The gates go down, signals start flashing and drivers wait for the rail traffic. Usually it is a freight train or Amtrak passenger service, but sometimes the wait at the crossing is brief because what goes by on the tracks is not a train, but a truck — a railroad service vehicle, customized to run on the rails.
Where the trucks are headed, most of the drivers may not know or care, but odds are the truck came from Marion. Many of the vehicles retrofitted with what is called “high rail” kits are customized by Rail Ready Services, a family-owned company located not far from downtown Marion.
“We build pickup trucks, we build utility beds, we build welder trucks, we build dump trucks, all kinds of stuff,” said Tony Lloyd, president of the company which he started with his brother.
Lloyd says both brothers were mechanically inclined and were doing a variety of jobs. Asked once to “upfit” a truck for rail service, the pair realized they may have found their calling.
Fifteen years later, the company is “upbuilding” as many as 60 trucks a year.
“We’ve done work for all of the Class One railroads and we work for all kinds of short lines, contractors, private companies and contractors,” Lloyd said, adding that the company puts the high rail kits on everything from half-ton pickup trucks to full-size Freightliners.
“The wheels that they run on the tracks are called high rails,” he said. “There are companies that make the high rails and we get the kits from them and put them on the vehicles. On the bigger trucks, we design the hydraulic systems (that raise and lower the high rails).”
Lloyd says in addition to the rail wheel systems, his company does a lot to get the trucks ready for use on the railroads.
“It depends on the truck, but we usually will install running boards, first aid kits, electronic systems, back up alarms, cameras, safety systems and decals. The railroads are big on decals,” he said.
He adds that Rail Ready Services has to adhere to a long list of federal and state regulations regarding safety as well as checklists produced by both the railroads and the truck manufacturers. The company’s biggest client is the Canadian National railway with tracks that run through Southern Illinois.
Lloyd says there are other companies that do what his does and he often gets to see their work.
“Most companies don’t have track that they can sit their equipment on and track test, but we do. So we have had some Class One railroads get trucks built other places and send them to us to finish the final testing and track testing,” he said. “We do several of those a year.”
All of Rail Ready Services trucks are rail tested because the company’s facility sits on the lines of the Crab Orchard and Egyptian Railway that operates between Marion and Herrin.
“We rent track time, get clearance and get to use the track. It’s a real advantage," he said.
Lloyd says he is one of the few people who don’t mind when the gates come down and he has to wait as a rail service truck crosses in front of him.
“It happens all of the time and it feels good. I love having the kids in the car and I can point out to them, ‘There’s one of our trucks.’ I like that,” he said.
He says plans are to continue to grow the company, keep uplifting trucks and hopefully, someday pass the company on to his son.
“We have 15 brand new pickup trucks in the shop now. We’re busy, but I love it. I guess someday they’ll drag me out from under a truck when I die."