Spring Drains helping alleviate rail problem

By Sandi Krasowski
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Thunder Bay, Ont. — A partnership between Supercom Industries LP and TBT Engineering is augmenting rail safety in Northwestern Ontario with a device called a Spring Drain or S-Drain.

In 2020, inventor Gord Maki, a geotechnical engineer with TBT Engineering, designed and patented the S-Drain that can stabilize railbeds in wetland areas by reducing peat boils that result in track maintenance and disruption to rail operations.  

Maki says North American railway systems are more than 100 years old with sections built over swamps and marshy areas. 

“When they first built these train tracks (and arrived at a swamp), they’d often just float the advancement over the peat,” Maki said, adding that the trains were a lot lighter back then compared to today’s much bigger and heavier rail cars. 

“What’s happening is that the cyclic loading of the train going over the peat causes the peat to lose its strength.”

Maki described a peat boil where pressurized peat squirts up through the middle of tracks or starts to flow through the tracks, causing settlements and deprivations which ultimately weakens the line. This in turn can lead to railbed instability, maintenance issues and track disruption from delays and even derailment.

Last week Transport Canada released a report on an Ignace derailment a few years ago identifying peat instability as the issue.

Maki says the basic concept of the Spring Drain is to manage and reduce the generation of excess pore-water pressures in the peat subgrade during the passing of a train. This is done through pressure relief  and load transfer as the Spring Drains also act as piles and transfer some of the train load to the soils below the peat. Studies showed pressure reductions of over 90 per cent after installation. 

Robert Starr is the business development manager with Supercom Industries, which is a collaboration of First Nation communities along the North Shore of Lake Superior that includes Fort William First Nation, Red Rock Indian Band, Pays Plat First Nation, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, Pic Mobert First Nation and Michipicoten First Nation. He says they are excited to manufacture, market and install the Spring Drains. 

“Prior to this we were the economic arm of the First Nations involvement in the East West Line transmission project,” Starr said, adding that’s where the partnership with TBT Engineering emerged.

To date there have been almost 1,600 Spring Drains installed in Northwestern Ontario with plenty of work ahead.

“This project is extremely important because it does several things that our communities strive for such as creating career paths,” Starr said. 

Starr says they are building a multistage national marketing plan to market the Spring Drain regionally and across Canada.