Freight Car Friday – Transporting Track

27 09 2013

Seeing railroad track under a train is nothing unusual – but when it comes to trains carrying the track there are lots of options. The railroad right of way is constantly in need of attention and materials must be transported to the job site some how. How better than by rail?

“Stick Rail”

rail flat

A load of freshly rolled rail from Steelton, PA makes its first trip on a car converted from an older 89′ TOFC flatcar. Note the markings on the new rail.

Since the beginning, rail, ties and other components have been shipped to the work site in individual pieces. Rail typically came in 33 foot lengths – sized to fit nicely in most gondolas. At the work site, the rails were unloaded by a small crane and then placed by hand by several workers using rail tongs.

Rail come in several sizes or “weights.” The heavier the rail the heavier the load it can carry. In the United States, 60 pound (per yard) rail represents the light end, with 212 pounds being the heaviest. Most rail today is 152 pounds. The number of men required to move the rail depended greatly on the weight. Each pair of tongs is a two-man tool and between eight and sixteen men were typically used to move each section of rail.

Rail of this size is relatively easy to transport and install. But the frequent joints (that familiar “clickety-clack”) also increase the opportunity for wear, fatigue and failure. Shorter rail lengths are still used today in many places. In addition to the old 33′ standard, longer cars make 85′ rail lengths more practical.

Welded Rail

welded rail train.

Also coming from Steelton, this Norfolk Southern welded rail train carries stacks of much longer rail. The old boxcar serves both as a tool car and protection for the locomotive in case the rail should shift.

Railroads first began experimenting with continuous welded rail in the 1940s. Also sometimes called “ribbon rail” these extremely long lengths of rail reduce the number of joints and maintenance needed.

These rails are normally transported on long trains, spanning multiple cars, and supported on racks added to converted flat cars or gondolas. These trains make quite an impression as they snake through curves and switches. It is a testimony to the flexibility of steel and the tremendous weight of the railcars that these trains can navigate the trackwork that they do.

Even in these long trains however, the rail is shorter than what is optimal. At the end of the train, a set of special cars are equipped with a machines that can pull the rail from the racks and lower it to the roadbed. As the end of one section is reached, it is welded to the next to create rail sections over a mile in length.

empty car

An empty welded rail flat gives a better perspective on the racks. These cars were made from retired pulpwood flats.

Once deposited next to the existing track, additional machines are used to remove the old rail and replace it with new. Some of these machines can also replace ties simultaneously, rebuilding the entire track bed in one continuous automated motion.

Expansion joints must still be placed at regular intervals to account for the expansion of the rail in hot weather. Generally, railroads prefer to lay new rail when it is hot. If the rail should cool it will break apart. This will at least trigger the automatic signal systems to stop oncoming trains. Rail that expands after installation is more likely to bow out of gauge – just as capable of derailing a train but without providing any warning.

Panel Track

switch panels

Pre-made switches ride in old and newer cars. The rear car came from an 89′ flatcar. The lead cars were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

If you thought model railroaders were the only ones who used pre-made track, well think again. For fast reconstruction, railroads will often pre-build track panels to be transported already assembled to the site. This can be used for switches on busy mainlines or for regular track in the event of a derailment. In both of these cases, getting the railroad back together and in operation as quickly as possible is a priority.

These panels must be carried to the job site. Regular track sections typically lay flat on flatcars and can be stacked about three sections tall. Switches must be shipped in sections and carried on an angle due to their width. Again, a crane or other heavy equipment is essential for loading and unloading. These panels are beyond the limits of men and tongs!


A switch panel car or welded rail train would require a lot of modeling effort. Hauling stick rail of various lengths or even straight panel sections however is an easy load project. In addition to the rails, you’ll want to include wood blocks and tie downs to keep your load secure. Send along a crane and some track workers and you’ve got a great scene for a corner of your layout.



3 responses

27 09 2013
David R. Goodhart

An excellent presentation on such an interesting subject. One of the best to date.

27 09 2013
Andrew Falconer

To make a train for Welded Rail in O Scale someone at Lionel can have an injection molding company make a rail rack to put on the 40′ Flat Cars. Then you can have the company extruded rails made out of a rubbery plastic, so they bend when the train rolls through tight curves.

27 09 2013
Andrew Falconer

Correction: Then you can have the plastics company produce extruded rails made out of a rubbery plastic.

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