Staying on Track: Secrets of Railroad Vegetation Management

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Railroad track

Vegetation management is important to the railroad industry. Problematic plant species can pose safety hazards and hinder productivity, which is why freight and passenger railroad companies must find ways to control them effectively. One approach has become the standard for industry vegetation management professionals by providing improved results and economic benefits.

Tree, brush and weed species pose a significant threat to railroad infrastructure across the country every year.

Various forms of roadbed deterioration, including poor drainage, railcar slippage and compromised railroad mechanics can be caused by the development of incompatible plant species throughout railroad rights-of-way. Troublesome weeds, trees and tall-growing brush can also cause fire hazards and create line-of-sight issues for motorists at railroad crossings or engineers looking for centralized traffic control signals. But these issues can be avoided.

Unlike mechanical mowing practices that stimulate regrowth in targeted plant species and destroy native plant communities, selective herbicides can be used to effectively eliminate targeted plant species over time without disturbing native vegetation. This supports the development of desirable low-growing plant communities along roadbeds, preventing accidents and keeping rail cars moving smoothly.

From an investment standpoint, studies have shown that mechanical mowing is initially three to four times more expensive than herbicide-based treatments. Selective herbicides help eliminate communities of incompatible vegetation that would otherwise require ongoing maintenance under a mowing-based strategy, providing increased cost savings over time.

Decades of Excellence

A founding member of the National Railroad Contractors Association (NRCA) and one of the most established railroad vegetation management companies in the industry, RWC Inc. has used selective herbicide applications for freight and passenger railroad companies since 1961. Headquartered in Westerville, Ohio, the company specializes in reducing the height of vegetation at railroad crossings, eliminating tall broadleaf weeds from ballast zones and keeping problematic vegetation clear of right-of-way corridors or off-track areas. Rodney Osburn, co-vice president along with his brother Jeff, understands the advantages selective herbicide applications provide to railroad management programs.

“By combating the growth of problematic weeds, we can limit the number of times we have to go back for additional treatments,” Rodney says. “This helps to reduce maintenance costs for our clients.”

Mechanical mowing can only be used after unwanted plant species emerge, but herbicide applications can effectively control undesirable vegetation before it germinates. RWC uses preemergent herbicide applications on every track mile in the spring to proactively control unwanted plants like marestail, pigweed, waterhemp and kochia. Selective foliar applications like directed, spot spraying are then used throughout the remainder of the year to eliminate any targeted plant species showing signs of development.

“RWC doesn’t cut, trim or pull anything,” Rodney says. “We only spray herbicides. Whether it’s a mainline mile, double track mile or siding mile, we work to treat every bit of the railroad at least once a year.”

Selective herbicides benefit the railroad industry
Selective herbicides benefit the railroad industry

Railroad Vegetation Management Solutions and Support

Rodney and Jeff Osburn oversee equipment use for the company’s weed, grass and brush control programs, which are applied throughout railroad rights-of-way in more than 30 states. Off-track vehicles, spray trains and hy-rail trucks (<1K gal) are used to complete the company’s herbicide treatments along nearly 40,000 miles of railroad each year.

RWC also chooses the formulations it sprays on most of the railroads it manages. Rodney and Jeff use their expertise to identify the best products for their clients, but the reliable support of Homer Deckard, vegetation management specialist with Corteva Agriscience, has been very helpful.

Deckard has served railroad vegetation management programs with industry insights and Corteva’s evolving portfolio of herbicide products since 1981. He provides new chemistry recommendations to railroad vegetation managers, as well as product performance assessments and strategies that align with industry best practices. And while RWC continues to serve its clients with cutting-edge products and cost-effective solutions, Deckard notes that inferior herbicide products are temptations that vegetation managers are wise to avoid.

“There are less-effective herbicides out there that may allow you to treat at a lower cost per acre, but those options usually offer shorter treatment cycles,” Deckard says. “That can lead to additional treatment requirements each year. And while manufacturers of cheaper products may offer lower prices upfront, they often fail to provide technical and claims support to their customers, which are valued resources for today’s practitioners.”

To effectively control invasive weed and brush species, RWC often uses herbicide products like Opensight® and Tordon® 22K. Combating herbicide-resistant weeds also requires RWC to regularly evaluate the performance of herbicides in the field. Necessary adjustments are then applied based on the company’s findings, which is a best practice for industry professionals as far as Deckard is concerned.

“Rotating chemistry is a recommended strategy for today’s herbicide programs,” Deckard says. “Introducing new active ingredients can help to minimize resistance, lengthen the life cycle of effective chemistries and improve long-term vegetation control.”

TerraVue herbicide is the most recent addition to RWC’s arsenal of selective herbicides. TerraVue helps to prevent weed resistance and strengthens bareground mixes. The compatibility of TerraVue with multiple tank-mix partners is also an added benefit for vegetation management programs that rotate chemistries to battle weed resistance.

Achieving the Ultimate Goal

Providing reliable, effective and cost-efficient solutions to its customers is extremely important to RWC. And thanks to the application flexibility, enhanced efficacy and economic benefits provided by the company’s herbicide program, there doesn’t seem to be a need to change its approach anytime soon.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to keep the corridor of each right-of-way free of weeds,” Jeff says. “And as far as what you get out of them, the benefits of selective herbicide applications are invaluable.”

For help identifying the right herbicide solutions for your railroad management needs, contact your local vegetation management specialist from Corteva Agriscience or visit


™ ® Trademarks of Corteva Agriscience and its affiliated companies. Tordon® 22K is a Restricted Use Pesticide. Opensight® has no grazing or haying restrictions for any class of livestock, including lactating dairy cows, horses (including lactating mares) and meat animals prior to slaughter. Label precautions apply to forage treated with Opensight and to manure and urine from animals that have consumed treated forage. Consult the label for full details. Always read and follow label directions.

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