite.

Pattison Sand Company

The first priority at the site was to clear the minimally maintained roadway of ice and spread gravel, to allow passage of the necessary machinery and equipment.

"The team then pushed a causeway more than 300 feet into the river adjacent to the missing spans to serve as a platform for cranes," said Scott Paradise, Chief Engineer - East Region. The 34,000 tons of material required to construct the causeway came from a CP customer about 20 miles away, Pattison Sand, with great assistance from owner Kyle Pattison.

"He and his team of more than 300 employees worked 24/7 to produce, load and transport that material," Paradise said. "We couldn't have done it without them."

Since the new spans were shorter than the old ones, new piers built on steel H-piles were needed to support them. Paradise said operators drove these piles 130 feet into the river's bottom, a depth necessary due to soft soil conditions. Meanwhile, the bridge spans were staged nearby and retrofitted to accommodate the new installation.

With all this happening, the engineering team had to take on one more challenge: elevating the entire bridge more than two feet to protect it from current and future flooding.

"We were just finishing driving the first bent when we started shifting gears and began work on an extensive bridge raise for the six intact spans at the south end of the bridge," Rittmeyer said. 

"It was extra work and we knew it, but we knew it would afford CP more reliable service going forward," Paradise added. Such a track raise would ordinarily take months, but it was completed in a matter of days.

Work pushed on day and night. A team of approximately 85 CP employees and contractors labored in difficult conditions, adjusting plans as needed. Despite the demanding nature of the work, no injuries or incidents resulted, a testament to CP's Home Safe culture.

"Another important task was to reroute trains during this time of construction, and we were able to do that because of our long-standing relationship with T&E employees and their union," said Tony Marquis, Senior Vice-President Operations – East Region. "By temporarily relocating some employees and adjusting work locations we were able to successfully meet the needs of the rerouted trains."

Four days before reopening, workers identified one final challenge that needed to be resolved: a 30-foot scour hole near a bridge pier underwater, which was the result of the causeway redirecting water flow. The arduous task of repairing the hole progressed quickly and did not delay reopening.

"We had a core group of 14 different leaders," Paradise said. "They recognized the support literally from the executive level right to the front line. Everybody maintained laser-like focus."

Teamwork and pride

Around midday on March 27, with the bridge completed and all required safety inspections done, the work crew stood aside for the first train to pass. They took a celebratory photo, a sea of orange vests and hardhats beside the structure they had created in such a short time. "It was an awesome feeling. It was an ecstatic moment," Rittmeyer said. "It felt like winning the World Series, having accomplished that. And there was a sigh of relief from everyone, to be back running.”

“It was almost emotional when we put the bridge in service,” Paradise said. “Everybody was very happy. It was more than happiness and joy and pride; it was emotion. We were all proud to be a part of the effort, working together.”

Rittmeyer’s team will perform permanent repairs this summer, replacing the short spans installed this spring with longer, better-fitting spans. The piles holding up the temporary spans will come down to allow for better river flow and the piers will be outfitted with new steel nose angles to deflect ice and debris. However, for the CP leaders who worked relentlessly and tirelessly to replace the Turkey River bridge, those 12 and a half days will be a source of pride for the rest of their careers.

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