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Brightline Trains Deploys Innovative Box-Jacking Technique in Orlando

by: Debra Wood
Granite Construction uses box-jacking on the Brightline Rail Project. Crews excavate from the opposite end from the jacking to make room as the box moves forward. (Photo courtesy of Granite Construction)
Granite Construction uses box-jacking on the Brightline Rail Project. Crews excavate from the opposite end from the jacking to make room as the box moves forward. (Photo courtesy of Granite Construction)
Brightline Trains, the first privately funded passenger rail system in the United States in more than a century, is building a $2.7 billion expansion from South to Central Florida, and in the Orlando area deployed an innovative box-jacking technique to reduce closure of a major road.

“We are looking to provide additional mobility options,” says Katie Mitzner, Public Affairs Manager for Brightline. “There is a long history of passenger rail in Florida. Brightline will give people another option for getting around the state.”

Train Travel From Orlando to Miami
Brightline looks at city pairs where rail could provide more reliable travel than existing highways. It began operations in 2018 in South Florida, from Miami to West Palm Beach, with a stop in Fort Lauderdale. In 2019, the company began the 170-mile extension to Orlando. Future plans include extending the rail line from Orlando to Tampa, Florida, with stations at Walt Disney World and Lakeland. The company hopes its rail service will re-energize neighborhoods.

Travel between Orlando and Miami will take about three hours. The new track runs adjacent to the East Coast Rail line for 129 miles from West Palm Beach to Cocoa and west parallel to the Beachline Expressway from Cocoa to Orlando and 4 miles through Orlando International Airport. The train’s station will be located at the airport’s intermodal terminal facility, which was completed in 2018.

Brightline also is building a 109,000-square-foot vehicle maintenance building, where trains will be washed and serviced on 62 acres south of the Orlando airport.

During construction, the project has created more than 10,000 jobs. The rail company divided the project into four zones, with different contractors. Work on all zones takes place concurrently and will consume more than 225 million pounds of American steel, 2 million spokes and bolts, and 2.35 million tons of granite and limestone, brought in by 20,000 rail cars.

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HNTB of Lake Mary, Florida, serves as the engineer of record for Brightline. The engineers proposed several innovative suggestions for building the most cost-effective design possible, said George Gilhooley, East Florida Office Leader for HNTB, which began the design process in 2015. That included relocating SR 528 above the Brightline tunnel in Brevard County east of Interstate 95, reconstructing ramps on SR 528 to minimize the rail bridges needed, using micropiles to avoid relocating utility lines, maintaining operations of airport tug roads, using on-site fill and recommending a high-speed turnout, so the trains can change tracks more quickly.

“With Brightline, you have to be creative,” Gilhooley says.

Granite Construction, with a Southeast Regional office in Tampa, Florida, received the contract for Zone 3, which includes 37 miles from Cocoa to Orlando. It has 21 structures, including 18 deck beam bridges over roads and water, two underpasses and one pre-cast tunnel under SR 528. Traffic on SR 528 in Brevard County will be shifted north during construction of the tunnel.

“There will be no public at-grade road crossings,” says Kevin Brancheau, Assistant Project Manager with Brightline.

The project includes some wetland mitigation and tortoise relocation.

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Zone 3 also includes subgrade work, MSE walls, drainage, embankments, a 600-foot-long precast tunnel and track. Granite is using GPS machine controls on its equipment.

To move 1 million yards of material from a borrow pit to build up the location where the tunnel will be built, Granite constructed a conveyor that moves dirt 22 feet above traffic.

Box-Jacking Deployed for Underpass
Box-jacking for the underpass at Goldenrod Road in Orlando represents only the third time the technique has been used in North America. This box jacking method was first used in the United States earlier this year on the Long Island Railroad expansion project in New York City.

“It’s very unique,” Brancheau says. “It’s impressive. It’s been a smooth experience and been well received by all parties.”

The construction method is commonly used in Asia and Europe. Petrucco of Italy developed the system.

“The box-jacking speaks to Brightline and our innovative approaches to bringing passenger rail travel back to Florida,” Mitzner said. “It’s just one example, but an impressive one.”

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Granite suggested the box-jacking as a value engineering recommendation, after researching different techniques, says Richard Brown, Project Manager for Granite.

“We saw it as a way to get most of the construction done on this underpass with little impact to traffic,” Brancheau says. “Our contractor can work safely, and we’re not interrupting the traveling public.”

Brancheau praised Granite’s planning and anticipation of any potential issues related to the box-jacking. This was the construction firm’s first box-jacking project.

Granite built the two concrete boxes side-by-side, adjacent to their final location, starting in January 2020. It took less than six months. The concrete, approximately 3,100 cubic yards, required a traditional 28-day cure. The walls and tops are more than 2 feet thick and the bottom is 3 feet thick.

The boxes are 146 feet and 126 feet long respectively with 42-foot sidewalls. Each box weights more than 3,000 tons, stands three stories high and can hold three semi-trucks end-to-end. Five-foot thick concrete thrust blocks, with a 100-foot tall dirt mound behind them, were used to jack the boxes into place.

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Once Goldenrod Road was closed to traffic, crews excavated down a path from the opposite direction to make room for the box. Small amounts of dirt were removed in front of the box as it moved forward. The box supported the open excavation, eliminating a need for shoring. Then a hydraulic jacking system, with 14 jacks, pushed the boxes into place. The push capacity is 4,000 tons. The system moved each box about 3 feet per hour.

“You push out 19 inches, put a spacer in, push another 19 inches, and keep going until you get it in place,” Brown explains.

The blue supports are placed where the box had been. Once the box is in place, the supports are removed. The two boxes were inched along, nonstop.

“It went well, and we were ahead of schedule,” Brown says.

The box-jacking operation enabled Granite to build the underpass and close Goldenrod for less than two weeks, rather than a 10- or 12-month closure for the traditional construction of an underpass. Forty workers working 12-hour shifts kept the process going around the clock.

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The jacks have 12 different cylinders, allowing for manipulation to achieve precise locations, so it is perfectly aligned.

Once the boxes were in place, crews repaved Goldenrod Road. The mounds of dirt supporting the thrust blocks and the blocks were removed. Granite finished the first box-jacking four days ahead of schedule. “It’s a big accomplishment to get to this point,” Brancheau says. “It’s a cool experience.”

Granite checked the alignment of the boxes with a robotic total station every three hours, around the clock. Track will be laid through the underpass during the second half of 2021.

Granite and Brightline also plan to use the box-jacking method to build a rail underpass under SR 528 at U.S. 1 in Brevard County in 2021. It will require three boxes. SR 528 – a hurricane evacuation route – will not be closed to traffic, but will be reduced to one lane in each direction while boxes are box-jacked under the road.

Construction activity along the entire route should wrap up toward the end of 2022 and testing with the trains will begin. Post-construction, Brightline anticipates the extension will create 2,000 jobs. The project has gone smoothly, with the owner, engineer and contractor working collaboratively.

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“It’s a great team,” Gilhooley concludes. “The team is committed to knocking this thing out.”

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