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Every month should be a safe month. But in June, the National Safety Council (NSC) gives a safety shout out to reducing injury or death in areas in which we spend the most time - on the road, at home and work.

As part of the month’s activities, NSC is a proud co-sponsor of Safe+Sound week (June 12-18). The OSHA-led campaign promotes the value of safety and health programs in the workplace. Aligning with this week, VAA offered its employees OSHA 10 training. The 10-hour, in-house session led by Lari Kippen, CHST, of OECS, Inc., a firm specializing in compliance training, teaches individuals to recognize hazards and protect themselves from injuries in the workplace. At VAA, the focus is on jobsite hazards and the conduct expected from employees visiting these locations to promote safety.

VAA developed its Safety Program in 2012. Since its inception, almost 70% of the firm has completed the OSHA 10 training course. “We are driven by the safety standards of our clients and the parameters set by the design-build contractors we work with,” said Program Safety Manager, David Olheiser, PE. “Our priority is the health of our employees. As a company, we offer individuals training to instill confidence and comfort when on site. The value is in being aware - from using fall protection to recognizing confined space constraints and electrical hazards to OSHA rules and compliance.”

Does your firm offer a Safety Program? If you are on the hunt for resources, a video promoting OSHA’s Safe+Sound week and additional links are available on NSC’s website to start your own program. There is no such thing as too much safety and sometimes the best sound is to be #SafeandSound.

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Asking the Right Questions
The goal of any design is to make the finished product look simple. When a rail design is complete, the end result is a set amount of linear track serving as a connection from a facility to a mainline or export terminal. However, the design process includes hidden complexities and details in between the final “point A to point B.”

In starting a new project, asking a client the right questions about their current needs and future goals is essential before moving forward with a design. Answering the following questions will inform what design options fit the site and provide the best result for a client.

  • What commodities will be handled, both now and in the future?
  • What is the desired volume of product in and out of the facility?
  • How many cars will be moved at once?
  • How long will cars be on the site?
  • Will mainline power (locomotives), industry owned locomotives or other means be used to move cars?
  • Is the client under a specific time constraint for the turn-around of cars on site?

Another question to consider, do you pay demurrage? Demurrage is a charge paid by the owner of a shipment resulting from a failure to load or ship within the time allowed. In most cases, the owner will have a specified amount of time to load / unload the cars before the mainline picks them back up. Exceeding these time constraints often triggers additional costs that can escalate quickly. Planning and designing for both the needs of the client as well as their intentions for the facility’s use are interconnected and rely on each other to accomplish business and revenue goals.

Horizontal Geometry and Minimizing Impact
Rail is designed using a combination of curves and straight rail known as tangents. A curve is defined by its curve radius and many factors can influence what curve radius is used on a project. The most common factor is the potential strain on the train and rails. Without careful planning, these curves can increase maintenance costs for both cars and the rails themselves. Tighter curves experience more wear as rolling stock (locomotives and cars) have to travel through them and are much more likely to derail. Designing curves too tight can also result in an alarmingly loud squeal of rolling steel, which is harmful to facility operators and invasive to the surrounding environment.

Taking a detailed approach in designing horizontal geometry can minimize impact on the environment, the long-term strain on the rail and the client’s project costs. The largest environmental issue in rail design is jurisdictional wetlands. Any proposed impact to a wetland requires mitigation with the DNR or the Army Corps of Engineers and replacement of up to three times the amount of the impacted area. While this process is lengthy and potentially costly, it is necessary as good stewards of the environment. Working proactively with these regulatory entities leads to design options that are both environmentally responsible and address facility transportation needs.

Horizontal geometry can also be impacted by the proximity to the existing mainline and easements / railroad rights of way as well as other site constraints, including existing buildings, roads, underground utilities, etc.

Vertical Geometry and Addressing Constraints
Identifying the best rail infrastructure for a project is dependent on the goals for the facility, requirements set by the mainline and site elevations. Different design types are used to optimize a site for car storage or efficient loading / unloading rates. Both loop and ladder tracks can allow for on-site car storage; however, a loop generally accommodates more, averaging 120 cars. Ladder tracks are best for long-term storage when the client has less available real estate for rail development.

Rail designs are required to work within the constraints of the connecting railroad. BNSF Railway, CN, CP, CSX, NS, UP, etc. each have different requirements, making it crucial to address the design criteria from the start. For example, each railroad has specific formulas for calculating measurements related to a vertical curve. A vertical curve is the transition from two different slopes, in the same or opposite direction. An integral part of rail design, these curves have to be gradual enough so a train will not derail, but tight enough to fit within the facility site layout.

One of the last components of the vertical design is the maximum slope for each type of rail. The elevation of the connecting railway and the type of rail design used dictates the slope. The design needs to be considered flat in places the rail will be storing cars or connecting to another line. Most sites will use cut and fill to bring the site to the appropriate elevation and to meet the requirements of the railroad. It is important to minimize the amount of dirt work required to keep costs down for the client.

