Spring is finally here and with it comes the start of another busy maintenance season on the tracks and rights of way around the country. A proper roadbed is critical for keeping the tracks in proper alignment through all of those “April Showers.” Ballast provides a support for the ties and rail and also helps drain water away from the track. Keeping the ballast clean and replenished, requires a variety of specialized rail cars and equipment.
Railroads purchase their ballast from quarries in large lots. Online customers are preferred whenever possible of course, and railroads can be very particular about whose stone is used. Even today’s large carriers often purchase ballast from only a handful of suppliers. Often you could tell the owner of the railroad by the color of the ballast such as the Chicago and North Western’s “Pink Lady” stone.
Granite is the rock of choice, but to minimize expense railroads will often blend multiple grades of rock. Yards and sidings typically get a lower grade than the mainline and would see a higher concentration of limestone. In the steam era, cinders were frequently recycled for use in spurs.
The hoppers which transport the ballast are typically no larger than 70 ton capacity cars. While it is not uncommon to see standard hoppers pressed into this service, most ballast cars are designed with different hopper door arrangements which disperse the stone along the sides and parallel with the rails as opposed to dumping piles in the middle of the gauge.
Ever thrifty with company cars, many railroads convert older hopper, gondola and even covered hoppers for use as ballast cars in addition to new purchases. Adding to the fun for modelers, equipment like this often passes down through owners or mergers and is usually at the bottom of the priority list for repainting. When work equipment is painted, different color schemes are often used to call immediate attention to its restricted use.
In addition to hoppers, side dump cars are also used. These are normally reserved for right of way projects like fills and embankments. The side dump cars can carry rock, dirt and rip-rap in larger sizes than can be practically handled through hopper doors. And they can drop their load along the side of the rails almost anywhere.
Ballast cars may run as a dedicated train, or mixed in with a regular consist.
The cars used to haul the stone to the work site might be pretty straight forward, but the equipment used to finish the job is anything but ordinary. Once maintained by picks, shovels and sweat, today’s rights of way are groomed by specialized machines large and small – and sweat. While the labor force of a typical “section gang” can rebuild scores of miles of track today, the work is no less demanding and dangerous.
Typically ballast work is performed around other maintenance projects, including replacing ties, broken spikes or rail clips and other hardware as part of a comprehensive annual maintenance program.
If the ballast needs to be cleaned, this is done before dropping new stone. “Cleaning” the ballast involves removing dirt, weeds, and any other impurities including spilled lading from the passing trains. All of these can clog the drainage field, leading to larger and more expensive problems if not kept in check. Ballast cleaners are enormous machines which continuously scoop up the stone, filter it through screens and redeposit the ballast on the track while discharging the waste to the side of the roadbed or into hoppers for removal.
After cleaning or after replenishing the roadbed with new ballast, the stones must be tamped around and under the ties to maintain a proper and consistent track profile. The alignment of the rails must be checked again and finally, the new stones must be groomed to a proper profile. These jobs are handled by smaller equipment, usually operated by one or two workers each.
Much of this smaller equipment is usually transported to the work area on board flatcars. In some cases, the workers travel with the train and can stay in bunk cars overnight. Most railroads today however have taken to paying for lodging in a local hotel and busing workers to the job site.
Ballast work is just one of many routine chores on the rails, but it can be an interesting addition to your model railroad. Whether you go with an animated track gang accessory or our more modern ballast regulator, such a scene is sure to draw attention on any layout.