Even though the construction industry is arguably more efficient than at any previous point in history, it isn’t uncommon for project planning and design to span several years. Incredibly, the stage for our team’s work in Gillette, Wyoming was set between 50 and 58 million years ago.
For over two-and-a-half decades, Balfour Beatty teammates have had the privilege of maintaining 250 miles of rail that transports coal from an area in Gillette known as the Powder River Basin, completing a journey that began when these fossil fuels were formed many millennia ago. Balfour Beatty’s work in Gillette isn’t just important—it’s absolutely indispensable. With rich reserves, the Powder River Basin provides about forty percent of the coal that powers America’s homes and businesses. In the coal industry—much like data centers—downtime can have catastrophic implications both for ongoing production and profitability.
And that’s precisely why the local railroads, BNSF and Union Pacific, have entrusted these tracks to the best maintenance team in the business. Balfour Beatty provides 24-hour service, which means if a tie breaks at 2:00 AM, our crews go full steam ahead at a moment’s notice. But the team’s reputation is built upon more than midnight service calls. The vast majority of the Gillette team has worked together for more than 20 years, developing a culture and camaraderie their customers can’t help but notice.
“When I hear someone in the construction industry say, ‘we’re a team, we’re a family,’ well, we really are the epitome of both,” praises Jeff Wass, senior operations manager for Balfour Beatty’s Rocky Mountain regional rail operations. “We built this business together.”
While the team is prepared to address any type of emergency, their creed is best summarized by the proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Each quarter, for example, the team utilizes ultrasonic technology to test for hairline cracks and other track abnormalities. An annual tie replacement program helps prevent one of the leading causes of derailment. Two fulltime crews inspect the tracks every month, impressively covering every square foot of their 60-mile radius. With eyes sharpened by decades of experience, the team can quickly identify signs that a misalignment is imminent. One of the most common occurs in the springtime, when rising temperatures cause steel to expand. Left unchecked, affected areas of track can buckle or sag. Speaking of weather, this team contends with some of the country’s most unforgiving. But not a single member would change the meteorological hand they’ve been dealt, their love for Gillette and the work they do running far deeper than any snowdrift.
Although the team prides itself on embodying the values of transparency, loyalty and responsibility to their clients and the community, none is more important than Zero Harm. Operating in and around active railroads requires an unrelenting focus on safety, and each member of the Gillette team is passionately focused on achieving it. In fact, as of mid-December 2017, the team has recorded over 500 consecutive days and over 150,000 man hours without an injury. Under the veteran leadership of Steve Gorton, rail operations manager who played a formative role in building and growing the Gillette team, Zero Harm has been both a journey and a destination.
While the team’s primary geography is the Powder River Basin, they strategically expanded and diversified their operations several years ago when market forces and regulations combined to decrease the demand for coal. Today, the team’s footprint extends into North and South Dakota, Idaho, Utah and Montana.
Just as buildings require ongoing repairs to sustain the demands placed on them, so does the transportation infrastructure that powers our economy. Since the days steam technology created the world’s first locomotive, effective maintenance has been vital to preserving one of the major threads that knits the United States together. It is the builders who often rise before dawn and work into the night, quietly and dutifully behind the scenes, who make that possible. Like coal, great construction teams take time to form, and as our Gillette team has proven, become treasured resources along the way.