Efficiency in Design
Rail design requires creativity and a thoughtful approach to make the end product efficient. From start to finish on a project, precise design techniques should be used to provide the exact amount of rail needed for the predicted volume of rail cars. If the client knows they are bringing in a 120-car shuttle train on a loop, design exactly the length needed to fit all 120 cars and three locomotives. This length is defined as the “clear length” of the rail and places the cars on both tracks leading into the turnout as close as they can be to the switch without colliding. This will save the client on land, earthwork and construction costs.

Keeping efficiency in mind during the design process can cut costs. Incorporating these cost saving measures into a rail design planned around client needs and site constraints will help create the best solution.

About the Author

Nick Hubbard

Nick is a Senior Civil Designer at VAA, responsible for preparing and organizing site / civil / rail drawings and exhibits for the firm’s industrial, agribusiness and commercial sectors. He excels at drafting and designing rail for shuttle trains, grading plans, storm sewer / utilities, generating site layouts and coordinating permitting efforts with underground regulatory agencies.

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Fourteen VAA employees volunteered to build a house in North Minneapolis with Habitat for Humanity (Habitat). With a range of construction skill levels, the team was divided into groups to work on various aspects of the four-bedroom home. Employees mainly contributed to the framing and construction of interior and exterior walls, stairs and front porch.

Mounir Najm, one of the VAA outreach event organizers, said these builds are valuable volunteer and educational opportunities. “It is gratifying to see the application of design in the field – obviously the positive impact on helping others, but participating in the process improves our drafting and designs in the future.”

Locally, Habitat helps low income families in the Twin Cities community through programs like Habitat Homebuilding, A Brush with Kindness and Family Support Services. The organization as a whole operates worldwide, dedicated to empowering families by helping them “acquire the access, skills and financial education necessary for them to be successful homeowners.” Learn more about the organizations work or volunteering on the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity website.

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“Safe!” An action shot from a recent Armstrong Falcons (red jerseys) baseball game captured VAA’s banner among others on the fence line.

As a community field sponsor, VAA is supporting District 281's construction efforts for a full-field replacement at the Armstrong High School. The District's two-year investment and Baseball Booster Club mission is to provide a safe, playable field for teams. There are a few Armstrong sports program alums at VAA who learned first-hand the value of team sports. VAA is proud to support Armstrong's field of dreams slated to open for the upcoming season. Go Falcons!

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These common issues are often overlooked at grain facilities. Addressing problems with the right solutions can make your operation more efficient.


1. Truck Scaling, Probing and Staging

Problem: If you can’t get trucks in and out of your site fast enough the pit will sit idle.


  • Make sure there are enough scales to service the facility.
  • Have enough room between the truck probe and the inbound scale and enough room between the inbound scale and the receiving pit. This allows trucks waiting for test results to not tie up the receiving pit, probe or scale for others.

2. Receiving Pit Hopper

Problem: An undersized receiving hopper can limit the speed at which materials are brought in. Any time the hopper is sitting empty is lost capacity.


  • Size the hopper to hold enough material so it is not empty when switching from one truck to the next.
  • Put in larger receiving grates and/or hoppers. This allows trucks to open multiple discharge gates at one time.

3. Rail Reclaim

Problem: Rail cars are occasionally overfilled in the loading process. Without a quick and easy unload system, this can slow down the train filling process and take longer to get a train off site.


  • Having a portable unloader that slides under the rail car to unload the product to a truck is a fairly simple way to handle reclaim spilled product at an existing elevator.
  • In new elevators, put a reclaim pit under the rail. Depending on the site layout, doing this may also make it easy to add an extra truck receiving pit on the same conveyor for use during harvest, or if the main receiving pit is out of service.

4. Ability to Turn Your Product

Problem: When grain storage is an ancillary part of a process facility, often times the ability to move product from one bin to another is not available, which can make cleaning out a bin more difficult.


  • By adding two-way valves at the head of the reclaim conveyor or the head of the reclaim leg, it may be possible to send the reclaimed product back to the distribution system. With certain products, depending on the availability of aeration in the bins or the moisture level, this will provide the ability to turn the bins to help prevent the product from setting up.

5. Bulk Rail Loadout and Receiving

Problem: With decreasing time allotted by the railroads for shuttle train loading / unloading, many facilities do not have the ability to get trains processed fast enough.


  • Loop tracks are usually the easiest way to manage shuttle trains, as the train can be left in one continuous string; however, this type of track requires more land. If land is not available for a loop, consider a ladder configuration. This will almost always require breaking the shuttle into multiple strings for switching operations. If a train needs to be broken into multiple segments to be loaded, try to keep the train in as few segments as possible, and have as little travel time as possible between switching strings.
  • Consider the track and rail car movement on the site when sizing the loading equipment. Facilities where trains need to be split into multiple strings will need faster loading equipment to fill a train in at the same speed as a loop track facility.
  • Make sure the upper and lower garners on the scale system are sized large enough. This will prevent frequent stops of all the reclaim equipment when switching between rail cars - keep the system moving.

Interested in learning more about improving your grain facility? Talk to Bernie Jansen, Doug Rohkohl and Paul Murphy who regularly serve VAA’s Agribusiness clients.