Vegetation clearing made possible by helicopter

Norfolk Southern’s Maintenance of Way and Structures team works year-round to keep our tracks clear of vegetation. It’s critical to helping our trains operate safely and efficiently, and passing without obstruction.

Tree branch removal is central to our vegetation management strategy. This is critical for several reasons:

  • Overgrown branches can be hazardous to our railroaders and damage equipment when struck, including potentially derailing equipment.
  • Proper vegetation management along our tracks enhances visibility for train crews.
  • Branches left unmanaged for a significant amount of time can interlock overhead on both sides of the track, creating a tunnelling effect. Snow and ice can accumulate on the overgrowth, hampering clearance efforts and making conditions hazardous for work crews.

Beyond our maintenance crews, we often get a helping hand from above, by helicopter to be precise. A pilot suspends a 90-foot arm from the helicopter with 10 spinning circular saws on each side. Blades can cut the branches back to the trunk line or within 10 feet of the trunk, depending on the size of the tree. Using helicopters to cut tree limbs reduces the risk posed by high voltage power lines and improves right of way access. 

“We began using helicopters as part of our vegetation management strategy in 2018,” said Dwayne Gibson, AVP Maintenance of Way and Structures. “Since that time, helicopters have proven to be a safer, more efficient, and productive way to clear branches, particularly in the many inaccessible locations across our network.”

Over the past year, we have used helicopters to clear multiple core routes out of Atlanta leading to key terminals, including Charlotte, Birmingham, and Manassas, Virginia. Other routes cleared include Birmingham to New Orleans and Chattanooga to Memphis. The Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas Pacific from Chattanooga to Cincinnati is currently underway being cleared.