Reliable Communications Critical to Railroad Operation

May 14, 2020

Geotechnical work at a rail telecom tower site.

What would happen to airline safety if air traffic controllers were not reliable? Communication in the railroad industry is as critical as air traffic controllers in the airline industry. U.S. Railroads use approximately 140,000 miles of track. Maintaining clear communication with onboard personnel along every leg of a freight train’s journey is of critical importance. In fact, for Class I rail systems, constant communication between trains and traffic control centers is required by federal regulations.

When it comes to how they communicate, railroad operators are basically like the general public. They use cell signals, depending on the cellular network system. But, unlike us, they can’t hit “dead spots.” The long distances through rural areas of the country make it necessary for telecom towers to be positioned near railroad tracks. Rail companies rely on Terracon to help determine how and where to build telecom towers on ever-changing and geotechnically challenging sites.

Tower Up (Always)

The railroad operations must make plans for their cellular networks, and those plans call for their own cell towers. Cell towers must meet the challenges of tremendous forces, like wind and other loading conditions, and therefore need a robust foundation system that is designed for the subsurface conditions beneath the tower.

Terracon provides solutions for many rail companies to assist in the construction and maintenance of dependable, resilient communication platforms. Since 1985 we have explored subsurface conditions and assisted in the design of cellular tower foundations for more than 100,000 towers.

Our Technique

To meet the challenges posted by different terrain for various tower locations, different exploration methods are used. Terracon starts geotechnical exploration by predicting the soil and groundwater conditions using millions of data points we’ve been gathering for more than 50 years. Next, a plan is developed for site exploration and laboratory testing to analyze the subsurface conditions.


The team goes to the proposed tower location to perform soil borings, in-situ tests, and geophysical tests as planned. Soil samples are tested in one of our local laboratories to evaluate the characteristics and strength of the supporting soils, as well as potential for settlement, swelling and other characteristics.

Foundation design parameters are determined based on geotechnical analysis of field and laboratory data, taking into consideration loads from the tower itself and associated loads such as wind and ice.  Using the design information, the railroads are able to construct a means to communicate from the cellular towers with the dependability that is essential to the safe transport of freight and passengers.

Timing is Critical

At times, the Terracon team may be challenged to help a client bring a tower on-line in a short amount of time because an essential upgrade requirement is needed. That is where Terracon has become a trusted partner to the rail industry. Our nationwide network of more than 175 locations serving all 50 states with internally operated drill rigs and laboratories helps to meet these challenges by producing these reports quickly and efficiently.

Like Terracon, our Class I railroad clients place the highest priority on safety. Terracon’s site crews receive specialized training for working near rail lines. Access to remote telecom tower sites is coordinated with neighboring property owners. Appropriate pre-task planning allows crews to work safely and avoid delays.

Terracon has completed more than $1.3 million of geotechnical work on telecom towers for the Class I railroads over the past six years, while maintaining a track record of safety and accurate geotechnical reporting. We are proud to help America’s massive railroad industry meet their transportation needs with reliable communication that starts at the foundation of their cellular towers.

Andrew Verity is a national account manager based out of Dallas, Texas. His primary focus is on transportation and infrastructure with a particular interest in freight rail and dams and levees.  He is also heavily involved in the deep foundations industry and therefore the specialized geotechnical contractors.

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