Selling in the infrastructure segment isn’t easy, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

When Canadian Pacific Railway needed to renovate an old, decaying steel bridge in Fernie, British Columbia, it turned to HCB Inc. In late October 2014, Canadian Pacific crews replaced the original bridge with two parallel prefabricated bridge modules utilizing Hillman Composite Beams (HCB®).

“In its simplest embodiment, the HCB is an FRP box with a steel tension tie in the bottom flange resisting the thrust from a concrete arch inside the box,” says John Hillman, CEO and president of HCB Inc. The FRP outer shell provides shear strength, the concrete arch offers compressive strength and the steel reinforcement running longitudinally provides tension capacity.

The composite solution is ideal for railroad bridges, which are typically installed with rail-mounted locomotive cranes, often in remote locations. “Canadian Pacific decided that a concrete span would be too heavy for the cranes and steel is too expensive,” says Hillman. “So HCB became Goldilocks on that project. It fit just right.”

The 33-foot long, single span bridge was installed in under 10 hours. This was critical to the customer because railway traffic must be stopped during construction. “The HCB span was installed in even less time than anticipated, providing us the ability to ‘give back the track’ and resume train operations quickly and effectively,” says John F. Unsworth, deputy chief of engineer structures for Canadian Pacific Railway. “The installation was a resounding success.”

The railroad bridge in Fernie is one of nearly 20 HCB installations in North America since 2007, when the company first introduced the product. Structural beams like the HCB are among a handful of FRP products making headway in the infrastructure market. Others include bridge decks, rebar, strengthening structures and pilings.

“Infrastructure is a promising area, but it’s going to take time to work our way forward,” says Scott Reeve, president of Composite Advantage, a Dayton, Ohio-based company that supplies FRP products for bridges, waterfront infrastructure and rail platforms.

Overcoming Roadblocks

Companies committed to advancing composites in the infrastructure market face some roadblocks. “It’s the FUD factor – fear, uncertainty and doubt,” says Doug Gremel, director of nonmetallic reinforcing for Hughes Brothers Inc. in Seward, Neb. His company began bridge work more than 20 years ago. “Government bureaucrats are usually the owners or specifiers of bridge materials, and they aren’t typically open to change because there’s high risk. So while we may have a great solution that’s becoming more proven, they’re not going to be among the first to adopt something new.”